WICKED – THE PHENOMENON By Alexandra Chambers

Published on 25th May, 2011

WICKED - THE PHENOMENON By Alexandra Chambers

WICKED the musical has become a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of people estimated to have seen it in at least six different countries. The show currently holds a place on the list of longest running shows on Broadway and the West End as well as having broken box office records everywhere, holding the current weekly ticket sales record on Broadway at 2.2million US dollars. Closer to home, Wicked has recently surpassed 1000 performances Australia wide, grossed over $125 million and has been seen by approximately 1.4million people. With a fan base of Australians who have seen the show up to 114 times what is the formula to such an award winning musical? In constructing this article I have surveyed fans of the show, looked into the countless websites and was lucky enough to have a quick chat in the Adelaide rehearsal room with cast members Ryan Sheppard, Bree Langridge and Ben Brown. They shared what they thought makes Wicked such an amazing show and gave me a little insight into the show from the other side of the curtain. Ryan has been with Wicked since the production began in Australia and currently holds the role of Dance Captain in the company as well as playing Chistery the monkey. Bree Langridge joined the company during the Sydney season and is a member of the ensemble as well as playing one of Glinda’s best friends and Ben Brown joined the company in the ensemble at the beginning of the national tour.

“I feel like Wicked is the blockbuster musical. You know how there’s like blockbuster, pivotal movies, Wicked is that for theatre” Bree Langridge.

For those of you living in the dark, Wicked: The untold story of the Witches of Oz is the prelude to the Wizard of Oz story that we all know and love. You know, like Dorothy and Toto but not so much Dorothy as Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West who has been named Elphaba. The musical was adapted from the book of the same title by Gregory Maguire who explores the world of Oz asking questions like; What’s so special about the ruby slippers? Who are the Lion, Tinman and Scarecrow? Why is Elphaba green? And what makes her wicked and Glinda good? All of these things and more are addressed in the musical. “One, born with emerald-green skin, is smart, fiery and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular”

Full of hilarious comedy and tear-jerking moments the script has everything, even it’s own vocabulary with words such as ‘congratulotions’, ‘despondiary’ and ‘gratitution’.

“And I think you can relate in this day and age, you can totally relate to all the characters in the show, I mean growing up at school and feeling like you’re the odd one out. Especially people who are in this industry and in this company can all relate to feeling like that at one time or another and you walk away and feel like you get something from the show” Ryan Sheppard.

Throw this exploration of a childhood favourite in with exotic costumes, an intriguing musical score and some of Australia’s finest talent and you have a recipe for success, not to mention the fans love it. ‘Wicked captures the imagination, perhaps because of our familiarity with the witches from the Wizard of Oz and the back story Wicked provides, [you] couldn’t watch the Wizard of Oz with the same eyes now after seeing Wicked’ (Fan response).

A few fans in particular rate a special mention; Joann Pettiford and Brett Markwell who have each seen Wicked over 100 times! Obviously huge fans of the show, they shared a few things about why it is so special. Joann states that Wicked is her favourite musical and when asked what the best thing about the Wicked experience is, she replied ‘all of it from start to end’. Joann runs the Ryan Sheppard fan page on Facebook and loves to see him perform as Chistery. Another fan that many people will have heard of is Megan Castran who is also known as Jewelchic, a YouTube vlogger that has become known for being one of Oprah’s biggest fans. Other than Oprah, Megan is a fan of Wicked, having seen the show 19 times in six different cities.

“I have seen Wicked in Sydney, Melbourne, Chicago, NYC, Stuttgart and London. I first went because Zoe, my daughter had a Wizard of Oz obsession. I think everyone can relate to Wicked… Everyone has felt the underdog at times and can relate to Elphaba.”

Many fans of the show have been to see it upwards of ten times, some reaching 40, 50, 70 or even 100 times, many have even travelled out of their home state purely to spend their time seeing Wicked again. When asked why she keeps going, Shiree, who has seen the show ten times, said:

“It’s a combination of things. The show itself, the story and the music are brilliant. The amazing cast, they perform the show so brilliantly. They are world class performers and are a big reason why the show is so amazing. It’s also a social thing. I’ve met some great people, through the Wicked Lotto and at Stage Door, who are just as passionate (or even more so) about the show. People I can discuss details with and not roll their eyes!”

The various fan pages for everyone from Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix, to ensemble members and friendship groups are a testament to the community that the Wicked fans have created. Wicked in Oz, the official facebook page for Wicked in Australia has almost 30,000 fans. Even the cast never expected the response that Wicked has received in Australia:

Ryan: We were really blown away as a company, we didn’t expect it. We always had people at stage door but we didn’t realise until the end of that season. That show [Melbourne closing night] was like a concert, it was absolutely out of control. It’s so full on, we walked out [of Stage Door] and we had a street full of people, the traffic couldn’t go up or down so when we got to Sydney we had to close down the front street. We didn’t realise in Melbourne that it was going to be that big a deal. We didn’t realise the fan response.

Bree: They all know us by name and it’s so cool. I mean everyone had their own opinion on fans but I think it’s cool that people are immersing themselves in theatre again, regardless of how full on they are. People go ‘oh they’re full on’ but there’s crazy football fans too and they just love theatre and Wicked as well. I just think it’s really cool that it’s cool to be a fan of theatre again.

One of the most important things about going to see a musical is being a part of the world that the show creates, as soon as you enter the theatre to see Wicked there is something to look at. The proscenium arch and area surrounding the stage have been transformed from an ordinary theatre into the land of Oz. The first thing you have to notice is the dragon with a wingspan that encompasses the stage from above. Then the map of Oz that covers the whole of the curtain with locations that you may already know from The Wizard of Oz and others that will be visited or mentioned throughout the musical. As you sit in the audience waiting for the show to start you begin to see the details, the lights, cogs, ropes and vines that come out into the main theatre, all of this before the show has even started. During the show you see Glinda’s bubble, the dazzling lights and colours of the Emerald City and the spectacle of Elphaba in full flight on her broomstick. There are countless cues, lights and effects throughout the show which pull you into the world of the characters and make you forget about sitting in a theatre. ‘The first time we got to walk into the theatre, I remember walking into the Regent and just being like ‘I can’t believe I’m in this show’ I felt so lucky cause it was the biggest production in such a long time to come to Australia, I was just like ‘I’m never leaving this show’, I mean the dragon and the amount of production that goes into it’ Ryan Sheppard. The detail in the show is impeccable, from lights and sound, costumes and sets are all so intricate that the audience does not even notice it upon first glance but would be lost without, it’s the details that make the world of Oz what it is. ‘Each time I went I noticed new little details about the sets and costumes, and what the ensemble members or actors who weren’t really featured in that moment were doing.’ Stephanie (Fan Response).
With costumes created by Susan Hilferty, a designer who put together a show of over 200 costumes from a mixture of intense research and vast imagination. Each costume is created for the individual, each character their own with such detail in each costume that the audience doesn’t even see it all. Even the cast are in awe of the detail in each one;

“I love taking people backstage. When I get the chance to bring people backstage and get to show them the tiny little things that are on the insides of our costumes that nobody ever gets to see. I get so excited just to make people aware of just how much hard work goes into it. Every single one of those sequins that are on that bubble dress are hand sewn, every single one on every single costume. That’s why they’re worth so much money, not because of the material but the man hours that have gone into it.” Ryan Sheppard

In each scene the costumes fit into a theme or uniform however they are all unique, with different ideas combined to create costumes that are unlike any other production. ‘I just love how it’s so dark, all of Elphaba’s stuff is so dark and so couture at the same time, it’s like they’ve taken it from costumes to absolute complete fashion that people would wear on a runway.’ Ryan Sheppard. Every time you see the show you notice something on a costume you didn’t see before. Many fans attest to seeing something new each time they return to the theatre whether it’s in the set or the costumes, or even the personalities of the characters.
The music is composed by Stephen Schwarz whose credits also include musicals; Pippin, The Magic Show, Working and Disney movies; Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted. Wicked is an eclectic mix of awe inspiring show stoppers and touching ballads accompanied by dynamic ensemble pieces, it never ceases to amaze and enchant an audience. Bree Langridge shares her first experience seeing the show “I remember sitting in the theatre, after my first day of rehearsals, I had rehearsals and then saw the show that night and I remember sitting in the theatre and just hearing the opening chords and going [gasps] ‘Oh My Gosh!!'” And many others agree: “When the overture starts, it just sends tingles down my spine, knowing that I’ve got hours of blissful time in Oz remaining. Defying Gravity is definitely a high point of the show, just all the drama and special effects. However, I think my favourite part is No Good Deed, it’s just such an amazing song, vocally, and involves some kick-ass acting.” Stephanie. Each piece in the show is unique but expertly tied together, even the music that is played beneath the scenes ties in perfectly to the whole production. Time and time again the music gives you chills and brings you to tears, guiding you through the magic of the world of Oz. “I absolutely love the music. I probably listen to the soundtrack at least twice a week I also thought it was very clever how the story so carefully tied in with the Wizard of Oz plot” (Fan Response).

There can hardly be a discussion about the Australian production of Wicked without including reference to the extremely talented cast. This cast is a mix of everything, with members of the cast who are performing in their first professional show all the way to the wealth of knowledge and experience of Bert Newton, Maggie Kirkpatrick and more recently Geraldine Turner, all household names in the Australian performance industry.

The cast think of themselves as one big family:
BREE: You’ve got all these people who are very well rounded in the company, even from the moment I walked into the girls’ change room, everybody really knows who they are and has their own flavour, it is very much a family of well rounded company as it is a show. We’ve got Bert and we’ve got Maggie and because it has been going forever, we’ve got people who started from the beginning at 18 who have grown up with that and there’s been a lot of stuff that I feel like has happened, even though I’ve only been here a year you kind of get a sense of that within the company.

RYAN: We’ve all done it before, I mean, we’re all in the cast, at some point or another we’ve all been the new people and everyone’s lovely and welcoming here and we have the principals and we have the ensemble but you really wouldn’t know. Even with Bert Newton, Bert comes around giving chocolates to every single person every single night, so we’re all very intertwined, there’s not much segregation, which really happens in some other companies I think so we’re all really really lucky.
BEN: I was welcomed in, once you start doing the show you become part of the family pretty quickly, it’s been amazing.

It cannot go unsaid that the role of Elphaba is one of the most demanding female roles in musical theatre today, with multiple solo show-stopping numbers as well as heartfelt duets and lively ensemble pieces performed by this one character it takes an exceptional performer to take on this role up to eight times a week. Since opening in Australia in 2008, many women have stepped into the role of the green witch, but only one has been with the production since the beginning. Jemma Rix started out as the standby for Elphaba in Melbourne, moved on to alternate the role during the Sydney season and since the rest of the tour began, took on the role as lead. Since the beginning she has had a loyal fan base who have loved to watch her grow in the character “Jemma Rix still makes me cry my eyes out, every time. It’s just incredible.” (Fan response)

Surrounded by a powerful ensemble who give their all every minute with detailed characterisation, precision dancing and exquisite musical dynamics. David Harris plays Fiyero, the ‘winkie’ prince who on the surface is superficial but adds an integral part in the plot. Topped off by Glinda the good witch played by Lucy Durack who takes on the role whole-heartedly, creating a hilarious character who never ceases to entertain. “Lucy and Jemma portray the characters so well that to me they ARE the characters and their voices are irreplaceably amazing” Vicki (Fan response).

So what makes it so good? Is it the script that draws from an old childhood story? The fabulous set and costumes? The music or the amazing performers that make it so good? “I think the show itself, even before you put people in it, is so clever, the script is solid, you have the people working on it like Stephen Schwartz, you know, amazing people. Then you put people like Jemma and Lucy in it and I think they make it so special, they are phenomenally talented people, then you have Bert Newton as well and when he comes out onto the stage he’s just so warm” Ben Brown.

I guess we’ll never know what makes one musical great and another not so much, in the case of Wicked it seems to have ticked all the boxes for so many people “I think the storyline, I think the structure of the show, I mean, anything that is in a hit musical, musically, is great, the story is great, we all know The wizard of Oz, we all grew up with it…you don’t have to be a Musical Theatre buff to come to this show” Ryan.

Musicals may not be for everyone but if you are into theatre and you have not seen Wicked, what are you waiting for?

By Alexandra Chambers

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