It was announced recently that Wicked will be licensed to amateur companies exclusively in Australia, and reactions to that news have been strong on both ends of the spectrum. Fans have either been incredibly excited at the thought of seeing new blood brought to the musical, or have been lamenting the impending death of the production via amateur theatre. No matter your opinion (overdramatic or otherwise) on the decision to release the rights to an amateur crowd, CLOC and Packemin have already announced their plans to produce Wicked in 2016, and the Time Dragon Clock is counting down multiple other productions around Australia.
Before we allow ourselves to be caught in the melodrama of the outdated idea that amateur theatre does nothing but destroy popular musicals, I decided to compile a pro and con list of the outcomes of opening Wicked up to amateur interpretation. In case I was too close to the show (having been a super fan for many years) I have included the thoughts and opinions of professionals and Shiz alumni within this piece, in addition to my own opinion. Make of it what you will.
- By far the scariest problem to arise from professional productions of Wicked is vocal and physical burn out for the women playing Elphaba. No matter how you look at it, Elphaba is a huge role to physically inhabit for any period of time, and she has sidelined professional actresses in the past. This concern translates just as scarily into amateur theatre, where a small season often dictates that roles be fulfilled by people who certainly have the talent, but not necessarily the training or vocal sustenance ability that professionals have had the time to hone over a long period of study or industry experience. Ian Nisbet, a well-respected Melbourne vocal coach, has this to say on the subject:
“Singers need to remember that [these roles were] written for one specific instrument, and no two instruments are the same. Then add that the cast recording is so ubiquitous (and many of us have memorised those original performances to the last syllable) and you have a recipe for trouble. […] I’m not saying it can’t be done– the role isn’t outside many performer’s capabilities – but it will be if they try to sing it through Idina’s instrument rather than their own. If they can find where Elphaba sits in their own voice, fantastic, but I’m also concerned that’s not what the audiences will be wanting to hear, either.”
In an exclusive comment to Theatre People, Patrice Tipoki (a previous Australian Elphaba who truly made the vocal role her own – just listen to the crazy ad libs at the end of ‘Defying Gravity’ on her solo album A Musical Heart) expressed her excitement that amateur groups now have the opportunity to explore Wicked, and spoke to the difficulty in playing the Green Girl.
“There’s some big roles in there… Don’t let them overwhelm you, plot it out & do your homework. Find the times when you can be intimate, it’s not all belt city.”
- Another concern is over-saturation of the show in the amateur field. As much as I am excited to see Wicked storm the amateur stage, I’m not certain that audiences will be able to put up with every second company announcing a season. We have seen the problems that come out of every company producing the same show (for example, Legally Blonde over the past two years), and it would be a shame to see Wicked lose her sparkle just because audiences can see a different production of it every month. Solving this concern is going to come down to individual companies planning together and a willingness to share upcoming season information (which is normally held even tighter to their chest than a grieving Glinda weeping over Elphaba’s hat).
*Update, 9pm 27.10.15: This negative already seems to have come true with a vengeance, with many company announcements going unseen by the author. Nearly consecutive seasons opening in the same cities have already been planned.*
- There is always cause for concern when a mega-musical (a musical that is mass produced in many countries with the same creative design and staging) is released to amateur groups, as there may be a clause in contracts that binds small companies into adopting the identical aesthetic of its big-budget sister. If the creative talents behind the show choose to try and imitate what has come before to keep audiences happy, I believe their goal will fail. I personally don’t want to see a low-budget recreation of a mega-musical, I want to see innovation and creativity and I believe other potential audience members will want the same thing. Neil Gooding, speaking on behalf of Packemin Productions’ upcoming staging of Wicked, makes mention of the fact that while the show is massively popular, much of the imagery from the professional production is not necessarily iconic and if changed should not illicit a negative reaction from an amateur audience.
“Our view at Packemin is that we always set out to do non-replica shows. I don’t really see the point of taking a ten million dollar production and trying to pretend you can replicate it with $350,000. […] Whereas I think Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins for example, and to an extent Les Mis, are much more […] burned into people’s brains in a way that if you move too far away from what their expectations are, I do think they start feeling a bit funny about what they are watching. I just don’t think that Wicked, particularly on a set level, has the same expectation as the chandelier [from Phantom].”
For their production, Packemin will continue their pattern of working closely with Melbourne’s CLOC, inheriting much of their costumes and sets, so CLOC’s premiere Australian production will set much of the benchmark for the replica vs. non-replica argument.
- Wicked somehow manages to touch on many of the big social issues facing our world today, and does so in a way that has so far resonated with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Themes present within the text include the idea of racial segregation and cultural degradation (even species genocide), dictatorial forms of government, poisoning of the public through propaganda, politics, power and the media, and at the centre of this is a relationship between two women who each hold the power to change the circumstances in which they and their people live. The buzz-phrase in most media campaigns for Wicked is “it’s a story about friendship!”, but the further you look into Wicked, the more you see how important the show is to many modern issues. A friendship backed by strong feminist ideals is only the surface of the piece, with the deeper content almost screaming for social and political revolution – due to the spectacle of the show, most people forget that Doctor Dillamond (and his entire “Animal” species) were systematically stripped of their rights, their careers and eventually of their human traits, the Cowardly Lion nearly fell victim to vivisection, and the entire Munchkin population were imprisoned within their own lands due to a ruling decreed by Nessarose. While Elphaba is ostracised and scape-goated because of her strong moral ethics and activist traits, Glinda eventually sees the error of her ways and works from within the government to be a friend to the people she represents, rather than imprisoning them, as Oz’s former dictators chose to do. Opening these messages of Elphaba and Glinda’s strength in the face of an oppressive regime up to an amateur audience can only be a good thing – if Elphaba and Glinda can inspire one more person to make a difference instead of remaining complicit in evil actions, then their story needs to be told in every way possible.
When we reached out to David Harris (Helpmann nominated for the role of Fiyero Tiggular in Australia’s Wicked, and my personal choice for best wearer of the infamous Fiyero pants), he made special mention of just how wonderful the show is in fostering positivity and audience action.
“Good Neeeeews! Now so many more performers can experience the phenomenon that is Wicked! It’s such a special show about acceptance, friendship and seeing things in another way. Look after your voices, enjoy the big sing and if you deliver the story in truth, look forward to moving so many audience members. And for all the Fiyero’s to come – wear those tight jodhpurs with Fiyero pride!”
- No matter whether you believe a $100 ticket to a professional musical is justifiable through production costs or not, everyone can agree that theatre has unfortunately priced out many possible audience members. Families, students, low income earners and others who may have skipped Wicked in the past due to financial hardship may finally have the opportunity to see a fantastic production of the show from an amateur company, and will no longer be cut off from Oz. This ties in to the last point – the messages put forth in Wicked should be offered to anyone who wants to hear them.
- This argument is the flip side of the replica problem – while the professional production of Wicked was a big-budget spectacle, amateur companies will have to use every tiny bit of creativity within them to produce a show that meets expectations and budgetary constraints. Our amateur techs have done some amazing work in the past, but everything from the ‘Defying Gravity’ sequence to the reveal of Chistery’s wings will offer them the chance to show off all the skills we know they have. Wicked will afford some of our hardest working amateur creatives the chance to show off just exactly what they can do, and I cannot wait to be crazily proud of their efforts.
- Opening Wicked up to amateur groups means that people who have been inspired by the show (women in particular), will have the chance to support the material in more ways than just buying a ticket. A significant proportion of young theatre fans fell into our dramatic world by listening to the Wicked Original Broadway Cast recording, and now they can have a hand in bringing the show they love to the stage. There is a huge chance that supporters of amateur theatre will increase with the staging of such an iconic show, and larger number of audiences and people willing to help out backstage and on-stage is exactly what the amateur scene needs. Amateur Wicked may be just the thing we need to revitalise and increase support for amateur theatre in Australia.
- After years of dramatically acting Elphaba and Glinda in our bedrooms with our headphones plugged into an iPod, some of us are actually going to get the chance to bring the roles to the stage! If you haven’t at one point or another convinced yourself that your extra riffs and choice to take notes up an octave totally sounds better than what Idina recorded, then you’re lying to yourself, and I am not a fan of your dishonesty.
- With a new staging and interpretation of the show, more context from the novel the musical is based on may come to life. For instance, did you know that many book readers believe that Elphaba and Glinda’s relationship is not strictly platonic? (The author of the novel wrote this passage, for example: ‘She put her face against Glinda’s and kissed her. “Hold out, if you can,” she murmured and kissed her again. “Hold out, my sweet.”‘) I’m not asking for a completely gay Glinda here, but a little more freedom in the depiction of the friendship of the two women definitely wouldn’t hurt the show. Did you also know that in the source material, Fiyero comes from a race of people who are described as having dark skin, tattooed with blue diamonds? The diamonds were an original part of Fiyero’s costume in the out-of-town tryouts for Wicked, but were soon removed as nobody beyond the first few rows of a thousand seat theatre could see the design. To my knowledge, only two black men (Taye Diggs and Derrick Williams) have been given the opportunity to play the Winkie Prince in professional productions – amateur groups may choose to give the role to a man who fits the original description of Fiyero, and in a smaller theatre could even work the facial tattoos back into his makeup design. So much had to be written out of Wicked’s adaptation, and opening the show up to a new vision could restore some of what the musical is missing, creating a more diverse Oz that could include more than white, heterosexual and conventionally attractive people.
John O’Hara, another member of Wicked Australia’s alumni, touched on the idea of people making the show their own when he spoke to us about the release of the amateur rights. Although he was surprised to see them released so early, ultimately, he is sure that it is the right decision for the future of the show. He also believes that amateur groups need to infuse the show with their own passion and vision.
“If I had any advice for amateur performers auditioning for […] roles I would say [to] find your own versions of these wonderful characters. They’re such well written and fabulously flawed characters, so really get inside the script and find your OWN way through it… Don’t simply copy the YouTube clips aplenty.”
Your pro list may heavily outweigh the cons, or vice versa, but no matter your opinion it is impossible to deny that the Australian amateur theatre scene has been given a massive opportunity to prove themselves with the release of performance rights for Wicked. Australia loved the show so much that we refused to let her go, and when she did she leave us she returned in a different form in mere weeks. Amateur companies are the future for Wicked in Australia – let us offer companies producing the show the same amount of support we gave to the professional production, and allow the Green Machine to keep defying gravity.
Have I missed anything major in the list? Comment to share your opinion!