Stephen Schwartz goes to see Wicked every six months. The Broadway mega-hit, for which Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, has been packing the Gershwin Theatre since 2003, and Schwartz and other members of the original creative team make a point to visit and give notes once a new cast has had time to settle into Oz. “We’re pretty obdurate about trying to maintain the show and remember that people who are paying the ludicrous amount of money one pays for ticket prices these days deserve to see the show as if it’s brand new,” Schwartz says. “Many of them are seeing it for the first time, and we have a responsibility to them.”
His dedication Wicked and its fans, still as fresh as it was when the show opened 14 years ago, has lead the musical to an exciting new chapter as it prepares to make the leap to the big screen with a much-anticipated film adaptation.
With the musical still thriving on Broadway and Hollywood on the horizon, Schwartz looks back at his early days with the witches of Oz and forward to what’s in store for the film.
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On how Wicked the musical came to be:
“I learned about the book Wicked in the most random possible way. [I went] on a last minute vacation trip to visit a friend, and some other friends were there. We went out snorkeling, and one of them, the folk singer Holly Near, said, ‘Oh, I’m reading this really interesting book […] called Wicked, and it’s kind of the Oz story from the Wicked Witch’s point of view.’ I wasn’t aware of the book, but it just sounded like the best idea to me of all time. But it took so many sort of random events for me to be there and for Holly to say that just to kill time while we were riding on a boat back to shore. So, yes. That was lucky.
“I called my lawyer, and I said, ‘There’s this book. It’s called Wicked. It’s been out for a while because my friend just read it in paperback. Somebody has the rights. I think this is for me. Please find out who has the rights. I’m going to get the book.’ I knew I was going to do it before I read the book.”
On what he wrote first:
“Right when I first was trying to get the rights to do it as a stage musical, before [librettist] Winnie [Holzman] even came into it, I made an outline of what I thought could be the way the show developed, and virtually everything about that outline changed except the opening, the end of the first act, and the end of the show. They stayed the same. How we carried it out and the specifics changed, but opening with basically doing ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ but for the Wicked Witch of the West, that the end of the first act would be when she flew for the first time and kind of became the Wicked Witch, and then the end of the show—which, for the three people who haven’t seen it yet I won’t spoil—but the twist at the end of the show always stayed the same.
“Unusually for me—because I almost never begin with an opening number—I wrote a version of the opening number [first], although, it changed enormously as the show continued to be developed. But it was always called ‘No One Mourns the Wicked,’ and it always started with the celebration of the death of the Wicked Witch. So that remained the same from the get go.”
On which song was easiest to write:
“‘Popular’ was really easy, and basically what is on the stage is essentially what I wrote. The scene in between and the little stuff like that, that got added as we developed it in rehearsal, but the song itself wrote fast. I think I wrote it in, like, a day or so.”
On which song was hardest to write:
“The song ‘What Is This Feeling?’—the angry roommate song—the song that’s now in the show was my fifth try on that song. I could not solve it, and I kept trying. And it was eventually Winnie who had the idea of doing a hate-at-first-sight song and flipping those ‘Ten minutes ago I saw you’ songs on their head. Once that idea was there, it was easier to solve, but I floundered around with that for along time.”
On what he’s proudest of:
“It was so challenging to work out the plot of that show. There is so much plot, first of all in the novel and then in the show itself, and there were things Winnie and I and subsequently [producers] Marc Platt [and David Stone] and [director] Joe Mantello wanted to do in the story that weren’t in the novel, so we were adding things. And to figure out what to leave in, what to take out, what order of events, how to structure that show was enormously challenging, and I’m proud of the fact that I feel we were ultimately able to do that.”
On Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth’s legacy:
“I think the advantage of now doing the movie is you don’t expect to see the actresses who played the original roles doing the movie 15 years later. But, on the other hand, both of those women were so great that whoever does those roles is going to have to measure up and find her own way to be special.”
On approaching Wicked as a film:
“You can move much more quickly in film. A single close-up can tell you something that you need a page of dialogue or two verses of a song to tell you [in theatre]. You can do something that’s in a location for 30 seconds, and that’s really all you need of that location, and then move on; whereas onstage, obviously, that’s not a realistic way to go about things. One has to think about specific stagecraft. And I think there’s a way with the film, if we do it successfully, of getting a little deeper into some of the characters who are sketched in a bit more in the show. So it’s a great opportunity for us.
“There are things we talked about in the show that ultimately we abandoned because we couldn’t figure out how to make them work onstage, and then on the other hand there are things that are just natural for the stage that are going to be difficult for the film. Somebody just standing in the middle of the stage and singing and not moving and nothing really happening but them singing their inner thoughts—can’t really do that in a movie. There’s a reason they’re called motion pictures. The pictures have to be in motion somehow. Rotating the camera around and around the actor, though I see movies do that out of desperation sometimes, it’s not a good plan if you can help it.”
On Elphaba’s crystal ball:
“In the movie of The Wizard of Oz, of course, Elphaba has this crystal ball that functions in many ways. We had some ideas of ways we wanted to use the crystal ball, and in early versions of the show when you were just reading it, it was in there. Then when we were getting closer to production, [director] Joe Mantello said, ‘Guys, how do I do this in a 1700-seat theatre? If it’s big enough so that people can see what’s in it from the balcony, it’s going to look ridiculous, and if it’s the right size, nobody’s going to be able to see it from more than ten rows back. So, that’s going to have to go.’
“Obviously in the movie, there it is, so we’re back to figuring out ways that it’s going to figure more significantly into the story. She’s going to discover things in the crystal ball that we just couldn’t do onstage.”
Want to know how Elphaba gets greenified? Watch the video below: