Wicked: Global success story flying high on acclaim

As tickets for Wicked’s tour go on sale, kelly apter says its Scottish dates are a must-see, because this production has all the Broadway bells and whistles

The show gives Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, a different slant. Picture: Contributed
The show gives Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, a different slant. Picture: Contributed

“At least once a day you’ll hear somebody say ‘we’re so lucky’,” says George Ure, Airdrie boy turned West End performer. The “we” he’s referring to is the cast and crew of Wicked, one of the most successful musicals of all time. Being part of this multi-award winning phenomenon is something none of them – whether they’re one of the 31 performers on stage, or the 75 others making it all happen backstage – takes for granted.

“You only get one Wicked in your career, and that’s if you’re lucky,” says Ure. “I stood in the wings last night waiting to go on, turned to the stage manager and said ‘this show is amazing’. Just to hear the audience reaction, see who you’re surrounded by, the costumes we get to wear, it’s mind-blowing.”

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Despite having appeared in the show close to 1,200 times in the West End, and with another 800 performances beckoning on the UK tour, Ure is as passionate about Wicked now as the day he first walked in the door. When we meet backstage, his love for the show is palpable – and he’s not alone.

“I have honestly never worked with a team of people across the board that are so wonderful at their job – cast, producers, backstage, everyone,” he says. “We know that we’re in charge of something really precious, and that’s why the best people are put in place. It’s like Wicked is a little person we all want to look after and protect.”

To be fair, it’s a show worth protecting. A prequel to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, Wicked has spent ten years on Broadway, almost eight years in the West End, won over 90 international awards (including an Olivier, three Tony Awards and a Grammy), and has a fan base that keeps on growing.

Being part of such a global success story is something Ure doesn’t treat lightly. “This is a dream come true for me,” he says. “Growing up in Airdrie, all I ever wanted to do was be in a West End show. Then, when I was at drama school in London, I saw Wicked the first week it opened in 2006. I said to my friend during the interval – I’m going to be in that.”

His prophetic confidence paid off, and upon graduating, Ure walked straight into the role of Boq – a young munchkin who falls for Glinda, the beautiful Good Witch of the North. He also plays another part, but I’m politely asked by both Ure and the company manager not to mention who.

Taking us back to the time when Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West first meet as young students, Wicked encourages us to “look at things differently”. Characters we know so well from The Wizard of Oz are shown from an alternative angle, forcing us to re-think our opinion. As Glinda asks during the show’s opening minutes: “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”

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It’s this central question that makes Wicked so interesting. Yes, it has all the usual musical theatre components but it’s the clever and unexpected narrative from Gregory Maguire’s original 1995 book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, that gives this musical its edge. The green-faced witch who hunts down Dorothy to retrieve her dead sister’s slippers in the film, isn’t quite the woman we thought she was. Now given a first name – Elphaba – she is a character who demands our empathy.

“We pretty much all grew up with the Wicked Witch of the West being this incredibly frightening character in The Wizard of Oz,” says Wicked’s executive producer, Michael McCabe. “But from the moment Elphaba first appears and runs down to the front of the stage, the audience starts to think how does this wonderful young green girl end up as this horrible, iconic, evil character?”

Strong-minded, inherently kind, but emotionally scarred by her unfortunate complexion (or more specifically, how people react to it), the green-skinned Elphaba is short on friends. Radiant, blonde-haired Glinda, on the other hand, is the constant centre of attention. Immediate enemies, the two women eventually become fast friends.

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“Despite all their differences, how they react when they first meet, and everything that life throws at them, Elphaba and Glinda end up with this extraordinary, deep friendship,” says McCabe, “There’s something very poignant and touching about their relationship, which the audience engages with and invests in. And when that happens, it’s completely different from watching a run of the mill show.”

This central friendship leads to two of the musical’s most popular songs – the witty, dorm-room number Popular, and tear-jerking closer, For Good.

“Something people say to me a lot, is that they were incredibly moved by the show – but they also had no idea it was going to be so funny,” says McCabe. “That’s almost an added, surprising bonus. There’s nothing to hide behind in either of those lead roles – to play Elphaba and Glinda you’ve got to be able to deliver as an actor, as a singer, and have considerable stamina.”

Nikki Davis-Jones and Emily Tierney, who take on those roles for the UK tour, tick all those boxes. Both have great comic timing, emotional intent and for Davis-Jones in particular, the vocal range to tackle Elphaba’s big number, Defying Gravity whilst suspended high in the air.

As McCabe says, this is the “full bells and whistles version” of Wicked, not a watered down edition sent out on tour. The original Broadway creative team re-assembled to oversee the production, and it’s clear from the costumes and technical wizardry that no expense has been spared.

Wicked may be a feel-good musical, but it’s also a tale of friendship, prejudice, political propaganda and overcoming odds that have been stacked high against you. It’s quite a combination.

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“It’s always interesting the way people enjoy the show on many different levels,” says McCabe. “Some come away saying wow, it was spectacular. Others enjoy how threaded through all that spectacle, is an incredibly intelligent and meaningful story.

“But the test of all successful musicals, is if people go to see it more than once. And people leave Wicked immediately wanting to take other people to see it, and share what they’ve experienced again and again.”

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It would seem McCabe is right. It’s six days since I saw Wicked, and during that time I’ve bought the soundtrack, told everyone I’ve met to buy tickets and tried to stop counting the days until it comes to Scotland…

• Wicked is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 6-31 May 2014; and the Playhouse, Edinburgh, 19 November 2014-10 January 2015; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 5-30 May 2015. www.wickedtour.co.uk