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Wicked History--"There's No Place Like Home: Wicked Returns to San Francisco"

Los Angeles Cast of Wicked the Musical, photo by Joan MarcusBy Chad Jones [Photo by Joan Marcus of the LA cast of Wicked's "Defying Gravity" scene]

This Wicked San Francisco article was first published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, January 2009. It includes references to the book "Defying Gravity," and tells an important part of Wicked's history by exploring the pre-Broadway tryout on the west coast.

Wicked's Development - The Pre-Broadway San Francisco Try Out

The singing witches of Oz first saw the light of the stage at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in 2003, and they have cast a mighty spell since then.

A recent article in Variety revealed that Wicked, the musical prequel to The Wizard of Oz, has racked up blockbuster numbers for its primary producer, Universal Pictures, which made its first foray onto Broadway with the show.

Consider that Wicked, according to Variety, has a worldwide gross of $1.2 billion since its San Francisco premiere five years ago. Universal's top movie grossers, such as Jurassic Park ($923 million), E.T. ($793 million) and Mamma Mia! ($545 million), are flying monkeys by comparison.

With Wicked winging back to the city that started its cyclone of success, one has to wonder: what did San Francisco have to do with the show's massive success?

Presented as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series, Wicked opened June 10, 2003 at the Curran and then, after a few months off, reopened at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre, where it recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.

SHN founder Carole Shorenstein Hays says it's difficult to explain how she knows which out-of-town tryouts will work for her audiences and which won't. For an experienced producer and presenter like Shorenstein Hays, it's a matter of gut instinct.

"When (Wicked) producers Marc Platt and David Stone, who also have that artistic instinct, talk about a show they are producing, my interest is sparked," Shorenstein Hays says. "We want to bring San Francisco audiences shows that try to do things a little differently. Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme was one of those shows and Wicked certainly is as well."

Why Test a Show -- and Where?

Shorenstein Hays says she understands that producers need to work on their shows outside the intense pressure and spotlight of New York, so they head to places like San Francisco, Los Angeles (where the Broadway-bound 9 to 5 recently premiered), Seattle (ditto Shrek the Musical) or Chicago (Turn of the Century).

"At the same time, producers need to be somewhere with a challenging audience and critical community," Shorenstein Hays says. "San Francisco is a perfect fit for that. The sophistication and diversity of the Bay Area residents and the energy and spirit that defines San Francisco's cultural curiosity offer just the right environment for the creative process to occur."

By most accounts, that creative process for Wicked was, while not easy, at least not as bad as it could have been.

Carol de Giere, author of the recently published Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked ($24.95, Applause), has documented the evolution of Wicked in comprehensive detail, and she says it became clear in San Francisco that composer Schwartz, book writer Winnie Holzman and director Joe Mantello had a potentially huge hit on their hands.

"They weren't fixing a show in trouble," de Giere says. "I'll use the metaphor of a feast: they had collected all the ingredients and had it all cooked. In San Francisco they were testing the flavors to see if they worked individually and collectively."

The Making of Wicked: First Preview and Beyond

From the first preview, audiences were wildly responsive to the story of Elphaba, the green-skinned girl who would become the Wicked Witch of the West, and her college roommate, a pink-loving blonde who would turn into Glinda the Good Witch.

While the creative team huddled to fix what wasn't working--sometimes bruising egos along the way--word of mouth began to spread around the Bay.

Winnie HolzmanHolzman, a TV writer best known for her work on thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, remembers coming out of meeting during the first week of previews, and seeing a huge crowd of people in front of the Curran.

"Seeing all the people, Stephen immediately thought there had been some sort of accident," Holzman recalls. "But it was a line down the block for tickets. We were so focused on making the show better that it didn't occur to us that people might be enjoying it in the moment. We were so grateful to San Francisco audiences. They were so enthused. It's a lot easier to fix something when you feel people are into it. That makes for a much fuller, better experience."

Holzman spent a lot of time at the Starbucks across the street from the Curran, and she knew Wicked had hit potential when she went in to get her coffee one morning and saw that staff members had drawn little broomsticks and green witches on the chalkboard.

"That might sound a little silly, but when I was feeling discouraged about my own work, feeling I'd never get this scene or that scene right, seeing how supportive people were made me feel great."

Watching the audiences, reading the reactions and sensing the trouble spots, the creative team set about tweaking the musical. One of the early casualties was a rambunctious song called "Which Way Is the Party?" which was replaced by "Dancing Through Life."

Elphaba and Glinda in San FranciscoThere was also the issue, author de Giere recalls, of Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda sort of stealing the show from star Idina Menzel as Elphaba.

"The green girl got a little overshadowed," de Giere says. "The focus over the summer before reopening on Broadway was to make Elphaba more prominent."

When he was in Mountain View working with TheatreWorks last summer, composer Schwartz recalled that his San Francisco experience couldn't have been better.

"The show was well enough received that no one was panicking or feeling it was a disaster--no throwing of bathwater or babies," he says. "It was clear there was work to be done and revisions to be made in the book and the score. The critical community was, frankly, very helpful to us. We learned a lot from the reviews, which were honest and constructive in the aggregate, unlike New York, where the critics make up their minds before they come to the theatre."

On to Broadway

Wicked left San Francisco with some tension among the creative team over what to fix and what to leave alone, but after rewrites, some recasting and a lot of regrouping, the team pulled it all together and launched a massive hit on Broadway.

Variety reports that Wicked recouped its initial $14 million investment in 14 months.

There are Wicked companies abroad in four places: London, Australia, Japan and Germany. In the US, the show is still going strong on Broadway and on tour. The Los Angeles company is heading north to San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre for an open-ended run. And the Chicago company closes this month after a three-and-a-half-year run, and a second tour, economy permitting, will head out later in spring.

Gregory MaguireGregory Maguire, author of the original book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, has capitalized on all this success by releasing two sequels and plans a third.

But Schwartz, defying show business logic, has no interest in continuing the musical story.

"I understand why Gregory would continue the story," Schwartz says. "I encouraged him to do that. But in the theatre, I don't quite get why other than for economic incentive, sequels are necessary. We told that story."

First published in Theatre Bay Area magazine, January 2009

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