There will come a day when regional theaters — and then colleges and even high schools — will be fighting over the rights to "Wicked." But there is no evidence that day is coming any time soon.
On Oct. 30, the phenomenally successful Broadway musical will celebrate its 10th anniversary on the Great White Way. At the Gershwin Theatre, composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer Winnie Holzman likely will be standing on the stage, basking in the light of the stunning popularity of what felt initially like a pretty risky musical. "Wicked" has grossed well over $2 billion in North America alone. Last week on Broadway, the virtually sold-out show earned nearly $2 million. It does that pretty much every week on Broadway. It did much the same in Chicago, and this fall at the Oriental Theatre, it likely will do so again.
For Nov. 1 (and it's no coincidence) also will be the opening night of the latest return to Chicago of the "Wicked" national tour. To say that the musical has a particularly intense relationship with Chicago audiences is to understate the force of the bond. For fans of the show, and there are new fans coming up from the grade-school ranks every year, this is the highlight of the fall.
There are plenty of theories as to why "Wicked" hit the sweet spot. One could argue that we all self-define as either the green girl (alienated, misunderstood) or the blond girl (popular, misunderstood) in our minds. One might note the show's popularity with a youthful demographic that likes to go back again and again. One might further note the truth that comedies like "The Book of Mormon" are less than ideal for repeat business (you've heard all the jokes the first time) but that emotional, bonding experiences like "Wicked" are enjoyable on multiple visits. One might observe the formidable stickiness of the Schwartz melodies or the uncommon wit and savvy of the Holzman book. For sure, the emotions in songs like "For Good" are unusually accessible.
Or one could ask the duo who wrote the show (riffing on the source novel by Gregory Maguire). Schwartz and Holzman recently were in town for the convention of the Dramatists Guild, of which Schwartz is president.
"I suppose it has passed over into a kind of cultural territory which has to do with things other than the show," said Schwartz, modestly, offering up his umpteenth attempt to explain the mostly unexplainable — which is why audiences take to certain shows far more than others. "We did enter a lot of blind alleys early on, you know," he went on. "It took us a long time to realize the girls were the center of the show."
Clearly, that was a key realization: "Wicked" is the poster child for not wasting time on those in which the audience has no empathetic interest. If you've seen the show, try and recall the scenes which feature neither Glinda nor Elphaba. You'll struggle to think of many.
Schwartz could not, of course, have predicted what was about to happen with "Wicked" when it first tried out in San Francisco. But he did catch one thing early on: entrance applause for Elphaba. Sure, she was played by Idina Menzel, but at that juncture Menzel was not yet a star of musical theater. The audience was applauding for her character. "At that moment," Schwartz said, "the hair stood up on my neck, and it has not yet come back down."
Halfway through our chat, Holzman walked in and hugged Schwartz, the man who offered her the gig, made her rich, and thus changed her life for good.
"You and I gave everything we had to the show," she said, half answering the question about the secret to "Wicked" and half just saying what she felt at that moment. "There is something wonderful about giving your all to something. Money can't buy that."
"Wicked" will play Oct. 30 to Dec. 21 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; $37 to $107 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com