Behind the Rainbow

Special Features   Behind the Rainbow Things aren’t always what they seem in Wicked, a new musical that explores the unlikely friendship of the wonderful witches of Oz

Wicked women: Idina Menzel (L) and Kristin Chenoweth.
Wicked women: Idina Menzel (L) and Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Joan Marcus

Forget what you know — or what you think you know — about those two powerful forces in the land of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch and her nameless nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West.

In Wicked, the new musical by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman, audience assumptions about these two characters are nimbly upended. Based on Gregory Maguire's acclaimed novel, Wicked tells the story of an intelligent, passionate, misunderstood young girl with emerald-green skin named Elphaba and how she becomes the notorious witch. Intricately entwined with her journey is that of her college roommate, the beautiful, blonde, popular and profoundly self-absorbed Glinda. Their instant animosity evolves into an unlikely friendship in a perilous Oz filled with political corruption and intolerance — a world strikingly familiar on this side of the rainbow.

The richness of the material was the lure for the show's two stars, Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda) and Idina Menzel (Elphaba). "Wicked is multi-thematic," says Menzel, "and I'm so excited that it has an important message. The show is about finding out who you truly are. It's about race and propaganda. And it's about the friendship between these two women, which is what Kristin and I love about doing the show. How many shows can you think of in which there are two women characters who really care about each other, who sing beautiful duets to each other? It's rare. I think it's so important to celebrate friendship between women, and Winnie has incredible talent for writing great women's roles. Elphaba is heroic. She's a really smart girl who's also outspoken and defensive because she's an outcast. There are forces that are trying to keep her down, but she's determined to overcome her problems and make a difference in the world."

The part of Glinda was written with Chenoweth in mind and over time developed from a supporting to co-starring role. "We did a few readings, and the show was originally the story of the Wicked Witch," says Chenoweth. "But with my input and Stephen's and especially Winnie's, it became the story of these two women, which I think makes it more interesting. I wanted to create a character that people think they know — the stereotype of the dumb blonde, the self-centered girl — and then have her turn out to be altogether different. It's something I relate to in my own life. Because I'm petite and have long blonde hair and a very high speaking voice, there are people who seem surprised that I actually have a brain and a master's degree. I wanted to play the dumb blonde to the hilt, but I also wanted to make her a little sassy and reveal her heart as the show goes on. I was interested in doing the show more for the acting than the singing. I love the singing, but it's a great acting piece."

Both actresses were inspired, at least to some degree, by their film counterparts in “The Wizard of Oz.” "I wanted to find idiosyncratic personality traits of Margaret Hamilton in the movie that I could incorporate into my character and make organic," says Menzel. "And Joe Mantello is a wonderful director who gave us the freedom to experiment. One of the things that struck me is her cackle, which we equate with evil. I wanted the audience to hear that same cackle when she is a kid. And then you see that it's just a big old roaring laugh that comes from a real place. It doesn't come from evil. But it's interpreted that way by people who want to vilify her." Chenoweth took a cue from Billie Burke's odd, singsong speaking voice. "One thing I noticed about her performance is that she never changed her tone," says Chenoweth. "And it sounds like she's covering up something. I remember wondering, even as a child, 'What is she hiding?' In our show people find out what's behind that voice. I had to harken back to the voice a little — it's so right for the character. And it makes people laugh, because they immediately think of the character they've known and loved all these years. But it's not her true voice. In L. Frank Baum's book Glinda is from the South, so I use my own southern inflection a little bit. My singing voice changes, as well. When I come on in the bubble — the best entrance I will ever have in my career — I sing in a very light, operatic style. My singing voice gets deeper and deeper as she gets more heart."

The friendship that unfolds onstage at the Gershwin Theatre echoes the real-life friendship that has developed between Menzel and Chenoweth. "I like Idina so much that it's hard for me to be mean to her," says Chenoweth. "I have to put my feelings aside. But when the curtain comes down after she's flown at the end of the first act, and she's stuck up in the air waiting to come down, she's all alone. So I always wait for her and touch her just so she knows we're in this together."