It's not easy being 'green'

By Dionne Christian

Wicked's witches fly into Auckland next week to celebrate the award-winning blockbuster musical's 10th anniversary. Dionne Christian is spellbound

Wicked: Suzie Mathers (Glinda the good) and Jemma Rix (Elphaba the green witch).
Wicked: Suzie Mathers (Glinda the good) and Jemma Rix (Elphaba the green witch).

Bernadette Hayes, the general manager for Wicked Australasia, has something to tell the cast, crew and journalists assembled at a North Melbourne dance school to watch rehearsals for the international blockbuster musical.

She's just received a text to say 23 12m shipping containers, packed tight with the set for Wicked, have arrived unharmed in Auckland. The news is greeted with claps, cheers and smiles all round - and those smiles get only wider when show stars Jemma Rix and Suzie Mathers step up to sing.

It may have been 10 months since the two last performed their respective roles of Elphaba and Glinda the Good in Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, but they hit all the right notes. The expressions of delight, awe and respect on the faces of cast members - more than half the performers are new - and grins from resident director Karen Mortiner and musical directors Kellie Dickerson and David Young say it all: Wicked is back, about to swoop into Auckland next week.

Wicked is one of the biggest things to happen in musical theatre since Dorothy touched down in Kansas. Premiering in 2003, it has won 50 major awards, including Grammy and Tony awards, and has been seen by some 36 million worldwide to gross more than US$2.9 billion. It shows no sign of losing its magical appeal; last year, in the week between Christmas and New Year, the show broke new records by pulling in US$2.95 million to clock up the highest grossing week in Broadway history.

Now, to mark its 10th birthday, it returns with a long-awaited Auckland season which producers promise will be as polished and professional, as larger-than-life and "simply enchanting" as productions on Broadway and in London's West End. Rix and Mathers star alongside Jay Laga'aia (as the Wizard), Maggie Kirkpatrick, best known for her role on TV's Prisoner as Joan "the Freak" Ferguson, and rising Australian musical theatre leading man Steve Danielsen.

Wicked is based on author Gregory Maguire's 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a morally complex story which prods readers to consider the nature of good and evil.

Rather than picking up from the 1938 L. Frank Baum movie The Wizard of Oz, Wicked fleshes out the history of its witches. Elphaba is a girl with emerald skin who has a big heart and boundless integrity, despite being reviled by nearly all; Glinda the Good is pretty and popular and supposedly an honourable and principled witch - but appearances are seldom what they seem.

Academy Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz read Maguire's book on the recommendation of a friend and was immediately captivated by the tricky questions the novel poses and its focus on shedding new light on a fairy-tale villain.

"I've long been interested in things that take a familiar tale or character and spin it to a completely different point of view," says Schwartz from his home in New York. "The ideal interests me and, in this case, the subject interested me."

Adaptations of fairy tales have become common in recent years - the TV series Once Upon a Time, big-budget movies such as Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror and Jack and the Giant Slayer - but it was a more novel concept back in the late 1990s. Schwartz and script-writer Winnie Holzman spent years finding the story they wanted to tell, putting it to music, then workshopping the production. The process included a pre-Broadway season in San Francisco before the musical headed to New York. It generated a buzz almost immediately and in the 10 years since its debut, a role in Wicked has become coveted among musical theatre performers. Musical director David Young, originally from Auckland, says the standard of auditions among young hopefuls has soared.

"Everyone knows the songs and the music," he says. "They come fully prepped."

Rix and Mathers made their way up through the chorus, spending time as understudies before being cast in leading roles. They say being part of the Wicked juggernaut is all-consuming, especially for Rix. Her transformation involves spending the late afternoons getting dressed and made up - her face, neck, upper chest, lower arms and hands have to be liberally slathered in green Mac makeup. Evenings are for performing and her days are spent keeping physically and mentally fit.

After a couple of days, no matter how much cleanser she uses to remove the green makeup, it leaves a "tide mark" around her face. People look twice at her; hotel cleaners curse the stains on pillowcases.

Rix and Mathers stress that feisty and complex roles for women don't come along often in contemporary musical theatre so who wouldn't want to jump back on that broomstick and fly again? They share the belief that the musical works because of its acknowledgement of the power of friendship and the sympathetic portrayal of Elphaba, an outsider we can all relate to.

"I think we've all felt like an outsider at times, be it at school or starting a new job or moving to a new place," says Rix. "I was picked on and bullied at school because I had red hair and I wanted to perform so I was deliberately putting myself out there. If that's what you want to do, though, that's what you want to do."

Though she says she isn't as tough as Elphaba, Rix didn't let the taunts and the teasing stop her; she left school at 16 to start training. Similarly Mathers, who was 6 when her family moved from Scotland to Australia, says she was consumed by the desire to perform but went through an "awkward teenage phase" where some of her confidence lapsed.

Rix admits she can't help but be influenced by the way they've seen others portray a character, but she has tried to make Elphaba her own by working hard on finding inner strength and adding surprisingly comic touches.

"Elphaba is tricky to play because she's so tough - and she needs that strength - but there is also the opportunity for little moments of comedy, when you can have a bit of fun with her, and I like bringing those in. There's a song, I'm Not That Girl, when Elphaba basically opens her heart. It's quite sad and it would be easy for the audience to feel sorry for her but we don't want them to feel pity. They need to see her strength, admire her integrity and understand where she is coming from. Humour helps with that."

It poses a special challenge for Mathers who agrees that Glinda, blonde, bubbly and always accompanied by a coterie of friends, could quickly become unlikeable. She plays her as a younger girl who matures during the course of the story and makes a tough but understandable decision.

"She redeems herself as the story progresses. The whole point is to move the audience, to make them come out and feel something."


Performance
What: Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz
Where and when: The Civic, from September 17

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