Revisiting Wicked – Keeping a long running musical fresh

Ray Rackham revisits the London production of Wicked the musical at the Apollo Victoria Theatre some thirteen years after its London debut at the Apollo Victoria Theatre and realises there is more than magic at work here!

Wicked London
Helen Woolf (Glinda) and Nikki Bentley (Elphaba) in Wicked. Photo: Matt Crockett

“No one mourns the wicked”, sing the ensemble at the Victoria Apollo, eight opening numbers a week, fifty-two weeks a year. But, would we at least miss it? The gargantuan, almost juggernaut of a show has been delighting West End audiences for over thirteen years; and I revisited the production last night with my ten-year-old son, Barnaby; just over thirteen years since I last attended its opening night on September 27th, 2006; and an impressive sixteen years since I saw it’s Gershwin Theatre opening on Broadway; and it got me to thinking – why has Wicked (and other musicals of a similar ilk) lasted so long? And, more importantly, why are they still going?

Now is probably an important moment to confess that I was not a fan of the show when I saw it all those years ago. During what I like to affectionately term my “Sondheim phase”, I was brusquely dismissive of what I believed to be a populist reimagining of the Wizard of Oz; aimed squarely at pre-pubescent teeny boppers, who delighted in the costumes and were a hare’s breadth away from joining in on the high notes. It was exciting that Idina Menzel had travelled from New York to reprise the role of Elphaba, the misunderstood heroine who would go on to be even more misunderstood when Judy Garland appears to then drop a house on her sister. It was arguably even more exciting that the West End production was going include changes to book and narrative to distinguish it from its Broadway cousin (coincidentally, those changes were then incorporated into the Broadway version and every subsequent production of the show). But, for me at least, Wicked didn’t cut the mustard; and, travelling home from the Victoria Apollo, I distinctly remembered my Sony Discman original cast album of choice did not include Elphie, Glinda and the flying monkeys. This leads me to my first realisation; I’m not really a fan of any of the long-running musicals. From Phantom to Cats, to Les Miserables, to We Will Rock You; I’m pretty much left feeling numbed to their appeal. But, as a responsible theatre parent with a child who increasingly enjoys the bright lights of the West End, it was only a matter of time before I started to spend time at the Paris Opera, on the barricade, or – as last night – in a pre-Dorthy Oz.

Rebecca Gilliland Wicked London
Rebecca Gilliland

So, imagine my surprise; 6000 plus performances later; when I shot to my feet at the curtain and lead a standing ovation; almost upon the button of the final note of the score. There were no instantly recognisable, pop, tv or social-media names, in roles that were suited to them for their fan base rather than their talent, so I wasn’t applauding the fact that they’d managed to get through it (believe me, I have). I applauded the show itself and a particular triumph of one of its stand out performers, cover Elphaba, Rebecca Gilliland, who for the first time “went on” (the ‘biz phrase for performing a role because the usual performer is unwell, on holiday or otherwise indisposed) and tore the roof off the auditorium.

When I’d dismissed the show as simply populist all those years ago, I’d failed to recognise the incredibly affecting political story that lies beneath the imaginative reshaping of our green friend’s narrative. Maybe it is more to do with the world in which we now live, where tiki-torch bearing mob-mentality bubbles all around us, where sound-bites, fake news and fact-checking are either scourges or necessities (depending on your perspective); but Winnie Holzman’s book is full-to-bursting with 2019 relevance that even the most eye-brow lifting, National Theatre attending, Sondheim listening aficionado would find it at least partially compelling. The durability of Wicked has most certainly benefitted from the socio-political changes in the world around it; it now screams like a warning klaxon of a future we are almost living. I guess the same could be said, however tenuously, about Les Mis. But would we say that Phantom is particularly relevant on the socio-political stage? What about Cats? Does the alternate, dystopian universe of We Will Rock You heed any warnings? Not particularly.

So let us now deal with casting. When Wicked opened a veritable who’s who of familiar British personalities joined the imported Menzel on opening night, from tv’s Nigel Planer to matinee idol Adam Garcia. Indeed, subsequent high profiled names were rotated in through the late noughties to sustain interest in the show. Wicked also jettisoned the careers of its own stars, including Kerry Ellis and Rachel Tucker who, whilst West End performers already, arguably owe much of their careers, and legions of fans, to when they strapped themselves into the flying bubble, or reached for the green paint. The same can be said for pretty much all of the long running West End shows; casting wise they almost always begin with a bang. I’m minded of those shocking 1980s haircuts of Lord Lloyd Webber, in the foyer of another theatre announcing the leads in his latest soon to be mega-hit. More recently, and maybe to diffuse the concern of losing it’s all-famous revolve, Les Mis announced the mega-celebrity concert version, Gielgud Theatre cast in a similar vein; whilst it’s usual home – the newly named Sondheim Theatre – is refurbished and the original and costly set is removed.

Last night’s Wicked cast, however, were working, jobbing actors. There was no applauses at entrances, no shifting in seats to get a better view of the star, not one seemingly discreet selfie taken. Rather, the audience was entranced by the ensemble of actors who told the story; and told it well. Rebecca Gilliland, playing Elphaba for the night, was truly sensational in the role she covers; breathing new life and finding new beats, in a refreshingly honest and thrillingly inventive first performance. Maybe the rotation of cast members is partially responsible for longevity; moving away from stars and more toward a company of quasi-repertory actors. Back in the late 1970s; when a show that ran for two to three years was considered a phenomenal success; Annie’s Broadway director Martin Charnin caused a stir when he refused to renew twenty cast contracts two years into the run; citing that the cast were just going through the motions and not living in the show. This gave Annie four more years (closing after 2377 performances) and opened the door to the concept that casts could, or maybe even should, be replaced to keep the show fresh. Of course, once a show is up and running, it’s the job of the stage managers and resident directors to let newcomers know where to stand or when to move and that in turns requires re-investment, artistic vigilance and creative producing; but it’s the actor who brings that all-too-important life-blood – the individual’s own perspective. It is here, in the Wonderful land of Oz, that Gilliand delivered on every level.

So it appears that we would, very much, mourn the Wicked, were the doors to the Emerald City ever to shutter permanently. Just as much as we’d miss the Phantom if the Paris Opera were to sing its final aria, or if Les Mis decided to dismantle the barricade. The reason, it seems, is not because they are magically and luckily popular; but because they are universal stories, told well, encased in high production values, and carrying an ability to reinvent every time an actor of Rebecca Gilliand’s calibre is painted green, wears the mask, or waves the red flag. My revisiting Wicked, and watching my son have no idea why he was leaping to his feet apart from compulsion, proves to me that these are not museum pieces, but living, breathing creatures that a whole new generation of audiences have the great fortune to meet, and jaded theatre hacks can be surprised to see in a whole new light.

Wicked is now booking until November 2020 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London.

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