As ‘Wicked’ flies into San Diego again, co-creator Stephen Schwartz chats about show’s lasting popularity
Stephen Schwartz remembers exactly where he was when “Wicked” opened on Broadway 15 years ago this month. And it wasn’t anywhere near the Emerald City.
“I was already in Vermont,” says the composer-lyricist behind the smash-hit musical prequel to the “Oz” saga, noting that he has a longstanding tradition of not attending his own opening nights in New York.
“I found it best for my own peace of mind just not to be there. I go to other people’s openings and enjoy them a great deal, but I don’t go to my own.”
As it turned out, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot to fret over. Initial Broadway reviews for “Wicked” may have been mixed, but the show — which visits San Diego next week for the fifth time on tour — quickly caught fire among fans, and has long since become a certified phenomenon.
“Wicked,” based on the novel by Gregory Maguire (as adapted by Winnie Holzman), recently passed “A Chorus Line” to become the sixth-longest-running show in Broadway history, with “Les Misérables” next in its sights.
It’s also the second-highest-grossing Broadway production all-time at well over $1 billion, second only to “The Lion King.”
And its staying power is evidenced by the fact that even after 15 years, the musical’s tour is the only one that continues to get an extended, nearly monthlong “sit-down” stay here at the Civic. (“Hamilton” did it earlier this year, but that’s a much newer show.)
“Wicked” has been around long enough now that “fans who came when they were 12 or 15 now come with families of their own in many cases,” says Schwartz, speaking by phone from his New England home. “So it sort of keeps growing that way.”
In case you’ve been lying under a fallen farmhouse for the past decade-plus: “Wicked” puts forth a back story for those familiar witches from “The Wizard of Oz,” long before Dorothy arrives. They come off as much more complex than they’re portrayed in the classic 1939 movie, which was based on L. Frank Baum’s stories.
At the center of the tale is the friendship between the green-skinned Elphaba, who will one day be dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the eventual Good Witch of the North (aka the Girl in the Bubble).
Those two are played in the current touring production by two seasoned “Wicked” pros: Jackie Burns, who has done more performances as Elphaba between Broadway and the road than any other actor; and Kara Lindsay, who likewise has played Glinda both on Broadway and on tour.
Elphaba and Glinda’s fraught bond is set against a narrative that examines what happens to a society polarized and paralyzed by either/or thinking and the labeling of people as good or evil.
That political edge has always been part of “Wicked” — even in a funny and deceptively fluffy song such as Glinda’s “Popular,” with its chirpy sentiments about how heads of state just need to be liked instead of smart. But Schwartz says the show seems to land differently these days.
“There are very unfortunate ways in which ‘Wicked’ predicted the politics of spin and the lack of empirical truth that we seem to be dealing with right now,” he says.
“I actually wish ‘Wicked’ were less relevant politically now instead of more so, but we know from a lot of things people have written, and communications that all of us involved in the show receive, that it seems to have become more politically of the moment now even than when it was written.”
Given the massive success of “Wicked,” it’s a bit surprising to hear Schwartz reiterate (as he first mentioned in a conversation in San Diego three years ago) that he doesn’t feel it ranks as one of his two best shows.
Those honors go to “Children of Eden” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the Disney-connected musical that had its U.S. premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014.
“We’ll see if that remains the circumstance for the rest of my life – who knows?” says the Broadway heavyweight behind such other enduring works as “Pippin” and “Godspell.”
“But for me personally, I feel they’re the two best I’ve been involved with, in terms of achieving artistically the goals that I and my collaborators set out to achieve.”
And yet it would be hard to imagine his other shows earning the same kind of fervent devotion that “Wicked” has. When asked about that, Schwartz acknowledges he continues to hear from fans who say their lives were changed by the musical.
“I get wonderful communications — in all honesty they were more frequent in the couple of years after the show opened. But I would get a letter or email from someone who would say specifically how encountering ‘Wicked’ and, more often than not, ‘Defying Gravity’ (Elphaba’s soaring anthem of empowerment), led them to make a decision about their own lives.
“I think off the top of my head of a woman who was in an abusive marriage and ultimately took her kids and left her husband and went to another state and started a new life.
“And I also think of a young man at a very Catholic college who tried to start a gay-straight alliance and met a lot of resistance from the administration initially, but then was given courage, he said, from encountering ‘Wicked.’ And ultimately succeeded in doing so.
“Those are two I remember quite vividly, but there have been many of them through the years. Most of them are not as dramatic as that — they’re from people who say, ‘This helped me get through high school.’
“Those of us who are writers (chose that work) at least in some measure because we wanted to communicate with others,” Schwartz adds. “There were things we thought and felt and believed in and wanted to share with people beyond ourselves.
“So when something one writes has an impact on others, that’s really as gratifying as it gets, I think.”
When: Performances begin Oct. 31. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 25.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Tickets: About $39-$169
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100
‘Wicked’ flying onto TV screens
As the touring production of “Wicked” gets set to open at the Civic Theatre, the show also will be rolling out a televised birthday celebration. NBC is presenting “A Very Wicked Halloween: Celebrating 15 Years on Broadway,” a taped concert program that reunites the original Elphaba and Glinda — Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth — for performances of songs from the show. They’ll be joined by top pop acts, including Ariana Grande and Pentatonix, plus the current cast of “Wicked” on Broadway, along with actors from past productions of the show. The program airs locally at 10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, on NBC 7/39 San Diego.
From the archives
James Hebert’s Union-Tribune reviews of the touring “Wicked” from:
2009: Wizardry of ‘Oz’ is what helps ‘Wicked’ cast a spell
2012: ‘Wicked’ wit still bewitches
2014: Feuding duo clicks in ‘Wicked’
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