"I've been working on this show for 12 years, and I've known Stephen [Schwartz] for a long time," explained Ben Cohn, the assistant conductor at Wicked who arranged the cover that everyone's talking about. "I sort of put myself in Stephen Schwartz's shoes 12-plus years ago when he was just sitting down to write it and thought, 'What would this feel like if I just…sit and play it and experiment with different feels and styles?' That's kind of how I started, and then it sort of evolved into what you heard."
The song is performed as a duet between Tucker, who currently stars as Elphaba on Broadway (after a long stint as the green witch in the West End), and Tveit, the Broadway-turned-television heartthrob who was a former Fiyero.
The video was shot in a space in downtown Brooklyn. Although it took several takes to get it right, Cohn said that the singing is "100 percent live," meaning that the performers did not sing the song in a studio and lip sync for the video performance. What you see is what you get.
"We're used to, nowadays, recording in a studio," Cohn explained. "We didn't do that at all. We just did the song basically a bunch of times until we got it right… That's part of the concept for this as well. It's just, 'Let's make this feel acoustic and natural and real,' and that's exactly what we did. So, we did it a bunch of times, but essentially what you're hearing is a live take."
Cohn has been with Wicked for years and said that he always wanted to re-envision the Schwartz tunes, strip them down and take them out of context. For this project ("Defying Gravity" is just the first from the new "Out of Oz" series), Schwartz gave him free rein to create.
Wicked, which celebrates its 12th anniversary next week, has become a modern classic. Its music was Tony-nominated in 2004, and in 2005 it received the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Cohn said that the tunes are "really universal, and people listen to them on their own outside of the show, and we thought it could be cool to sort of give them a new life."
A new life meant reconceiving the Act I finale with a male voice on board, and Tveit was the first to come to mind.
Unlike the recorded version on the cast album and the musical sequence performed nightly at the Gershwin, Cohn pulls the vocals back towards the end — a unique choice, considering the endless amount of YouTube bootlegs online that feature only the final minute of the song (usually clad with full-voiced belting, vocal embellishments and a riffy "Whoa-oh-oh!" unique to the dozens of Elphabas seen on Broadway or around the world).
"I kind of wanted this to be more personal," he said. "In the show, obviously she's telling the world, and she's screaming it from literally the mountain tops, whereas in this version, to me, it feels a little bit more personal. At the end… I wanted it to be more about a personal moment, and I wanted people who listened to it — and who hopefully will sing this arrangement at some point — to feel like it's personal to them and it's not necessarily something that needs to be shouted. It's more of a private moment."
What did Schwartz think? "I think he really liked it," Cohn said. "He, of all people at the beginning, was like, 'Go for it! Do whatever you want. You have free rein to take these songs…," which is kind of scary for me… I think we stayed pretty true to it, and I think he was pleased with what he heard, and I know that he loved the arrangement and is really excited to hear what we're doing next. He's been absolutely supportive and amazing and instrumental in making this thing work."
Although Cohn couldn't spill too many beans, he said there are other songs from the show up next, and more "amazing singers" have signed up to continue to bring Wicked "Out of Oz."