Blockbuster musical Wicked defies gravity

Monday 30th, June 2014 / 16:40
By Gareth Watkins
Laurel Harris in Wicked. Photo: Joan Marcus

Laurel Harris in Wicked.
Photo: Joan Marcus

CALGARY — There’s always been something a little off about The Wizard of Oz. The feeling when Dorothy steps out of her house and steals a dead woman’s shoes isn’t that she’s at the start of her own story, but that she’s found her way into somebody else’s. The gritty, black and white world of rural Kansas that feels like a Dorothea Lange photograph (and is about as cheerful) gives way to Munchkins, a representative of the Lollipop Guild. But what’s a Munchkin anyway? Why are they using the medieval guild system to manufacture candy? Who was this person that Dorothy landed on? Why don’t they get a story? Flying Monkeys – what?

Wicked, a prequel and parallel to L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories, adds flesh to the bones of a classic children’s story and, in doing so, reveals a world that is darker, based on manipulation and fear, and shows that the cartoonish, ludicrous villain we know from the film is a smart, compassionate and gifted woman who happened to be born the wrong colour: green. The show is underpinned by the friendship between the young Wicked Witch of the West, real name Elphaba, and Glinda, the good witch. Or, maybe, not so good. In this multi-million dollar production, one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time, composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz has created a story that will resonate with anybody who has ever felt isolated, unfairly judged and looked down upon. So, everybody, in other words.

Veteran stage actor Gene Weygandt, who plays the Wizard, says that the scale of the show – each with production costs in excess of $11 million – was initially intimidating. “I thought, ‘Oh my Lord, what have I gotten myself into?’ It’s so big, so bright and so loud and it wasn’t really until I got to see it a second time that I was touched by the story and the music.”

So far since its 2003 debut, that story has touched 40 million people worldwide and grossed $3.3 billion. The soundtrack has gone platinum and even the making-of book was a bestseller. Its centrepiece, the song “Defying Gravity,” is now acknowledged as one of the classic moments in the history of the musical genre, but it’s not the show’s only pretend-you’ve-got-something-in-your-eye moment.

“I defy anyone to listen to the song in the second act, ‘For Good,’ and not be moved emotionally,” says Weygandt. It’s gotten so big that it’s created other massive pop-culture hits: the now-ubiquitous song “Let it Go” from Disney’s mega-hit Frozen is thematically almost identical to “Defying Gravity” and was sung by Idina Menzel, the first woman to play Elphaba onstage.

“It’s got so much that anyone can enjoy,” says Weygandt. “Don’t we all want to defy gravity and move on from whatever we perceive to be the shackles in our lives? It’s a very emotional piece and at the same time, it’s a very funny piece. There are some huge laughs. It has a combination of a great heart and a lot of wit.”

Wicked, presented by Broadway Across Canada, runs at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Edmonton) July 2-20 (no shows July 7 or 14) and at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Calgary) July 20 – August 18. 

Gene Weygandt as The Wizard in Wicked. Photo: Joan Marcus

Gene Weygandt as The Wizard in Wicked.
Photo: Joan Marcus

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