When the Wicked Production Team decided that New York should not be the only city to enjoy the magical story dreamed up by Gregory Maguire, there was only one location that would fit the bill… the beautiful art deco Apollo Victoria Theatre in South London. Staging a show in one of London’s biggest theatres was a risk and tickets initially went on sale for only a six month period. Sales began on Sunday 5th March 2006 and the team braced themselves to see what kind of demand there would be. The show had been a hit on Broadway for three years but could it be a success in London too? They soon had their answer. Ticket buyers braved freezing temperatures and started queueing at the Box Office from 6.30am buying up advance tickets that totalled £1,700,000 before an actor had even set foot on the stage. Producer Michael McCabe mused at the time “even with the phenomenal success of Wicked on Broadway, we really had no idea what to expect when tickets went on
sale here. In over 20 years, I have never seen such an incredible reaction as this – from day one. It really does seem that the idea of a new twist on a story everyone has known and loved for years has truly captured the public’s imagination”.
The public seemed keen (and no wonder with £5 preview tickets on offer!) but, as on Broadway, the initial reviews from the critics were harsh. Michael Billington, writing for The Guardian wrote in his three-star rated review that “although it has been a hit in New York, it seems all too typical of the modern Broadway musical: efficient, knowing and highly professional but more like a piece of industrial product than something that genuinely touches the heart or mind”. The Independent went a step further and stated in their review “I enjoyed very little … the acting is, by and large, appalling.”
Bad reviews had too often been a noose around the neck of a new musical but what the critics said, and they said plenty, did not seem to matter as Wicked was to reach new audiences in a totally different way… through word of mouth. Social networking sites and Internet forums were, and still are, a key component with people who had seen the show quick to type their enjoyment for the world to read. This new way of fan-led marketing has been a huge component to the shows success.
Many said it could not last but Wicked London is now celebrating it’s fifth year while it’s Broadway counterpart is nearly up to number eight. With the story of the Wizard of Oz so embedded into people’s minds, how could an alternative version have captured people’s hearts in such a way? Well, it has a simple, lovable story for people who might not be into musicals. It is very marketable and has widespread appeal to most people. It has teen appeal… every teenager can relate to the story as everyone can related to being left out or feeling different in some way, at some time in their life. The messages of the show are pretty simple. Don’t judge a book by its cover, Things aren’t always what they seem. People become the way they are because of other people. Audiences can relate to this. Stephen Schwartz’s score is also a key component, the show is full of memorable songs that stay with you when you are leaving the theatre. Many fans have been hooked on
the songs before they have even seen the show, thanks to Internet forums and You Tube. This is something that Wicked have been trying to clamp down on in the last year but if they were to produce a London cast Soundtrack CD then perhaps there would be less scope for illegal recordings? Just a thought…
Then there are the fans….. sneered at in some quarters by theatre purists who gleefully regale us with tales of teenagers with green faces and photograph albums rushing with their sleeping bags to the theatre when they hear a third cover will be performing. While it can sometimes get a little over the top with the “I’ve seen the show x more times than you”, fans are incredibly supportive to the cast and this continues when they leave the show and embark on new ventures. If I wasn’t for Wicked would I have booked to see Ashleigh Gray’s fantastic portrayal of a severed head (!) in “Betwixt!” Or would I have trekked all the way to Chichester to see Dianne Pilkington in the hilarious “She Loves Me”? No, and my life would have been less enriched as a result. Due to this Wicked is often talked of being a great “gateway musical”, a musical for people who claim they “don’t like” musicals and a perfect show to get the next generation passionate about theatre.
In this respect Wicked is a key component to the continued history of Broadway and Musical Theatre.
So what of the future? Well in the last five years two million people have walked through the doors of the Apollo Victoria theatre and the future looks very bright. It is booking until October 2012 and audiences show no sign of waining. This is thanks in part to the wonderful array of performers who have set foot on the stage. All have brought something new and unique to the roles and, unlike other shows, Wicked has never been about any one performer. The show is bigger than any individual and is always evolving and growing. I have seen the show many times but never get bored of watching it. I can’t describe why I like it so much, but it makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and I love the music. For two and a half hours hours, I’m transported to the magical world of Oz, far from the worries and gripes of my everyday life. It is pure escapism. I makes me happy and I walk out of every show smiling. I have seen amazing performers and have met amazing fans who
feel the same way I do about the show. Its one big happy family. As long as that continues I can see Wicked going for another five years, and beyond…