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Arts

'Wicked' good fortune

Gregory Maguire could not have imagined the success that would befall him once his novel about the Wicked Witch of the West became a Broadway musical.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published January 15, 2006


 
[Times photo: Joan Marcus]
Kendra Kassebaum as Galinda and Stephanie J. Block as Elphaba, the green-skinned girl who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West, in Wicked.

Nobody is enjoying the success of Wicked more than Gregory Maguire, author of the book that inspired the musical.

"Stupefying" is how Maguire describes the experience, speaking one morning from his home in Concord, Mass.

After 25 years or so as a professional writer of novels and children's books, Maguire has struck it rich, thanks to his deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz that imagines what happened in the Emerald City, Munchkinland and the rest of L. Frank Baum's fantasy world before Dorothy blew in from Kansas.

"One struggles for so long in the cold, mouse-ridden garret of one's career," Maguire, 51, says. "When you finally hit megabucks, you're not even used to checking the mail anymore. You only need one idea to hit with popular taste, and suddenly your life changes underneath your feet. You're no longer in the garret."

Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was a steady seller, but it vaulted into another dimension once the musical opened on Broadway in 2003.

"That amounted to a $14-million advertising campaign for the book," he says, citing the production's budget. "Now there are almost 2-million copies in print. That's just not people buying souvenirs from the play. I get bushels of mail. There are Web sites, chat rooms. It's become a thing unto itself."

The show is booming, too. Wicked won three Tony Awards - though not for best musical; that went to Avenue Q - and will run for years. In the highest-grossing week in Broadway history, it was the No. 1 box office draw with $1.6-million in sales between this past Christmas and New Year's Day. The three-week engagement of the touring company at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center is virtually sold out, although a lottery will be held for tickets two hours before each show.

And to think the process of taking Maguire's ingenious concept from page to stage all started when composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz was on a snorkeling trip eight years ago in Hawaii with a group that included folk singer Holly Near.

"She just happened to say on the boat that she was reading this really interesting book about the Wicked Witch of the West and how she came to be that," Schwartz says. "It was definitely a eureka moment. Virtually as soon as I got back to the mainland and a telephone, I called my lawyer to find out who had the rights to this book."

Schwartz recognized the theatrical potential of Maguire's novel even before reading it. He figured a fresh spin on the perennial appeal of Oz would be irresistible. Mainly because of the iconic 1939 MGM movie, everyone knows the material.

"You can't go a day in America without seeing some reference to that movie in a magazine article, on a television show, in the title of an article for the newspaper, in the comic strips," Schwartz says, interviewed from his home in Connecticut.

"I read the comics this morning and Dilbert is doing a Wizard of Oz takeoff. It's absolutely inescapable. It's hard to think of a day when you don't hear someone saying, "And your little dog, too,' or "There's no place like home,' or "We're not in Kansas anymore,' or "Follow the yellow brick road.' We all know all those lines by heart."

Maguire calls The Wizard of Oz "part of the foundation myth of our culture," and he used its familiarity to weave a dense, darkly textured tale that delves into ideas like the nature of good and evil. "If I was going to entice readers down to my intellectual lair, then I had to make them comfortable by giving them the handholds of characters and situations that they believed they already knew," he says.

Wicked is about a green-skinned girl named Elphaba (derived from the initials of L. Frank Baum) who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West, but her identity is more complex than the sinister crone of the movie. Learning of a plot by the wizard to enslave the animal population, she sets out to challenge the ruler of Oz. Elphaba is mostly a force for good, though the book's portrayal of her is quirky and ambivalent.

"It's an oversimplification to say that I simply retold The Wizard of Oz making the witch the good guy," Maguire says. "My Elphaba is not particularly good. She's a very troubled human being who manages to avoid doing the worst things, like murder, only because she is so ineffectual.

"The main theme of the book is that it is hard to be good. It's easier to be bad, it's easier to sell out. It is hard to stick to your convictions. And even good people are sometimes massively wrong."

Maguire has transformed other fairy tales into sophisticated novels, such as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Cinderella) and Mirror, Mirror (Snow White). His latest, Son of a Witch, the sequel to Wicked, was No. 12 last week on the New York Times bestseller list. "I feel as if I'm writing a cycle of stories that make up an alternate history of Oz. I suspect there might be three or four before I'm done," he says.

When Schwartz first met Maguire to seek the rights to make Wicked into a musical, the two took a walk around the family farm of the novelist's boyfriend in Connecticut. Maguire was predisposed to like Schwartz, since, before becoming a writer, he had been a Catholic church choir director in the 1970s and had sometimes used songs from the composer's first hit, Godspell, in contemporary services. He was persuaded by Schwartz's description of what he envisioned as the opening scene, including a musical number called No One Mourns the Wicked.

"As soon as he uttered those five words - "No one mourns the wicked' - he basically clinched the argument," Maguire says. "Because, with a song like that, I knew he was going to take my theme seriously. Therefore, I could give my blessing to the project, and I did so happily."

Though philosophy and politics, including allusions to the wizard as a kind of Mussolini-style dictator, strongly color the novel, Schwartz and his collaborator, book writer Winnie Holzman, focused more on Elphaba and the other witch of Oz, Galinda, later renamed Glinda the Good, a bratty blond. The mismatched pair meet at sorcery school, where they loathe each other in the beginning but come to an uneasy friendship. The musical follows them through the years.

Cultural historians hold up The Wizard of Oz as a feminist allegory, because of the power it gives to the witches and Dorothy, in contrast to the bogus wizard. Nevertheless, Schwartz and Holzman have been taken to task for their "girl power" theme.

"I think the show has quite a lot of social content in terms of the degree to which governments deceive their people to stay in power and how one has to see through propaganda," Schwartz says. "To some people's taste, they wish it dealt more with that and less with the relationship. Well, I can understand that, but then they should write their own show.

"It is basically about these two people and how they changed each other. In the end, I think that's what is making it work."

Carole Shelley, who originated the role of the evil Madame Morrible on Broadway and is playing her on the road, is a devotee of Maguire's novel. She thinks it appeals to a much different audience than the musical.

"I'd say the book is for an older reader," she says. "It's more erotic. There's a lot going on there that has not been brought into the musical, but I don't think it could be. Who knew this was going to be a teenage cult musical of such epic proportions?"

Young theatergoers are flocking to it. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, where the tour played a month before moving to Tampa, Sebastian Arcelus joined the cast as the heartthrob Fiyero. "You could hear the little girls screaming from the galleries," Shelley says. "The BlackBerrys are out in force telling everybody there's a gorgeous new kid in the show."

Wicked is something of a throwback in that it meshes dialogue and musical numbers in more or less equal measure, unlike the entirely sung pop operas of the 1980s, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, that shaped the art form for years.

"Without question," Schwartz says, "this is an old-fashioned musical that embraces the American musical theater form that was developed by the Rodgerses and Hammersteins and the Bocks and Harnicks. It is a book musical where the book is extremely important and the songs are there to try to advance the storytelling and all those other classic musical theater things that were sort of going out of style."

Before Schwartz obtained the rights to Wicked, there were plans to make it into a movie, and that will surely happen someday. "I keep hearing through the grapevine that there will be a movie," Maguire says. "They're all thinking about it, but nobody is rushing back from lunch to start working on it because they don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. The show is still developing momentum."

Productions are in the pipeline for London, Germany and Japan. Schwartz thinks the show may have to be retooled for audiences less than totally conversant with The Wizard of Oz.

"We are extremely curious as to how the show is going to play in some of these foreign productions," he says. "We don't know how much the success of the show is due to the fact that people in the United States come in with this myth as part of their cultural inheritance. I think we're going to have to clarify the plot a little bit for foreign productions. There are things that we refer to extremely obliquely in the show that American audiences get but foreign audiences may not."

Maguire has seen Wicked 16 or 17 times, he says, but he will always cherish the first time, opening night of the pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco. "I never saw a single rehearsal or a scrap of costume design or anything until I saw it onstage with 1,700 other people," he says.

At first he was nervous, but when Elphaba made her entrance, the crowd went wild.

"The hair started standing up on the back of my neck," Maguire says. "I thought, these people are on her side before they know her story. They're on her side because of my book. They get it. They get the whole concept before she even sings a note.

"You know, a writer is such a private person. I work solo in a quiet room with windows on three sides looking out on a snowy landscape. It's not a public life. And to hope that some reader somewhere picks up a book in a quiet room and is able to lose himself or herself is the only hope a writer has at contact, communication.

"But to sit in a theater with 1,700 people screaming because they're seeing the same vision that you had in your head 10 years earlier, and they're embracing it and they're with you on the ride, well, that's a headier consolation than any writer ever expects in his career. I don't expect it ever to be quite as wonderful again, but it was pretty great."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

* * *

PREVIEW: Wicked opens Wednesday and runs through Feb. 5 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $44.50-$80.50. A lottery for $25 orchestra seats will be held two hours before each show. Other than lottery tickets, only limited-view seats are available. 813 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org

[Last modified January 12, 2006, 10:06:03]


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