Everyone knows the story of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is transported to the magical land of Oz, where she skips down the yellow brick road with a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man, before defeating the Wicked Witch of the West.
Right? Well, that’s just one side of the story. The other side is told by the musical Wicked, based on a parallel novel to the classic 1939 film.
Gregor Maguire’s Wicked, published in 1995, was turned into a musical which is now coming to Birmingham.
The plot begins before and continues after Dorothy’s arrival in Oz from Kansas and tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba and Glinda, who meet as sorcery students. Elphaba is bright green but far from the wicked witch she was later to be portrayed as.
With memorable, clever songs like Defying Gravity and Popular, Wicked has won 90 awards.
It’s coming up to its 10th anniversary, having premiered on Broadway in October 2003. It’s been seen by 36 million people globally and there are six productions running at once around the world, including the West End show which began in 2006.
Now it’s coming to Birmingham Hippodrome next year for nine weeks over the summer.
Backstage at the West End production of Wicked, I discover a remote controlled wheelchair, a giant Oz head, a line of monkey masks and a bright green baby.
And among the treasure trove of weird and wonderful objects is Glinda’s amazing Cinderella-type sparkly dress.
It has so many sequins – almost 100,000 of 20 different types – that she sheds some at every performance, so a man comes in four days a week just to sew them on again.
The show has 38 cast members and 200 people working backstage, especially in the wardrobe department.
The lavish fabrics, incredible embroidery and beading and attention to detail of the Wicked costumes is extraordinary.
One dress worn by teacher Madame Morrible costs £25,000 alone, while Elphaba’s heavily embroidered Wicked Witch dress cost £5,000 per square metre. There are almost 50 layers of gathered ruffles in the skirt and 29 different fabrics used in the bodice.
Many of the fabrics are specially commissioned for the show. The gold epaulettes for our hero Fiyero’s captain of the guard uniform are specially made in Germany.
I discover Elphaba uses three brooms in the show – she fights with one, flies on one and then has a broom for everyday use.
The Wizard of Oz is a perennial holiday favourite on TV and this year Sam Raimi made a big screen prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams.
So what is the continuing appeal of the land of Oz?
“It’s an enduring story, first published by L Frank Baum in 1900,” says Wicked’s executive producer Michael McCabe.
“The Wizard of Oz is a classic that gets passed down through the generations, as it’s still shown so much on TV.
“What Wicked does is to take that story which everyone knows and loves and turn it on its head. The only premise is that you don’t know what was really going on in Oz.
“What if a character we all know, this evil arch enemy, wasn’t really wicked? What if that was something people simply wanted you to believe?
“The Wicked Witch of the West is only on screen in the Wizard of Oz for eleven minutes, but has become this incredible iconic figure of evil. I was terrified of her as a child!
“But Wicked suggests she’s actually a good person. The first time we meet Elphaba, this young and hopeful girl, you think ‘How does this lovely child end up as a wicked witch?’
“It’s full of surprises and you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end.
“There are so many film to stage adaptations about at the moment, but when you take your seat at Wicked, you really don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s refreshing.”
Michael, who has also worked on Sweeney Todd and Mamma Mia, talks about the challenge of putting on Wicked in different countries and embarking on its first UK tour.
“Each production in the world is slightly different, because of the size and shape of the stage. We also make some changes in language in this show to make it British – a chalkboard becomes a blackboard, for example. All the characters are British apart from the Wizard, because he comes from Kansas.
“For the tour, we’re working on the best version we can. It will still be as spectacular with as many bells and whistles as we can fit in. The same costumes will be on the tour as the West End show and they are extraordinary – every single one is a work of art. Packing and transporting them is one of our great challenges, as they are so big but we can’t flatten them.
“There is some flying involved, but Wicked is much more about the storytelling than special effects. At its heart,
“Wicked is about the strength of friendship between two women – that’s a big part of its appeal. Everyone hopes to make a truly good, lasting friendship and that touches people. It’s a universal theme that people connect with.
“Audiences are surprised that Wicked is so emotional and funny, especially with all the clever references to the Wizard of Oz.
“There’s a lot of joy and a lot of humour in it. People want to take away memories from a show, they want something that’s unforgettable. And at Wicked they feel emotions on many levels as well as enjoying the sheer spectacle.”
* Tickets go on sale on Monday for Wicked, which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from July 9 to September 6 2014. Ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com