Stephen Schwartz, Joe Mantello and WICKED Cast Talk London 10th Anniversary, Movie & More
Wicked held a special gala performance last night at the Apollo Victoria Theatre to mark 10 years in the West End - a milestone guaranteed to make many in the industry green with envy. Current stars Rachel Tucker, Suzie Mathers, Anita Dobson, Oliver Savile and Mark Curry performed for an audience packed with past Elphabas and Glindas, as well as the original creative team, including composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
No pressure, then. "That was the most nerve-wracking thing," said Savile, who plays Fiyero, speaking to BroadwayWorld after the performance. "The fact that those people are all ex-cast members who know the show, they're maybe second-guessing... You're really excited to show everybody what you've been doing, but also thinking 'Oh god, I hope I get this right'."
The current London cast certainly impressed Schwartz. "I had seen Rachel of course in New York, and Suzie I actually saw in New Zealand - and I thought she was so great I recommended her to the casting office here in London. But the others I'm seeing for the first time. I thought the Fiyero was really good: he found a lot of richness in the role that sometimes some of our Fiyeros missed. I like our Boq, and a couple of people returning who'd been in the original: [Martin Ball as] Doctor Dillamond, [Katie Rowley Jones as] Nessarose. That was very nostalgic.
"It was a great night, it was fun to see the show here again, and I thought the show was still in very good shape, I'm happy to say! And it was lovely to be surrounded by so many collaborators who were there at the beginning - all us together created the show, so it was nice to be able to celebrate it with them."
Schwartz paid tribute to those collaborators in his curtain call speech, finishing with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum and Wicked novelist Gregory Maguire, the latter "whose genius idea for this story came to him when he was London". The UK was special for the musical too, Schwartz noted, because it was the first transfer post-Broadway and where the creative team could come together "and fix a few things. We then put those changes in all the other productions, so the UK was really the premiere of the final production of Wicked."
Schwartz's speech followed thanks from leading ladies Tucker and Mathers for the audience support, ATG for their refurbishment of the theatre, and a decade's worth of Wicked performers in the West End and on the UK and Ireland tour - dozens of whom, including Kerry Ellis, Louise Dearman and Oliver Tompsett, joined the current team onstage. Surveying the rows of beaming musical theatre luminaries, Tucker - whose exceptional Elphaba was characterised by dry wit as well as soaring vocals - quipped "It's just like my wedding day all over again," before thanking every one "for the invaluable contribution" they'd made to this journey.
Wicked is now the eighth longest running show currently playing in the West End, with over 4,000 performances to nearly eight million people, and will overtake Miss Saigon to become the 18th longest running show in West End history this November.
Mathers was thrilled to be performing at this "massive event - it's a privilege for us to be part of the celebration". She too felt the pressure of having "all our predecessors in the audience, but it was very exciting". Tucker had a strategy for handling the pressure: "I had a talk with myself in the dressing room and in the wings - 'Grow up, put the nerves aside, and do my show.'" Mathers agreed: "Just tell the story. If you anchor yourself to the story, it's just another Tuesday night."
Tucker did enjoy iconic number "Defying Gravity" an extra 10%, she recalled, as "the audience were so behind me - we could hear a pin drop at certain points. Just to make a crowd make that noise, it's incredible." She was delighted to return to the part, following a first West End run in 2010-12 and recent Broadway reprisal, saying her Elphaba had become "deeper and more layered. I know her better now. It's great to come back and revisit a role, because you find out more stuff about her."
Both actresses have recently played their roles with an American accent, though Mathers said "if you asked me to do it in American now, I'm not sure I could. It's now so embodied in English. It changes the character a little bit and you find new things with a new accent, especially for me, never having done it [in London] before." Tucker found the overall production experience similar to Broadway: "It's the same brilliant machine, but done slightly differently with the accents and staging."
However, all the performers appreciated their degree of freedom to experiment, encouraged by Schwartz. "That's the thing that makes it fun," he explained. "It's a show which is open to the actors' interpretation. Obviously they're saying the same lines, they're doing the same staging, but I like that each actor or actress is able to bring his or her own special interpretation and nuance to the role. It isn't just one of those cookie-cutter productions where someone leaves and someone is put in and it's a bit robotic. I like that each of our characters brings something of his or her own, and it makes it fun for me to see it."
Savile was delighted to have new input from the American team. "We've just had [choreographer] Wayne Cilento and [director] Joe Mantello over for a work session. That doesn't happen, especially Joe coming from Broadway - to have that original direction is incredible. They had some great ideas, stuff you don't think of. It's going to evolve over the year, and that's why I stayed - there's stuff I'm still discovering." Tucker was also pleased to have input from the original team: "It's brilliant having them on tap because it's the 10th anniversary, and we're so proud - it's huge."
Mantello noted that longevity was no sure thing when the show first opened to "a very divided critical reception - some got it right out of the gate, some just didn't. I'm always amazed it's still around. But somehow it touched a chord with audiences in a way that I've never experienced before or since. My great associate Lisa Leguillou has seen it thousands of times I'm sure, sometimes it's strong, sometimes it's not as strong, but at the end the response is always the same. She always says to me: 'You can't kill it'."
Mantello echoed Stephen's thoughts on the importance of the London production to the show's development. "When we made it in London, we had an opportunity to really reflect on what we'd made in New York and to go back and tinker with it, to detail it. There was this big hat that used to start the show, right when the monkeys were revealed - we did all this work on it. We changed a lot of the choreography for 'Dancing Through Life', really went back to drawing board. Certainly the opening of it was very different.
"So I call the London production the jewel in our crown. There's something about the proportion of the stage and it's beautifully maintained - I look forward to it every year, truly." He recalled the romanticism of coming to London from America: "We rehearsed at Bromley-by-Bow, so it was this long journey there, long journey back, and it was a beautiful summer, and a wonderful company. It was a magical time."
He's noticed that, during the past 10 years, West End audiences have grown more American in demonstrating their appreciation. "At first the audience seemed less effusive, but as the fanbase has grown, you get the same sort of thing where people applaud at entrances, or fans waiting at the stage door. I was told when we started 'Oh, they don't go and wait'. Over the years, that's really changed." Savile described the fan response as "amazing", noting the queue stretched from the stage door down the whole length of the theatre on gala night. He also receives loads of fan art, "and I love it!"
Willemijn Verkaik, who has played Elphaba in the West End, on Broadway and in Germany and Holland, returns to the part in London from January 2017. She believes part of its appeal is "the warm, loving energy. People come out feeling stronger and proud of who they are." She praised the "amazing" Tucker, who conveyed Elphaba's "strength, fighting with everything you've got. I'm so proud of her, and proud to be going on that stage again."
Verkaik said all the Wicked girls share a bond - "we're green sisters!" - and former Glinda Savannah Stevenson agreed. "It's been so lovely to see Willemijn - in fact she's coming back to stay with me tonight! There's a really special connection when you play those roles together."
Mathers said she found that bond with Tucker "from day one", and saluted the "girl power" of a (sadly, still unusual) musical anchored by a friendship between two strong women. "Everyone can relate to it. Even though it's set in Oz, these are real-life themes. The writing is incredible, and that gives it real heart."
Some themes seem particularly pertinent in the current climate, particularly following a fractious US Presidential debate: the scapegoating of minorities, pandering to and deceiving the public, intolerance of difference, focus on appearances, and the tearing down of a strong woman. Stephen admitted "every time we have an election, the wizard changes in my mind", and agreed that the slippery figure could "definitely" be read as Trump at the moment.
Next up for Wicked is the long-anticipated movie adaptation. Schwartz said they have "a pretty good outline of what the movie is going to be and how we're going to reconceive the material for the screen. It's actually a lot of fun for us, and very exciting. The director of the film, Stephen Daldry, was here tonight, and we've been beginning work with him. So yeah, it's under way. We're a few years away obviously, but work has definitely begun."
There's no word on casting yet - "we want to get further down the line in terms of what the roles really call for. Maybe in a year or so we'll start thinking about casting". But one thing is nailed down: "There will be new songs going in for sure."
In the meantime, Wicked the stage show isn't going anywhere, believes Savile. "It's a spectacle, the story's amazing, and you really care about the characters. Shows opening now have such a hard deal. They got the timing bang on, and people come back again and again."
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton