How Wicked became one of musical theatre's biggest success stories

It's been one of the the biggest musical successes of recent years and as Wicked celebrates 10 years in the UK with a month-long run in Yorkshire, Sarah Freeman gets a glimpse behind the scenes.

Wicked has been one of the most successful new musicals to open in London.
Wicked has been one of the most successful new musicals to open in London.

It’s midday and at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London there is an atmosphere of quiet industry. With the audience yet to arrive for the matinee performance of Wicked, the backstage crew are going through their final checks as they always do. The complicated light sequences have been run through, the various microphones have been tested and two of the company are measuring the stage, presumably just to ensure it isn’t any bigger or smaller than yesterday.

“This show is incredibly technical and if we are going to create that magic for every single audience we have to be confident that every spotlight, every prop is working just as it should be,” says company manager Chris Fisher. To be fair he knows a thing or two about theatrical magic. While he is sworn to secrecy on the details, as a member of the Magic Circle he has recently taken a sabbatical from Wicked to create some of the special effects for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which is having them queuing out of the door elsewhere in the West End.

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“Of course you can’t have Harry Potter without magic, but there are some moments in Wicked which are just as impressive. I’ve seen this show a lot and I don’t think there is a more spectacular end to an Act I than ours.”

Inside the dressing rooms of Wicked. CREDIT Jono Symonds

Based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel billed as an alternative telling of L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Wicked is an epic production. Set just after Dorothy has arrived in Kansas, it tells how Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was set on the path to badness and how Glinda stepped into her role as the Good Witch.

While onstage there is a cast of 35, with 70 lighting engineers, prop hands, riggers and wardrobe technicians when the curtain goes up, backstage is a pretty cosy place to be. “There isn’t one a corner of the wings that we don’t use,” says Chris. “The costume changes can be incredibly quick. In fact, there is one point when Glinda has just 18 seconds to get out of one dress and into another. Every second of the production has to be carefully choreographed, because if you get one thing wrong the whole thing would unravel.”

Stepping over a witch’s broom, Chris makes his way downstairs to what the company calls Wardrobe Village. It’s easy to see why. For as far as the eye can see there are rails of costumes – some cast members have more than a dozen different outfits – and there’s an entire room dedicated to wigs. Made with real hair, they are washed, set and styled first thing in the morning and before the first of the matinee cast arrive the wardrobe team have already mended hems and fixed any loose buttons from the night before.

“The costumes are a key part of why Wicked looks so incredible. Take this bubble dress,” says Chris, pulling out the costume which Glinda wears for the opening number. The stuff of fairytales, it’s every little girl’s dream. “We probably spend about 15 hours a week resewing on the sequins and just maintaining this one dress. If you look closely you’d see that every single outfit has been designed asymmetrically. No two halves of any of costume is the same. You might ask why, but when you see the production it suddenly makes sense.”

It takes one entire truck to store all the costumes when Wicked goes on tour. CREDIT Jono Symonds

He’s right. Wicked is a left-field take on a much- loved story. It’s doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Someone sat in the back row of the stalls might not notice that one of Elphaba’s dresses has cobwebs sewn onto the fabric, but while they might not spot the exact detail they will see that it shimmers in a way an ordinary black dress wouldn’t. Every hat has a microphone in it, so that we can ensure every member of the cast sounds as good as they can and every mask has been specially made to fit the individual. It’s that kind of attention to detail which has made Wicked such a success.”

Fast forward a couple of hours and the foyer of the Apollo will be filled with school parties and tourists happily shelling out the best part of £20 on Emerald City umbrellas, toy flying monkeys and Wicked Witch leggings. Many of them have seen the production before, a few more than a dozen times. Not bad for a show which received a mixed reception from critics when it first opened on Broadway in 2003.

However, while the New York Times’ Ben Brantley might have dismissed it as a “sermon” with a “generic score”, the public thought differently. By the end of the first year, Wicked had grossed $14m and become a word-of-mouth hit.

“I saw the premiere and the reviews from critics were pretty mixed. Certainly there was nothing to suggest that it was going to be the phenomenon it turned out to,” says UK executive producer Michael McCabe, who was later charged with bringing Wicked to London and who has been overseeing the tour. “At the same time, Facebook was just beginning to make an impact and it was on social media that word started to spread. Quite quickly Wicked had a life of its own.”

Rehearsals for the new touring production of Wicked. CREDIT Helen Maybanks.

When the decision came to transfer to London those behind the original show were determined that the high production values would not be lost in translation.

“Every single prop, dress, hat and wig has been replicated,” says Michael. “It might sound silly, but Wicked is a brand and if someone who has seen it on Broadway and buys a ticket in London it has to be the same production values.”

It’s the same with the international tour, which will open in Bradford later this month before heading out of the UK to Singapore. Bar a few tweaks because of logistical reasons, the set will be exactly the same as the one at the Apollo, complete with giant Oz head and gravity-defying broomsticks. The costumes are also identical to those worn by the London cast and will fill an entire truck.

“When the idea of taking it on tour was first mooted we weren’t sure it was even possible,” says Michael. “However, on one thing we were certain – if we couldn’t put on a touring show which was as good as the production in London or New York then we wouldn’t do it. Technically it’s very complex and let’s just say it’s been one huge learning curve, but we got there and in fact some of the elements, like the Flying Monkeys, are arguably better than the London production simply because technology has improved.”

Inside the dressing rooms of Wicked. CREDIT Jono Symonds

At the Alhambra, the company will have the luxury of far greater space in the wings than they do at their London home, but for the audience Michael believes the show will feel more intimate.

“People love Wicked because it’s a show which has nods to the original Wizard of Oz, they love it because unusually the two central characters are women, they love it because it looks pretty spectacular and they love it because it’s a show that the whole family can enjoy. “However, I think the real key to its success is the fact that at its heart, it’s a show about friendship. It’s not schmaltzy or over-sentimental, but while it’s laugh-out-loud funny and very contemporary, it also has an emotional heart.”

We’re speaking just a few days after the European Union referendum result and never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Michael adds that Wicked could also be the musical for the post-Brexit generation. “It’s about how power can corrupt, it’s about how as a society we need to tolerate difference. Ultimately it’s about acceptance.”

For Bradford, which has already staged Billy Elliot and which will welcome Mary Poppins later in the year, it’s another step in cementing its reputation as the place to see big musicals. “Yep, it certainly feels like Bradford is on a roll and it’s good to be part of the adventure,” says Michael.

Wicked opens at Bradford Alhambra on July 20 and runs until August 21. 01274 432000,

It takes one entire truck to store all the costumes when Wicked goes on tour. CREDIT Jono Symonds
Rehearsals for the new touring production of Wicked. CREDIT Helen Maybanks.