Wicked – Any Colour As long As It’s Green

The first casting announcements have finally been made for the West End transfer of the hit Broadway musical Wicked.

Idina Menzel will be returning to the role of green-skinned Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West to be, a part that has won her a Tony Award in the US.

Subtitled The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, Wicked has been a phenomenal success in the States, but its record breaking box office performance here still came as something of a surprise.
Within an hour of tickets going on sale, 100,000 worth of tickets had been sold with some theatregoers queuing from 6.30am in the morning to ensure they secured the best seats. Since ticket sales opened on March 5, the show has sold over 1.8 million worth.

These figures were soon pipped by the Dirty Dancing musical but they’re still rather impressive given that the Wizard of Oz arguably doesn’t occupy quite the same untouchable iconic status in the UK as it does in the States.

The musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was a fair success on publication in 1995. Songwriter Stephen Schwartz, best known for Godspell, clearly recognised the potential of this re-imagining and created a complete musical score around the story of the love-hate relationship between green-skinned outsider Elphaba and the popular and spoilt Glinda.

musicOMH critic Lisa Hunt, who saw Wicked during its 2005 Chicago run, has some concern about the UK audiences’ reception to the show’s high schmaltz content, but is confident that, with the right cast, the wit and sparkle of Stephen Schwartz’s songs – aided by an entertaining book by Winnie Holzman – will win people over.

It’s a good sign then that the West End production reunites the original Broadway creative team of director Joe Mantello and designer Eugene Lee. And with the confirmation of Menzel in the lead role things look even more positive. Menzel originated the role when the show first opened in New York’s George Gershwin Theatre in 2003. She was previously Tony-nominated for her role as Maureen in Jonathan Larson’s Rent.

Wicked is one of three Broadway big-hitters coming to the West End later this year. First up the recently rechristened Noel Coward Theatre on St Martin’s Lane, the Albery as it is now, will play host to puppet show for grown ups, Avenue Q. And of course this autumn sees the all conquering Monty Python musical Spamalot set up home in the Palace Theatre. (It’s not all one way traffic however, Alan Bennett’s deeply English The History Boys will be transferring to New York imminently.)

However theatre doesn’t always benefit from crossing the Atlantic. Shows that went down a storm on Broadway can flounder in the West End where tastes are undeniably different. Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is a case in point; a one-man show based on the life story of a celebrated East German transvestite, it arrived on these shores laden with praise and awards but received a middling, but by no means scathing, response from the critics and closed after only a couple of months.

Powerful verbatim drama The Exonerated has fared much better. A troubling indictment of the US penal system, based on real life cases of staggering injustice, it has achieved success both with the critics and the public since opening at Riverside Studios. And as in America it has proven particularly popular with the acting community, with big names queuing up to be part of its revolving cast. Stockard Channing and Aidan Quinn were among its opening ensemble and since then performers as diverse as Danny Glover, Sex and The City’s Kristin Davies, the League Of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton and Catherine Tate have taken their turns in the small Hammersmith venue. Alanis Morrisette is lined up to participate and Vanessa Redgrave will appear for a one-off charity performance. But arguably the most impressive casting is that of Sunny Jacobs, the woman on whose life one of these harrowing narratives is based. She continues to make regular appearances in the show.

Wicked is about as distant a spectacle you can get from The Exonerated but will that work in its favour? Whether Wicked will work its magic on London theatregoers or whether it’ll soon discover that “there’s no place like home” remains to be seen.

Wicked will be playing at the Apollo Victoria from September 2006

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