The blockbuster musical Wicked aims to bewitch Chicago, the city where Oz was born
It was inevitable, really, that Wicked would find a home in Chicago. This is, after all, where it began.
Well, not Wicked the musical, per se, which descended on Broadway in 2003 with all the force of a cyclone, its witch-grrrl–bonding book and power-ballad score setting ticket-sales records in the process. Its first landing in Chicago happens Friday 29, when a touring company arrives at the Oriental Theatre for a seven-week run. Then in late June, a resident cast, headed by Northwestern U. and Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer, will take the stage for an open-ended stay.
We're also not talking about the 1995 novel by author Gregory Maguire, a Massachusetts man with a genius idea: to write the biography of the ur-villain who (along with her gaggle of flying monkeys) haunted the nightmares of millions of 20th-century children. "Everyone else in Oz had a longing: for a heart, for a brain, for courage, for a way home," Maguire wrote shortly after Wicked evolved from printed page to musical stage. "Surely the Wicked Witch of the West wanted something other than shoes. What was it? Vengeance? Justice? Love? An accompanist?"
No, when we say, "where it began," we're going all the way back to the very beginning, when Chicago laid out its own golden road for the man whose imagination still enthralls artists and audiences alike. Lured to Chicago from the Dakotas by a steady job and inspired by the White City of the 1893 World's Fair, L. Frank Baum—journalist and publisher, actor and playwright, traveling salesman and spinner of tall tales—created a sensation in the publishing world at the turn of the 19th century. Along with artist W.W. Denslow, Baum birthed a beautiful new species of children's literature. They combined innovative typesetting, whimsical illustrations and a bold use of color with unique characters and an unforgettable setting to create the first great American fantasy novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Radical for its time, the book was refused by a number of publishers. Baum and Denslow had paved the way with their successful 1899 effort Father Goose, His Stories, but no one had ever seen anything quite like the Wizard. Chicago publishing house George M. Hill consented to print and distribute the book only if Baum and Denslow absorbed the cost of the printing plates—a significant amount, considering their liberal use of color.
The book hit stores in the fall of 1900, and sales skyrocketed with the sudden force of a house ripped into the Kansas sky. It soon became clear that Wizard was a phenomenon, the Harry Potter of its day. The success consumed Baum's prolific writing life, and before his death in 1919, he had written 13 more Oz novels (almost one per year—take that, J.K. Rowling) as well as six Oz booklets for younger readers and 27 newspaper stories. His publisher hired new authors to keep the Oz franchise going for decades even after Baum's death.
But one adaptation reigns so supreme that many people forget about the other countless incarnations of Baum's imagination that have appeared in print, on stage and in film over the past century. In every way that counts, of course, MGM's 1939 musical (the first motion picture in Technicolor) redefined the land of Oz. Judy Garland and her three companions remain indelibly etched in our nation's collective consciousness—as does their nemesis.
If it weren't for Margaret Hamilton's horrifying voice and fierce chartreuse face, Wicked wouldn't even exist. The Witch in Baum's original book is a cipher, a peculiar minor character with three pigtails and an umbrella (a handy accessory for a woman who must avoid water). She isn't even green, and, more to the point, she isn't very threatening, either. As he admitted in his introduction to the book, Baum didn't want to give children nightmares. Clearly, the creatives at MGM had no such compunction—they knew a better villain would make for a better picture.
Hamilton, ironically, was a onetime kindergarten teacher who loved children. But that didn't stop her from stealing the show in one of filmdom's greatest depictions of villainy. "Out of the [movie's] 90 minutes, Margaret Hamilton's lovely, craggy, green features are actually on screen for [only] 12, but her influence permeates the story," Maguire says. "She has a marvelous cackle, and she had more energy than anyone else. There was a lot of movement in that movie, but she was the most like a force of nature. When she melted, something kind of melted out of the movie, too."
So, if the Witch is so compelling—well, she must have an interesting life story in the years before Dorothy, right? Thus, credit for the most exciting and successful addition to the Oz canon in many years belongs to Maguire, who took a brilliant idea and executed it masterfully with his novel.
The notion germinated while the first Gulf War roiled. After he read British press accounts comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, Maguire began to mull the nature of evil and considered writing a novel about Hitler. "'Wicked' and 'Hitler' have the same number of syllables, the same number of letters and the same vowels in the same order," he muses. Still, a novel about the Fuhrer seemed too loaded. Then he asked himself an inspired question: What about the Witch? For such a powerful pop-cultural force, she remains a mystery—after all, we don't even know her true proper name. "Gee, she's called 'Wicked,'" Maguire says, recalling his brainstorm. "It's even capitalized. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows a thing about her. And I thought, 'Wow, that's an idea.'"
Clearly, others agree. Several years later, as soon as Tony-nominated composer Stephen Schwartz heard about the striking premise from a friend who owned the book, "I had a little epiphany," he says. He immediately instructed his lawyer to find out who owned the rights; then he found a copy and read it.
For fans of Maguire's discursive novel, the Oz on stage won't be quite what they discovered on the page—but of course, Wicked's Oz was a far cry from Baum's or MGM's. "I don't want to give away too much [about the musical]," says Maguire, who will be in town May 10 to read from his next novel, Son of a Witch (a follow-up to Wicked), due out in September. "I will say the tone is different. The tone of my novel, one might say, was of a deep, dark, romantic, tragic opera. You might say it's like Tristan and Isolde, whereas it's been converted into something more like a Mozart comic operetta. All the dark themes of the story are present, but there are also lighter tones and more comic touches."
As with the original book and the '39 film, the visuals in Oz are key. The design elements for this $14 million musical borrow from the imaginations of Baum, Denslow and MGM, of course, but also from another source: Douglas Smith's striking ink-on-scratchboard illustrations for Maguire's novel. The beautifully detailed drawings, resembling gothic woodcuts, not only help the book pop off store shelves; they also help establish the darker mood. And now they've influenced a set design, with elements like a mechanical dragon, which warns Wicked virgins: This is not the Oz you knew as a youth.
In Maguire's Munchkinland—part of a land rife with religious strife and political machinations—a young girl, born with green skin, is shunned as a freak. Named Elphaba by her parents (a name that echoes the initials of L. Frank Baum), the girl grows into a woman who decides to fight a corrupt government. In Baum's Oz, the Wizard is merely a humbug; in Maguire's, he's a devilish oligarch.
That twist, though crafted more than ten years ago, takes on even more potent meaning for some during these days of war. "You know, the Wizard has a line in the show: 'The best way to bring people together is to have a really good enemy.' I think that sums up a lot," says Stephanie J. Block, who plays Elphaba in the touring cast. "The people of Oz felt safe knowing there was one person, one reason, why all bad things happen. In truth, that isn't the case, but it makes people feel more secure.
"It's a very smart and timely piece," Block says. "After 9/11, I think there were a lot of careful decisions made by the creative staff. There's a great statement here, and they didn't want to ignore it. That's another reason why this story works on so many levels."
So some people see a parable for our times, with a freedom fighter taking on a corrupt regime. (U.S. or Iraq? You decide.) Others simply enjoy a new visit to the wonderland they cherish from their youth, while some of the musical's ardent female fan base are drawn to the complex friendship of the women at the story's center: Elphaba the misfit goth girl and Galinda (later, Glinda) the sunny sorority lass.
"You can't put a whole novel on stage, needless to say," Schwartz points out. "[Librettist] Winnie Holzman and I had to figure out what the show was going to concentrate on, and we discovered the relationship between the two women," who begin their unlikely relationship in college.
Maguire says he appreciates all the jiggering—even with the one change he initially frowned upon: a love triangle between Elphaba, Glinda and the man they both love, Fiyero. "I thought that would be a little obvious," he says, "a standard love triangle where the man has to choose between two very different women, or somebody comes between two friends. I chose not to do that in the book; they chose to highlight that as a central part of the story. I approve of that; I think it works perfectly well on the stage."
Schwartz (the composer of Godspell and Pippin) and Holzman (writer for My So-Called Life and thirtysomething) must have known what they were doing. The juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down in New York, and furthermore, very few productions set up permanent companies with Broadway-sized budgets beyond the Great White Way. Local observers have long believed that, with the right show, Windy City audiences could rise up and support many months, even years, of a top-notch production.
Baum could tell you: Oz is the story, Chicago the place. After all, he helped with the very first successful adaptation of his book, a wildly popular 1902 musical extravaganza that opened at Chicago's Grand Opera House and became one of the first shows to successfully graduate to Broadway.
So of course Wicked is moving in here. This is where it all began. And, as Dorothy taught us, "There's no place like home."
Wicked opens Friday 29 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. See Theater for more information.
Baumin' 'round town
Follow your own yellow-brick road of local Oz history
Though Lyman Frank Baum was born in upstate New York and died in California (at Ozcot, his California estate), the well-traveled author lived in Chicago for 19 years, the bulk of his prolific writing life. He moved here with his wife and sons in 1891 after a failed attempt to run a general-goods store and a newspaper in the Dakota Territory. Just as Dorothy finds Oz a revelation after her monotonous Kansas childhood, vibrant Chicago opened Baum's eyes to a new career path after his failings in the West.
As the city geared up for its ambitious Columbian Exposition and World's Fair in 1893, Baum took a job reporting for the Chicago Evening Post. Many biographers speculate that the sights of the fabled White City in Jackson Park fueled Baum's vision of Emerald City. Not built to last, most of the buildings for the fair were torn down decades ago, though the Museum of Science and Industry (5700 S Lake Shore Dr at 57th St; 773-684-1414) still stands proud along the lakefront.
Always an enthusiastic spinner of tall tales, especially for children, Baum hadn't thought to try his hand at children's books until his mother-in-law—women's suffrage activist Matilda Joslyn Gage—encouraged him. He met his first collaborator, illustrator William Wallace Denslow, at the Chicago Press Club, and Baum took an office at the Fine Arts Building (410 S Michigan Ave between Congress Pkwy and Van Buren St). Their first big success, 1899's Father Goose, His Stories, enabled Baum to move into a bigger house at 1667 N Humboldt Blvd (between North and Wabansia Aves). Shortsighted Chicago, never as preservation-minded regarding cultural and architectural landmarks as it should be, allowed the Baum home to be razed years ago, but a historical marker at that address commemorates the birthplace of Oz.
Today, the biggest public monument to his legacy is the 13-acre Oz Park, so named in 1976. The Tin Man, the first of three statues that add immeasurably to the park's character, arrived in 1995; he stands guard at the northeast corner of Lincoln and Webster Avenues. John Kearney sculpted him out of chrome automobile parts. In 2001, the Cowardly Lion arrived; the Scarecrow is due in June. (See Out There for more on Kearney and his latest work.)
Three Chicago institutions maintain small collections of Baum and Oz memorabilia. At the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S State St between Congress Pkwy and Van Buren St, 312-747-4875), the ninth-floor exhibit, "Theater That Works: A Chicago Story," includes memorabilia from the first Oz adaptation, The Wizard of Oz, which premiered in 1902 at the Grand Opera House ("The only theatre with elevators to second balcony," trumpets an ad). The library's special collections department also has rare early copies of many of Baum's books.
Meanwhile, at the Chicago Historical Society (1601 N Clark St at North Ave, 312-642-4600), you can find a variety of gems, including some of his books, lithographs of ads for the books (featuring artwork of Denslow's) and the script to a play by Baum and Edith Ogden Harrison (the mayor's wife). A 1969 copy of The Baum Bugle fanzine reveals the history of the name of his most famous creation (reprinted from a 1904 interview with Baum): "Well, I have a little cabinet file on the desk just before me. I was thinking and wondering about a title and had settled on 'Wizard' as part of it. My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first was A-G, the second H-N, and on the last were O-Z...the missing link for my title."
Finally, the Newberry Library (60 W Walton St between Dearborn and Clark Sts, 312-255-3610) holds a collection of papers from Eunice Tietjens, wife of Paul Tietjens, the composer of the 1902 "musical extravaganza." There you can find curiosities like a letter from Baum to the Tietjens, or a sample of sheet music from the musical. Song titles include the logical "Just a Simple Girl From the Prairie" and "Poppy Song," not to mention the more puzzling "The Traveler and the Pie" and "The Different Ways of Making Love."
The Newberry also has the holy grail: a first edition of Baum and Denslow's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. All that's required to peruse the novel in the special-collections reading room is a photo ID.—Web Behrens