I was in Year 9 when I first saw the video on Youtube of Idina Menzel performing ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked at the 2004 Tony Awards. It was the first time that I could watch an original Broadway cast perform a new musical – and as a young musical theatre enthusiast, I was captivated. What was this song? Who was this character? Why was she green?
Menzel went on to win a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical that year and then moved beyond the stage, permeating the zeitgeist on screens everywhere through Disney properties. But before there was Frozen’s Elsa, there was Elphaba. Before she told girls everywhere that “the cold never bothered me anyway,” she told us that “everyone deserves a chance to fly.” Like me, Elphaba was different – the antithesis to the perfectly blonde G(a)linda the Good. She was awkward, misunderstood, judged for her skin colour, and trying to figure out where she belonged. Twenty years after it opened on Broadway, Elphaba’s journey to find herself through justice, self-love, and friendship still resonates.
The new cast surpasses expectations by infusing their own unique interpretations into these fan favourite characters
Wicked is one of the longest running musicals in the world, and Sydney’s 20th anniversary production has been a much-anticipated affair. Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the musical shares the untold story of the mysterious Wicked Witch of the West, who is revered and feared in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The book alludes to the Yellow Brick Road and the origin stories for the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, but these are more a tribute than a continuity.
We enter Oz in the moments after the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (Sheridan Adams) is pronounced dead. Glinda (Courtney Monsma), who arrives in a tuft of tulle on a floating bubble amongst bubbles, stands accused of being a friend of the Wicked Witch, and what follows is a recounting of how the pair met at school, became friends and ultimately had to part. Forced to room with each other, they transition from loathing one another to becoming friends. While Glinda is primarily occupied with making Elphaba “popular”, Elphaba is distracted with the mystery surrounding the mistreatment of animals in Oz, including beloved teacher and goat Dr Dillamond (Adam Murphy), and her ambition to meet the revered Wizard (Todd McKenny). Their friendship faces many obstacles, including romantic feelings for the same person, Fiyero (Liam Head), but it endures through the biggest obstacle of them all – their ideological differences.
This new cast faces the challenge of filling the shoes of characters that have become beloved for their iconic portrayals, and many of them surpass expectations by infusing their own unique interpretations into these fan favourites. Monsma brings her distinctive personality and flair to her portrayal of Glinda, transforming a character seen as aloof and privileged into someone who is also awkward, caring, and not as put-together as she may seem. It’s a performance that rivals Kristin Chenowyth herself (the star whose originating role as Glinda is just as iconic as Menzel’s Elphaba). Ad-libs and quirky dance moves are Monsma's comedic tools, and her impeccable timing makes her performance one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show.
Suspended in the air, bathed in light, Adams delivers a gravity-defying performance during the first act’s closing number (the break-out hit ‘Defying Gravity’, if that wasn’t clear). On opening night, there were moments when Adams' rendition of Elphaba's challenging ballads showed cracks. She appeared slightly out of sync with the orchestra during the show's most emotionally charged song, ‘No Good Deed’. This could be attributed to opening night jitters, but overall, Adams delivered gritty gravitas when it mattered most, and the performance is sure to strengthen as she settles into the role.
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Head’s Fiyero oozes a lazy, effortless charm that seems to sit in his body as he capers through his entry song ‘Dancing Through Life’. He delivers magnetic vocal variations and demonstrates a deep understanding of his character's motivations as he employs a subtle, unique chemistry with each of the leading ladies.
A local legend of the stage, Todd McKenney is a delight as The Wizard, infusing a charming, devilish effervescence to his responsibilities as Oz’s leader. Another performer that comes to this show with a high profile is Robyn Nevin as Madame Morrible. While fans may be disappointed that the role’s sung parts are spoken, Nevin’s delightfully villainous performance has enough gravitas that audiences are unlikely to feel the absence of vocals.
It’s almost ten years since Wicked last came to Sydney. This production, a revival of the production John Frost first brought to Melbourne in 2008, reintroduces the same elaborate spectacle of dazzling staging, including a giant mechanical smoke-emitting dragon perched above the stage, a giant and ominous talking head behind which the Wizard conceals himself, dancers and actors suspended mid-air, video projections that can mimic rain and create the intimacy of a forest, and an abundance of emerald accents.
The costumes not only bring the personalities of the cast to life, but also remain extravagant while symbolically reflecting their respective journeys. Ensemble costumes enliven the sets and vividly portray the world of Oz, whether it's the order of the classroom or the opulence and individuality of the Emerald City.
Winnie Holzman's book, much like the novel it's based on, is teeming with plot and initially faced criticism (mostly from men) for being overly superficial and melodramatic. It was ahead of its time – I mean, a story where the love interest is an obstacle to the more complex and interesting central female friendship? Preposterous!
Through an Animal Farm-style allegory, the musical confronts issues of discrimination, prejudice, stigma, privilege, and the dichotomy between performance and reality. This sounds like a recipe for a discordant and dense narrative, but it’s not. The script, music and lyrics are joyful and poignant. When it seems like a subplot is straying from the central narrative, Stephen Schwartz's whimsical and emotionally resonant score reels the audience back in, employing satire, emotional brevity, and memorable melodies to refocus attention on the unlikely friendship and how these subplots influence their individual journeys of self-discovery.
By simplifying complex issues to their core elements and placing them in a fantasy world, Wicked effectively divorces them from any specific population or historical leader. In doing so, it subtly delivers commentary on the abuses of power that have pervaded our collective history, and the power of friendship in the face of it. For Australians, it might prompt us to look at the abuses of power we have collectively benefitted from. How have we pleaded ignorance to injustice? When have we succumbed to the narrative of there being one enemy? Are people born “wicked”?
This new Australian production is a testament to Wicked’s enduring popularity, and whether you’ve seen it dozens of times or you’re going in green, you’ll likely leave changed for good. (I know my Year 9 self is delighted.)