‘They changed my ending, I felt aghast’: how we made Wicked

‘I once performed Defying Gravity at the White House within spitting distance of the Obamas,’ says Idina Menzel. ‘In fact, I might actually have spat on them’

Gregory Maguire, writer of the novel

I’d played with the story of The Wizard of Oz since my childhood in the US when I would arrange theatrical events in our back yard. I was the impresario. My brothers, sisters and friends were assigned roles and we’d have The Wicked Witch of the West fall in love with Captain Hook.

When I moved to London in the early 1990s, I was rather lonely and isolated. Then the terrible murder of James Bulger happened and it was discovered that children had killed him. Everyone was asking: how could those boys be so villainous? Were they born evil or were there circumstances that pushed them towards behaving like that? It propelled me back to the question of evil that bedevils anybody raised Catholic.

No one says how The Wicked Witch of the West became as she was. She’s just bad. I decided to tell her life as if Dickens was doing it. My novel would start with her birth, end with her death and have a 19th-century moral urgency. Within the first couple of days I got her name. I wanted to pay homage to The Wizard of Oz novelist L Frank Baum: LFB – Elphaba! It’s clean and simple, but not pretty, and with connotations of otherworldliness. Even though I didn’t anticipate that Wicked would become a musical, I thought Elphaba had to be able to sing in the novel. When writing, I cast the characters in my head so I could picture them: for Elphaba I cast kd lang.

‘Universal wanted in’ … Gregory Maguire.
‘Universal wanted in’ … Gregory Maguire.
Photograph: Joseph Marzullo/Wenn Rights Ltd/Alamy

The calls from Hollywood came within a week of publication. Whoopi Goldberg called, Demi Moore called. Universal developed it as a film for a while but weren’t getting satisfactory scripts. This was before The Lord of the Rings, before Harry Potter. The studio was scared about paying $100m to make a fantasy movie with no big male roles.

Then composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz met Universal executive Marc Platt and said the reason you’re not getting a good script for this is because everyone knows that people in Oz sing. A straight film is not going to hit the heart like a musical does. Bankrolling a Broadway play is also a lot cheaper than a big movie – and all the film studios were watching Disney mint money on the stage with The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Universal wanted in.

Stephen understood what the book is about: identifying with someone who was ostracised. He said the first number would be called No One Mourns the Wicked. With those words, he sold the project to me. He knew I had not written Wicked to be a parody of The Wizard of Oz but that I wanted to honour and unpack that story instead. The biggest change they made was to my ending. I felt a little aghast but came around to it because the messages remain the same: time is short, cherish who you love, and what you do matters.

Idina Menzel, played Elphaba

When we first tried out Elphaba’s green makeup, I went to show the rest of the cast and everyone was gawking at me – all of a sudden I felt isolated, which was helpful for her characterisation. Originally, the makeup was an airbrush spray, but that would have been kind of toxic for eight shows a week so we chose a different product and used brushes. The ritual of putting on my makeup became meditative, something soothing before going on.

‘I could relate to Elphaba’s anti-social behaviour’ … Menzel as Elphaba with Helen Dallimore as Glinda.
‘I could relate to Elphaba’s anti-social behaviour’ … Menzel as Elphaba with Helen Dallimore as Glinda. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Women can be trepidatious about leaning into our full power and rage. We are taught to repress it. Elphaba has all of that inside her and is trying to navigate her pain. I can be very sensitive and afraid of my own anger, afraid of expressing myself for fear of pushing people away. I could relate to Elphaba’s antisocial behaviour and to her being reclusive. As much as I’m a performer and I work in the spotlight, there’s another side to me that is quieter and likes to be wrapped up at home.

It’s thrilling to create a brand new musical and awe-inspiring to see what the creative people do to make a show come to life. The flying was exciting but also scary, complex and distracting to my singing. Doing the show in London, after Broadway, was wonderful. I’d dreamed my whole life of being in a West End play and I was able to feel more relaxed because I’d done it in New York and knew how it affected people. Also, I knew I probably wasn’t going to get fired!

Everyone had said British audiences would be more reserved but it was the total opposite – a love fest. The Brits and Aussies in the cast were very adept at learning how to perform at a high level but also enjoy themselves after the show. They were very good at educating me on how to do that. I think I was a little high strung in New York.

I never tire of the number Defying Gravity and get to revisit it when I perform my own show around the world. Singing that song, I step back into the shoes of that character but also see where I am at. What am I going through, how do I still need to empower myself? I once performed it at the White House in front of President Obama, the first lady and their daughters. They were within spitting distance – I might even have actually spat on them. It takes a lot of air and breath and saliva to get those notes out.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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