There’s no questioning the immense popularity of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked, the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The new tour arriving at the Aronoff Center Wednesday brings with it 40 performances through mid-October. Since opening in October 2003, the show has broken attendance records at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre. Grossing more than $1.6 million weekly, it’s one of the most lucrative productions ever presented on Broadway. It’s earned more than $1 billion and stands in eighth place for the length of an original run, stretching toward 6,000 performances. It’s a worldwide hit with productions in 13 different countries.
It’s also a hot ticket in Cincinnati. The current engagement is the fifth time a tour has been presented: In 2006, it had 16 performances; 32 in 2008 and again in 2011 and 24 more in 2014. In total, more than 270,700 tickets have been sold locally. The 2017 five-week run will surely add 100,000.
But why is Wicked so popular?
The musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s dark, anti-totalitarian 1995 novel about the rivalry between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the “wicked” Witch of the West, did not receive immediate accolades from New York critics.
But from its first performances, the coming-of-age story about a girl who doesn’t fit in — green skin and uncontrolled telekinetic powers — resonated with adolescent girls, eager to test but fearful of their own girl-power. (One journalist wrote, “50 million Elphaba fans can’t be wrong.)
Precedents might have paved the way, ranging from Harry Potter novels about a teen with special abilities to the Disney Broadway hit Beauty and the Beast, featuring an intelligent young woman surrounded by magic. As girls who loved those works grew older, Wicked’s tale of overcoming awkwardness and prejudice in the face of intolerance felt liberating.
Winnie Holzman, who adapted Wicked’s script from Maguire’s novel, earlier wrote young female voices for ’90s TV show My So-Called Life. She has suggested that Elphaba and Glinda “have to face the reality of what’s actually going on in their world.”
Holzman distilled Wicked’s story into a rivalry-turned-friendship between unlikely personalities. Glinda and Elphaba are polar opposites: The former is pretty, charming and conventional — the picture of a good, if self-absorbed, girl who knows the ins and outs of being “Popular,” as she sings in a humorous lesson to the latter.
Elphaba is a gritty underdog, toughened by thoughtless teasing but yearning to care. It’s clear she’s an ugly duckling who can rise to more — literally, when she fiercely declares her independence in her show-stopping number “Defying Gravity.” Nevertheless, she’s also not always good: Her vindictive spitefulness is another way she connects with adolescents. Elphaba’s not a traditional protagonist, and even the “popular” Glinda isn’t always perfect. They’re both relatable.
Another factor: The original casting of Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda mirrored their onstage rivalry when both were nominated for best actress Tony Awards. These were star-making roles, and the competition between them — Menzel won despite Chenoweth’s sunny popularity — spawned headlines.
Wicked’s plot has both Glinda and Elphaba yearning for the same guy, the heroic Fiyero, generating a tension that lots of adolescents feel as they contend with budding emotions and crushes. But their ultimate friendship triumphs over this rivalry, as distilled in their conciliatory duet, “For Good.”
Of course, the show’s appeal doesn’t solely apply to teens. Wicked’s story is told with epic scenery, spectacular special effects and dazzlingly colorful costumes in the Emerald City; green-lensed sunglasses became a pervasive symbol of the show. Schwartz’s score is stuffed full of memorable, hummable Soft Rock melodies. The show’s themes resonate with anyone who’s ever felt a rebellious streak: “Defying Gravity” is a Broadway declaration of independence that evokes a response from everyone in attendance.
Bottom line, Schwartz might have summed it up best when he said, “All of us have a little bit of green inside of us.” Do you have your ticket yet?
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]