Preview - From the outside, Wicked is one of those shows that would appear to be geared at younger audiences. And sure, Wicked is great for kids - lots of colour and movement, witches, munchkins, dragons and flying monkeys - but there's a lot more to this musical than good, evil and happily-ever-after. Dealing with the untold story of Elphaba, 'Wicked Witch of the West' from the book and movie The Wizard of Oz, Wicked is nothing less than an essay in propaganda, power, and how one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. "It's a very grown-up musical," says cast member Maggie Kirkpatrick.
A grand dame of Aussie theatre - and beloved 'Freak' of TV's Prisoner - Kirkpatrick plays Madame Morrible, the imperious head of Shiz University, where future witches Elphaba (Jemma Rix) and Glinda (Lucy Durack) meet as reluctant roommates. While green-skinned Elphaba is smart, kind-hearted and dorky, blonde Glinda is coquettish and shallow; one has all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it. As Glinda sings: "It's not about aptitude/It's the way you're viewed/So it's very shrewd to be/Very, very popular/Like me."
Gifted in magic, Elphaba aspires to work with the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Bert Newton). But when Madame Morrible engineers a meeting, Elphaba quickly realises that the wizard's congeniality is a front for an oppressive regime that maintains its grip on the land of Oz through fear and scapegoating. A broomstick revolutionary is born.
Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book) adapted Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel in the wake of the 9/11, and it opened on Broadway seven months after the American-led invasion of Iraq. "There's a lot of abuse of power and ambition in Wicked," says Kirkpatrick. "Glinda is ambitious and the wizard abuses his power, as does Morrible. That idea that the way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy is straight out of Bush's mouth."
In the co-lead role of the gloriously superficial Glinda is rising star Lucy Durack. "It's a dream role," Durack says. "Glinda gets great comic lines and some fabulous costumes and she has a beautiful character journey." She also has a spectacular entrance, arriving onstage in a cloud of bubbles. "Some days the bubbles are like, magnetised to my mouth, so I'd be coughing and spluttering," Durack laughs. "Before I'm seen by the audience, I have to fan all the bubbles out of the way."
It's just one piece of stage wizardry in a show involving multiple computer-controlled sets, projection machines, huge puppets and the illusion of flight. "It's all timed down to the last second," Durack says. "The backstage choreography is just as tricky as the onstage choreography."
More than 600,000 people have seen Wicked during its year-long Melbourne run, but the production has had its share of tragedy. In October 2008 the actor playing the wizard, Rob Guest, suffered a massive stroke and died. "I was very close to Rob," says Durack. "He was such a nurturer of young people in the industry. It was shocking and very hard but we really pulled together as a company." Showbiz stalwart Bert Newton stepped into the part soon afterwards.
With several productions currently running around the world, Wicked's blockbuster success is no mystery: it's got something for everyone (and their little dog too). On one level it's an origin story for some well loved literary characters; on another, it's a touching tale of female friendship; and it's also a trenchant political satire - as much about witchhunts as it is witches.
Kirkpatrick loves the layered nature of her role. "I don't know whether I'm Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld," she says, "but I've got a great wardrobe."