Wicked is a stage show that owes plenty to The Wizard of Oz. Producer Michael McCabe tells Kevin Bourke why it still intrigues audiences

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Pretty much everyone knows the story of The Wizard Of Oz, or at least the classic Judy Garland film version.

But the hugely entertaining musical Wicked, coming to Manchester this week after blockbusting success on Broadway and in the West End, ingeniously re-imagines the stories and characters originally created in 1900 by L Frank Baum in the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Set in the land Of Oz, in the years leading to Dorothy’s arrival, the story centres on Elphaba, the misunderstood, smart and fiery girl of emerald-green skin who grows up to become the notorious Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, the beautiful, blonde, popular girl who grows up to become Glinda the Good Witch of the North.

“With most musicals based on famous films or whatever, you know what’s going to happen at the end before it starts and, largely, people go to those shows precisely because they love that sense of familiarity,” believes producer Michael McCabe.

“The success of Wicked is very much based on not knowing what’s going to happen, and being prepared to look at things another way. If you have an affection for The Wizard Of Oz, then I think it’s very respectful of that story, as is Gregory Maguire, the writer of the novel that inspired this show. But he was also intrigued by the general idea of ‘what if someone isn’t what you imagine?’ He focused on the Wicked Witch of the West and said ‘wouldn’t it be extraordinary to discover that it was someone else needing you to think that she was wicked but that she is actually a rather good person?’

“It allows an audience to be on the edge of their seat and wonder what surprises are coming.
“It’s very funny too and it’s interesting that people sometimes think it’s going to be a very dark show. A lot of the humour comes from The Wizard of Oz story but we always say that you don’t need to know The Wizard of Oz to enjoy Wicked – you just need to know that there was a good witch and a bad witch – with a few other characters as well. The whole experience is very much about what plays out in front of you on our stage.”

But surely that element of surprise, fun though it may be, isn’t enough on its own to explain the sort of huge success the show enjoys? Even before the UK tour, there were already six productions playing concurrently around the world, including its tenth anniversary year on Broadway.

“It’s still a great story packaged up in a big old lavish production and of course that’s also a big part of why people love it. Right now, in challenged financial times, if people spend their money on going to the theatre, they want to see where that money goes and I think Wicked has always been able to deliver that big experience.”

Ålthough a film adaptation is still on the cards – and earlier this year Universal indicated that the success of the Les Misérables film means that might happen sooner rather than later – ironically, producers have been waiting for a dip in the stage musical’s earnings before, ahem, “green-lighting” a cinematic outing.

“It’s a huge show to tour and we’re maintaining not just a successful London show but an international brand,” acknowledges McCabe. “So for an audience, we have to deliver on the expectation of everything that they’ve heard.

“When The Wizard of Oz stage production came to the West End, we weren’t quite sure how to view that. But as it transpired, lots of people went to see that and then wanted to see Wicked straight afterwards.

“This is a story that’s endured since the book was written and it’s always been a story that people have loved. Reimagining and retelling that story is great and the more interest there is in that story, the better for all of us.”

Wicked, 12 Sept-16 Nov, Palace Theatre, Manchester

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