April 11, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tonight, Wicked will become the 4th longest-running production in Broadway history, surpassing Andrew Lloyd Webber and T.S. Elliott's Cats which, as we all know, was once billed as "Now and Forever." It's quite a milestone for the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman blockbuster, based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, especially in light of it celebrating its 20th anniversary this October 30th. I couldn't be happier for all involved, especially playwright Winnie Holzman. A longtime friend, she invited me in September 2000 to participate in its very first reading held at a tiny black box theatre in Los Angeles. I was given the assignment of reading the stage directions, serving as a kind of narrator. Hearing it out loud was to give its creators a sense of what they had at that point. There was no rehearsal, save for those who had to learn the songs (I didn't), and there was no audience.
We only did Act One... and it ran more than two hours. Sure, that was too long, but what was made clear from this first reading was that the relationship between Wicked's two central characters—two women—was kind of extraordinary. Girl power, if you will, that unleashed had "unlimited" potential. And in terms of performance, it was the first time I was introduced to the special gifts of Stephanie J. Block. Her Elphaba was both funny and aching with heart—and that voice! I thought her performance of "Making Good," Elphaba's original "I Want" song, was simply incredible. So, when it was later replaced by "The Wizard and I," I had doubts it could be topped. Stephen Schwartz went the distance though and did make it better. It pleased me no end, too, that the theme from "Making Good" was preserved within "The Wizard and I," which is the section that contains the haunting, "Unlimited/My future is unlimited."
Also at this reading was Marietta DePrima as Glinda, a lovely singer and actress who, as I vividly recall, nailed "Popular" in a way to make it the standout of the afternoon. Fine jobs were essayed as well by Lenny Wolpe, another old friend, as The Wizard (a role he would eventually get to do it on Broadway), David Burnham as Fiyero (who also got the chance later to play the Gershwin), the late Marian Mercer, a Tony Award winner for the original Promises, Promises as a very slithery Madame Morrible, and the esteemed character actor Paul Dooley as Dr. Dillamond (a no-brainer to read the part as he is Winnie Holzman's longtime husband).
In February 2001, after months of long work on Winnie and Stephen's parts, I was asked to help out in a more extended workshop where both acts would be performed. I was surprised when at the first rehearsal, I was introduced to Kristin Chenoweth, newly cast as Glinda. I had thought Marietta DePrima had killed it with "Popular," but from Kristin's first line, "It's good to see me, isn't it?" and from when she started singing in "Good News," I knew we were in for a whole new ballgame. It was obvious she possessed a dazzling talent and when it came time for "Popular" she hit it out of the park. From then on the role was tailored specially to her being able to sing anything put in front of her and mine comedic possibilities in Glinda that made it impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. In fact, Stephen had been an early fan of Kristin's and was beginning to write the role with her in mind even before she came on board.
Stephanie was still Elphaba, and she and Kristin made a most formidable team. For this particular reading, a giant rehearsal room at Universal Studios was the play space. This time my duties extended beyond those of reading the stage directions and I got to participate in the group numbers because this time, as opposed to the last, there was a minimal chorus of actors employed consisting of some heavy hitters, like Tony nominee John Herrera (Mystery of Edwin Drood), among others.
For this first complete version of Wicked to be heard aloud, there was no staging to speak of. The actors all sat around a long table on a raised platform with bottles of water in front of them. At its conclusion, it was clear that the bond between Stephane and Kristin that had been taking shape organically over the course of the week's rehearsal was now something awesome to behold. While performing it in front of the one hundred fifty people gathered, their relationship proved the heart and soul of the show which, in addition to the audience crying by its finish, had the actors wiping away tears, too.
Musical Director Stephen Oremus, who stayed with the show through its Broadway opening and beyond in his duel capacity as conductor, provided the piano accompaniment. So, with no orchestra, no sets, no props and no costumes, the purity of the show was plain for all to see. Everyone left with high hopes and waited for what might come next.
Sure enough, I received yet another invitation in 2002 to provide my services as the Narrator for a week of rehearsals, this time to be performed on an enormous soundstage on the Universal backlot. Between that time, there had been a reading in New York that was more elaborate and had been done under the auspices of the director who'd been engaged, Joe Mantello. At the time, Joe was on the rise as one of the most in-demand directors on or off Broadway and Wicked was now under his expert guidance. The actors would still have books in their hands, but they wouldn't be seated behind a table and there was going to be more orchestration and instruments than just Stephen Oremus on piano. I recall that Katherine Helmond, a six-time Emmy nominee and beloved from TV's Soap, was Madame Morrible. David Burnham and Lenny Wolpe were still on board as Fiyero and The Wizard, but Stephane J. Block was no longer Elphaba.
Idina Menzel was chosen by Joe after a number of actresses had auditioned. Already known for her role as Maureen in the original cast of Rent, she had gone on to replace Sherie Rene Scott in Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, and certainly had the voice to fill the demands of Elphaba. For me, comparisons between Idina and Stephanie were inevitable, and I felt Stephanie's superb comedic timing was missing from Idina's performance. In fairness, Idina was brand new to the role and only had a short rehearsal period to play catch-up. But Joe Mantello was convinced she was the right Elphaba. He was especially endeared to her "otherness" and how she was nothing like a girl-next-door ingenue. He knew he could find a way in of capitalizing on that to best serve the character.
The show was performed before a host of big shots including Barry Diller and Stacy Snider who liked what they saw. Afterwards, as the owners of the underlying property rights to Gregory Maguire's novel, Universal signed on as the chief financial backer of a Broadway musical, a first for the studio. And due to Wicked's worldwide success, there was little rush after two decades to produce its motion picture version since it has already become the biggest earner in Universal's more than one hundred-year history. At over $3 billion dollars, it has grossed more than any film in the vast Universal catalog. That's a fact.
In April of 2003, a full-scale production of Wicked was done at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, in hopes it would serve as a pre-Broadway tryout. My duties as a Narrator to read stage directions were no longer required, but I had no intention of missing it. With my then-wife and teenage son, we flew up from L.A. to S.F. to support Winnie and were captivated by the show, even though we all agreed that there was work to be done. Idina was still struggling a bit with Elphaba while Kristin was oh-so-very comfortable as Glinda. That imbalance needed to be addressed.
I also visited backstage with Stephanie after the performance who had been cast in the ensemble and assigned to understudy Idina. It was here she let me know that she would not be moving forward with Wicked, whatever its fate. She had been cast as Liza Minnelli opposite Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz, opening in the fall, which would mark her Broadway debut. And after that triumph, she was chosen to play Elphaba (now in full costume) as the star of the First National Tour of Wicked in 2005 and successfully took over the role on Broadway in 2007 into 2008.
In October of 2003, while Wicked was in previews at the Gershwin Theatre, my family once again hopped a plane to see it. This time with my teenage daughter joining us, we discovered to our delight that not only did Idina have her game on, but something in the air gave us the sensation that this was no ordinary Broadway musical. The audience seemed to embrace it in an almost unnatural way. Afterwards, people were standing in front of the theatre taking photos in front of the signage, in front of the photos of the actors, as if hungry still for a piece of it (the merchandising, still in its infancy, was already selling out). If all went right, we instantly recognized that Wicked had the potential to be a phenomenon.
To be truthful, when it opened to mixed reviews, my heart sank a little. But my worries were for nothing. Happily, due to strong word of mouth, the show wound up doing not just good but great business. And when spring came around, it led all comers at the Tony nominations with ten. Then on the night of the ceremony my heart again sank when it lost award after award, particularly with Best Book and Score going instead to the little underdog, Avenue Q, a show that in any other season would have been my absolute favorite. It pained me Winnie and Stephen went home empty-handed and that Wicked won only three Tonys: Best Costumes (Susan Hilferty), Best Scenic Design (Eugene Lee) and, guess what?... Best Actress in a Musical (Idina Menzel)... and that with her being in direct competition with Kristin Chenoweth. Turns out Joe Mantello was right about Idina and himself took home a Tony for Best Director of a Musical, though not for Wicked. It was for his excellent revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins (he wasn't nominated against himself for Wicked).
And now, so many years later, in what probably isn't news to many, a film of Wicked IS finally being made. Shooting in London right now with Cynthia Erivo (Tony Award winner for The Color Purple) as Elphaba and Ariana Grande (Grammy Award winning superstar) as Glinda, it is scheduled for release in 2024 and 2025. Yes, that's right. In a bold choice, the film is being divided into two parts, just like it plays theatrically as Act One and Act Two. Universal did it with the final chapter of Harry Potter, so here's hoping lightning strikes twice.
And to all my friends at Wicked, congrats on tonight's 7,486th performance. Who's "Now and Forever" now?
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.