A Wicked Success: Broadway's Favorite Witches Turn Five

A Wicked Success: Broadway's Favorite Witches Turn Five On Oct. 30 the Broadway production of Wicked turns five years old: That's five years of defying gravity, setting box-office records, creating theatre stars and earning some of the most devoted fans around the world.
Kerry Ellis begins her run as Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked.
Kerry Ellis begins her run as Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked. Photo by Tristram Kenton

When the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical, based on Gregory Maguire's novel retelling the L. Frank Baum tale of the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the South, opened at the Gershwin Theatre (Wicked is the longest-running show ever to play that house), the critics gave it mixed reviews. But then the public had its say, and it's been saying it ever since.

The Broadway production of Wicked has broken the house record at the Gershwin Theatre 18 times during the course of its run. It has played to more than 3.75 million people, and it will play to many more: current advance sales sit at an amazing $30 million-plus. The four North American companies have grossed nearly $975 million. Throw in the four international companies and the cumulative gross is more than $1.2 billion, with more than 15 million people seeing it worldwide. The current economic downtown has apparently affected the franchise's fortune not a jot.

"I did have a sense that it would work," said producer David Stone, "but that it would be as successful as it is, not in a million years." Stone — whose pre-Wicked Broadway producing credits include What's Wrong With This Picture?, the 1997 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank and the 2002 revival of Man of La Mancha — said that attending to Wicked's various incarnations continues to take up much of his time. "We sell about nine and a half million dollars worth of tickets every week, so that's a lot of people to talk to," he said. He is also involved with the casting of all of the North American productions.

Since opening on Broadway, international productions of the musical have opened in London, Stuttgart, Tokyo and Melbourne. A Dutch production is due in 2011. The London show, which just celebrated its second anniversary, is consistently the highest-grossing show in the West End, according to press notes. Both Stone and Maguire commented on how the tale of the unlikely friendship between two witches — the popular and charming Glinda and the green-skinned outcast Elphaba — seems to mean different things to different cultures.

"There's a scene in Act Two where [Elphaba and Glinda's love interest] Fiyero swings in on a rope in a kind of swashbuckling way, and thumps in his boots on the stage and points his blunderbuss," said Maguire. "And his line is, 'Let the green girl go.' And, if anything, it's the most parodic line in the play. It's just on the edge of being a pantomime moment from the British theatre. When I saw it in Germany, of course Fiyero was blonde. When he swings in and says 'Let the green girl go,' the audience broke in rapturous applause. The Germans still love their blonde male heroes. They didn't think is was funny at all."

The show's success has done a lot for Maguire, whose 1995 "Wicked" has become a beloved classic, selling 3.5 million copies since Wicked opened in 2003. The musical resurrected the career of Schwartz, who hadn't had a hit on Broadway since The Magic Show in 1974. It cemented the reputation of original Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth, as a Broadway star of the first rank and transformed Idina Menzel, the first Elphaba, into a Tony winner and a viable musical leading lady.

 


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The production also transformed the nature of Broadway merchandising. In the past, producers of popular musicals could expect to sell a goodly number of t-shirts and trinkets. Merchandise sales for Wicked, however, have exceeded $100 million. According to the show, this makes it the fastest selling show-related merchandise in history.

One of those items for sale is "The Grimmerie," a heavy, glossy, slickly produced companion book, which is to a souvenir program what a volume of Tolstoy is to one of Hemingway. The book, which goes for $40, has handily sold 200,000 copies. Since it came out, other big musicals have put out similar books. A lot of the attraction of the show can be attributed to the appeal of the two main characters. Many audience members have professed to identify with either Glinda or Elphaba. Asked who he thinks is more popular with theatregoers, Maguire said, "I think that not only does the audience divide itself evenly, but that each individual viewer divides themselves between being impressed by Elphaba's rash bravery and courage and at the same time thinking Glinda is a lot smarter because she knows how to work the system. Glinda's sort of like Leona Helmsley before she went to jail."

As part of the celebration, the owners of the Empire State Building were persuaded to light the landmark's crown green beginning Oct. 28. Stone said he had forgotten about the lighting when he noticed the forest-hued edifice by accident. "I can act blasé about some of this stuff," he said, "but that, as a New Yorker, was really something."