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New Broadway Musical <i>Wicked</i> Tells Story of Good and Bad Witches - 2003-12-13

Critics and audiences are hailing two strong women on Broadway and they are both witches. The new hit musical Wicked is loosely based on The Wizard of Oz, one of the most beloved films of all time. The musical examines an imaginary relationship between the good witch, Glinda, and the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West.

Wicked is the so-called back story to the perennial favorite, The Wizard of Oz. In that story, Dorothy, a girl from the mid-west state of Kansas, lands in the fantasy world of Oz. She encounters odd and varied inhabitants, as she follows the good witch Glinda's advice to follow the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz to send her home. The Wicked Witch of the West repeatedly tries to thwart her journey.

The Broadway extravaganza is based on Gregory Maguire's book, Wicked, the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Mr. Maguire says he was not particularly interested in the story of Oz. Instead, he chose the topic because he wanted to explore the idea of evil.

"I really wanted to write about evil, and I wanted to take a character who was recognized, a thoroughly evil, evil through every pore, right out to her skin color," he explains. " She was rotten; she was corrupt; she was green; and to explore a little bit about how she got that way, and whether there was anything more to her than met the eye."

In the process, author Maguire ended up creating a sympathetic character in the green witch, an outcast, whom he names Elphaba. At the same time, good witch Glinda comes across as vain, self-absorbed and ruthlessly ambitious in her quest for popularity.

In the play, Kristin Chenoweth, a young Broadway powerhouse, portrays Glinda.

"When I grew up watching the movie The Wizard of Oz, I thought - even as a child, I thought - there is something wrong with that Glinda. It's just not real. What I wanted to do, I wanted to show really what is going on there," she says.

Ms. Chenoweth's Glinda resembles a birthday cake, all pink and glitter, frilly and frothy. Not surprisingly, she travels through much of the play in a bubble, suspended over the stage.

Her counterpart playing the green-skinned Elphaba is Idina Menzel. Her character wears dark colors, fights for lost causes and makes enemies easily. Ms. Menzel says she has worked hard to make the Wicked Witch sympathetic.

"I think it is a really complex role, complex person," she says. "We have a stereotype that people come in envisioning. It took a long time to iron out all of those complexities, and find all the different levels to her. She is not purely good, and she is not an evil person. She has the spectrum of many emotions and colors and that took awhile."

The theater audience meets the two characters when they become unlikely roommates as young witches-in-training. It is a case of hate-at-first-sight (they hate each other instantly). But that soon changes, as Glinda takes the unsociable Elphaba under her wing.

As the two young witches explore Oz, they discover many unpleasant realities, including corruption and prejudice, and the fleeting nature of popularity. And the Wizard, played by Joel Grey, turns out to be a lonely, authoritarian bully, with no magical powers at all.

WIZARD: I guess I just wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.
ELPHABA: So you lied to them?
WIZARD: Only verbally. Elphaba, where I am from, we believe all sorts of things that are not true. We call it history. A man is called a traitor or a liberator. A rich man is a thief, or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist.

The show is a spectacle, with flying monkeys, elaborate costumes and a set of scaffolds and gears topped by a huge metal dragon.

Wicked received mixed reviews. Some critics found the show too long, the plot too confusing and its messages against intolerance and for animal rights too strident. But the actresses won nothing but the highest praise. Local television reviewer Roma Torre says their glorious voices are matched by sensational acting skills. "As the vain Glinda, Chenoweth is an incredible comedienne. Her timing and way with a comic line are impeccable," she says. "The book is chockfull of silly word plays and puns, and Chenoweth zings every one of them. Idina Menzel, who wowed us in [the Broadway musical] Rent, is doing the same now. Elphaba is an extremely challenging role, but Menzel sets the stage on fire, convincingly switching from good to evil, with chilling ease."

Audiences seem to agree. Wicked has become one of the few big hits of the Broadway season, filling one of New York's largest theaters with adults and children looking for the secrets behind the Emerald City.