Since its premiere in 2003 Wicked the musical has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon earning its place alongside the many appropriations of Frank L Baum’s Oz stories. Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked; the life and times of the wicked witch of the west took inspiration from the one dimensional antagonist of the original story and gave her depth, a backstory and moral ambiguity in addition to providing a complicated friendship with Glinda the good and making the Wizard not so wonderful after all. Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) cut the source material down to its bare bones instead choosing to focus on the friendship between Elphaba’s (Maguire’s christening) campaign for the rights of animals and her friendship with Glinda. It is perhaps the most conspicuous example of the trend of the last decade to provide sympathetic backstories and motives for so called villains; Wicked’s influence is all over such popular franchises as Frozen, Maleficent and the upcoming Cruella de Ville film. In a few short weeks Westbourne Grammar school will present their interpretation of Wicked at the Wyndham Cultural centre; I corresponded with several members of the cast and productions team about the highlights and challenges, what the text means to them and how it resonates with young people.
Hugh Krause who plays the Wizard wrote ‘Wicked is incredibly significant in today’s day and age. From the racial injustice Elphaba faces, or the corruption that the Emerald City is ridden with, all of it is relevant. Something I like about Wicked is how it can incorporate so many theatrical and political ideas and themes so cohesively for the audience’. It’s not difficult to draw direct parallels between Wicked’s Oz and ours. We are living in a time where some of the most prominent agents of cultural change are adolescents; we need only look at the recent school strikes for climate change, protesting the national anthem, safe schools and gun control in the US. As much as they’re celebrated, they’ve also been subjected to dismissive and aggressive smear campaigns from the media and politicians.
Director Paul Watson writes “It’s a modern politically charged story told through the vehicle of one of the most beloved stories of all time that is nearly a century and a half old. Students today are more charged, more electric, more aware… but their childhood is as close as a decade ago. Or less. So, Baum may be over 100 years away from our current world, but the parallels are closer than ever.” He went on to detail his vision for this production “Our first intention is to stay away from the Broadway version and bootlegs. I see very little value in teaching the students how to parrot. Hopefully our job is to inspire a new generation of not only performers but directors and writers and scenic artists etc and finding value in your own interpretation is important for that. If we arrive at similar interpretations, then wonderful but at least we found them ourselves. Not only that but our venue is about half the size of The Gershwin on Broadway, so we have to set our staging it differently. We’ve kept it accessible, similar to Broadway, in not leaning too heavy on the political juice in the script. It is a family friendly show. But we have focussed on corruption, class systems, slavery, marginalisation, elitism, racism and all the Other isms in the script, but balanced that with exploring acceptance, friendship, morality etc. we’ve also focussed on a few other journeys in the script and not just “how did the witches become the witches?” We’ve focussed on how “the people” became the witch hunters for example”
In addition to the subject matter Wicked provides two spectacular starring roles for two senior students in Elphaba and Glinda, surely two of the most coveted roles in the musical theatre canon. Not only are they complex musically but they each have fascinating and nuanced arcs from when we meet them as young, ambitious university students to key players in the shaping of Oz’s political system. One of the most satisfying of which is watching the vivacious but seemingly vapid Galinda go from morally compromised socialite to an inspired young leader owning her intelligence and values. In this production she is portrayed by Carly Gauci “If I were to describe Glinda in three words, it would be ‘vivacious yet compassionate’. However, through most of the first act, she is like a ‘mean girl’. While I don’t think that I relate to this characteristic, I too think of myself as quite bubbly and compassionate, which helps me to portray the character in such a way”. Paul Watson, reflected “Bella (Yoseski) brought a wonderful sarcasm and dry humour to Elphaba and Carly created this wonderful awkwardness for Glinda which accentuates so much of the juxtaposition in not only that popular character but the entire show. Those girls really focussed my attention on juxtapositions which the script is riddled with”
Reflecting on the responses sent back to Theatre People, I was impressed by the maturity, camaraderie and dedication that was evident in all those that wrote back. In addition to the keen insight into the material, I was struck by the clear passion and commitment this team has to their craft. Particularly noteworthy was Ryan Auley’s (Dr. Dillamond) reflections on the challenges he had mastering the score ‘Wicked is a show written mostly for tenors so as a baritone myself I’ve struggled a bit with the pitch on some of the notes. However, after 6 months of rehearsal my range has widened massively, and I struggle much less’. Every interviewee was also consistent in commending their colleagues for the mutual support and team effort required to mount such a challenging production alongside exam preparation and day to day studies. The faculty described some of the students schedules as being as heavily loaded as theirs.
It was a joy gaining insight into this latest production of Wicked and bade me to reflect on how much I enjoyed participating in, and still enjoy seeing, student theatre. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see talent as it’s being developed, at its rawest and at its most passionate. I’ve no doubt that Westbourne Grammar School’s iteration of Wicked will stand amongst every other production you may have seen. Or if this is your first encounter with show you have the thrilling opportunity to see it realised by the next generation of bright, up and coming creatives.
Wicked plays at the Wyndham Cultural Centre from 23rd-25th of May for four performances.