The best in the West

Despite a few mediocre reviews early, "Wicked" has generally been applauded by most critics and unab
Marcie Dodd plays Elphaha, the Wicked Witch of the West in the musical “Wicked,†which opens Wednesday evening at Proctors for a month-long run.
Marcie Dodd plays Elphaha, the Wicked Witch of the West in the musical “Wicked,†which opens Wednesday evening at Proctors for a month-long run.

As beautiful and as talented as Idina Menzel is, there was something else going on that night in May 2003 when “Wicked” was welcomed to the world at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

“It’s a tradition that you interrupt the proceedings to applaud the two stars when they first appear on stage,” said Gregory Maguire, an Albany native whose novel was turned into “Wicked,” the 2004 Broadway smash that made huge stars out of Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth.

“When Idina walked out for that very first performance as the Wicked Witch of the West, she was greeted with even warmer applause than you might expect. She hadn’t done anything yet. She hadn’t opened up that beautiful mouth and used that glorious voice. They weren’t applauding her. It was the character. The witch. The audience understood. They got it at the very first instant. They were on her side. I thought to myself, ‘This will have to be pretty bad to fail.’ ”

It turned out to be pretty good. Magnificent, actually. Despite a few mediocre reviews early, it has generally been applauded by most critics and unabashedly embraced by its audience, making it, by some accounts, Broadway’s biggest box-office event ever. On Wednesday night at Proctors, the national touring production company begins its nearly month-long stay in Schenectady with an 8 p.m. performance. Marcie Dodd will play Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Heléne Yorke is Glinda, the Good Witch.

The story was the brainstorm of Maguire, who in 1995 came out with the novel, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” The book was the prequel to the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz,” which had been based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s story from 1900, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” In Maguire’s tale, the Wizard isn’t so wonderful, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, isn’t so wicked.


WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Tuesday, through Jan. 3. Performance times vary

HOW MUCH: $30-$147.75

MORE INFO: 346-6204 or

“I loved it unabashedly and unintellectually as a kid, but as I dug deeper into the story, like so many Americans have done in the 100 years since Baum wrote the story, I started asking myself why it’s remained so popular,” said Maguire. “I started examining what was good about the story and what was flawed. I thought there was great virtue in how the story was told, but also a few drawbacks.”

Plot discrepancies

What Maguire couldn’t understand was why Dorothy had to kill the Wicked Witch, and why the Wizard, a somewhat dubious character in Maguire’s view, comes away unscathed.

“He actually tells Dorothy, ‘I’m a bad wizard,’ she buys it and that’s the end of the moral indignation,” said Maguire. “To me, I’m wondering why Dorothy and her friends had to risk their lives for this guy who is a colossal liar.”

As Maguire came down harder on the Wizard in his novel, he subsequently had to lighten up on the Wicked Witch. Elphaba wasn’t always so evil, according to Maguire. Her story is generally what the novel is about as well as the musical adaptation of Maguire’s story put together by Stephen Schwartz (composer-lyricist), Winnie Holzman (book writer) and Marc Platt (producer). That trio, however, did change a few things about Maguire’s book, with his blessing.

“They asked me a few very limited questions, like ‘How do you pronounce Elphaba?’ and I was glad to help make sure they got it right,” said Maguire. “When I initially signed the contract to give them the rights, I could have had complete control or the right to veto any aspect of the show, but I didn’t insist on that. I thought a person who is working on a piece of art shouldn’t be shackled by the ego needs of somebody else. I wasn’t shackled by L. Frank Baum. When I wanted to work magic with his story, I was able to do it. I didn’t want to be like a hurdle that these other artists had to worry about. I just thought it was better for me to stand aside.”

Platt originally had ideas to make Maguire’s story into a movie, but eventually the staged musical version won out, and that was fine with Maguire.

“Each movie script I got seemed more juvenile, with more bathroom humor and slapstick,” said Maguire. “The benefits of a stage musical over a film soon became obvious to me. I had admired Stephen Schwartz’s work with ‘Godspell’ and ‘Pippin,’ and what was really important to me was that Stephen and Bonnie recognized what the story was really about. Stephen assured me right from our first conversation that he understood. Sure, they had to change things to turn a book into a stage musical, but there’s enough of my book in the play. The general story is the same.”

Final sequel

Baum wrote 13 sequels to his children’s classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Maguire insists he won’t be nearly as prolific, but “Wicked,” the novel, did produce two sequels, “Son of a Witch” (2005) and “A Lion Among Men,” (2008) and another will soon follow.

“I’m just about to launch the first draft of the fourth and I think my final novel of the ‘Wicked’ years,” said Maguire. “I’m not going to disclose too many clues, but obviously the story that began with ‘Wicked’ has continued in my mind well beyond the last curtain call. People have been chatting about this story on line for 14 years. They want some more answers.”

Since he saw the world premiere of “Wicked” back in San Francisco, Maguire jokes that he has seen the stage production “about 361⁄2 times.” He and his partner, painter Andy Newman, live in Concord, Mass., and have three adopted children, two boys and a girl. He returns to the Albany area to see his mother and other members of the family about once every two months, and is planning on seeing “Wicked” in Schenectady three times.

“I have tapered off a lot, but I used to see it at least once every three or four months,” said Maguire. “It’s still a major player in my life. I still have to give a lot of attention to interviews about the show, and when I’m asked to help promote it, I do it when I can. I still love the excitement of the bright lights and tuneful orchestra. I have seen a few international shows, and I’d love to see it in Japanese. That would be a lot of fun.”

A graduate of the University at Albany, Maguire got a master’s degree in English from Simmons College and a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. A 1968 graduate of Vincentian Institute in Albany, he had already penned a dozen successful children’s books before he hit it really big with “Wicked.” For a while, he was teaching at Simmons College, but he no longer is connected with any university, preferring instead to just write.

“I always knew that what I really wanted to do was be my own boss, and that’s why I decided to become a creative artist,” he said. “My doctorate wasn’t really that important to me at the time, but to teach at Simmons pursuing your doctorate was a requirement, and when I quit teaching I was already halfway through getting the doctorate so I kept going for it.

Learning pays off

“I discovered that any kind of learning, any amount of learning is not going to be a liability for a writer. I used to think that studying all those Puritan sermons from the 17th century in English Literature was boring, but looking at it from the standpoint of a cultural anthropologist, I can see all that work and reading really helped me conceive my Land of Oz. I discovered that studying the literature of earlier centuries has helped me write all my books.”

The production of “Wicked” coming to Proctors this month is the second national tour put out by the same producing company that’s responsible for the ongoing Broadway production. Dodd played Elphaba on Broadway for two months (November of 2008 to January of 2009), while Yorke also has Broadway experience, playing Marty in “Grease.”

The pair have been getting universal praise since beginning this tour in March.

“This company is blessed with two actresses who can summon the powerful emotions and vocal stamina necessary to make ‘Wicked’ work — Heléne Yorke as Glinda and Marcie Dodd as Elphaba,” wrote the Ft. Meyers News Press. “They create a convincing emotional arc from early loathing to BFF sisterhood to romantic rivalry.

Categories: Life and Arts

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