'Wicked' world: Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz reflects on his Oz with a twist show

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Much to his surprise, Stephen Schwartz discovered that the Japanese don't have a tradition for rhyming lyrics, which makes it impossible to translate lines like "It's obscene!/Like a froggy, ferny cabbage/The baby is unnaturally/Green!" And so far, he hasn't found an equivalent idiom in any language to represent the dual-meaning title "For Good."

Bringing the mega-hit musical "Wicked" to the world has its challenges, but it has a few perks, too.

"Because of 'Wicked,' I've been seeing the world," the composer-lyricist said last week by phone. "I've gotten to go to premieres or go earlier in the process and do a little bit of work" on productions around the globe.

'Wicked'

Where: The Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Wednesday through Oct. 2. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; also 2 p.m. Sept. 8.

Tickets: $35.25-$138.25; pgharts.org or 412-456-4800. A day-of-performance in-person lottery for a limited number of $25 cash-only orchestra seats will be held 21/2 hours before showtime at the Theater Square Box Office, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown. Names will be placed in a lottery drum for a drawing 30 minutes later.

Even when he's home in New York, "Wicked" never sleeps. He was on the phone early last week talking about the touring company coming to Pittsburgh. He had been onstage at NYC's Birdland Jazz Club, where he played some of his songs to accompany Willemijn Verkaik. The singer has starred as Elphaba in Germany, where "Wicked" is "Die Hexen Von Oz."

In case you've been living somewhere over the rainbow since October 2003, Elphaba is the lead character of the musical "Wicked," the Oz story wrested from Dorothy and told from the point of view of the green-skinned Wicked Witch and the oh-so-blond Glinda the Good.

One of the two North American touring companies of "Wicked" arrives for a third visit to the Benedum Center Wednesday and sticks around until Oct. 2. Mr. Schwartz, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who frequently conducts workshops at his alma mater, will visit the campus while the show is in town and attend a show to catch up with this company.

He has been to Finland and Denmark recently, where he saw "a nonreplicated production."

"So, that was very interesting to see it designed and staged differently. [Librettist Winnie Holzman] and I get involved because we want to make sure the translation is as accurate as possible, that it conveys the ideas of the show."

The Netherlands is up next, which begs the question, how does one say "blockbuster" in Dutch?

In the United States, it translates to eight years and counting on Broadway and worldwide, with a cumulative gross of more than $2.2 billion. It's estimated that 28 million people have helped "Wicked" defy the gravitational downward force of the economy and keep on keeping on.

"Wicked" averages about 99 percent occupancy at the 1,900-seat Gershwin Theater in New York. In St. Louis last summer, the national touring company grossed $2,400,489 in a mid-July week, the highest weekly gross in North American touring history.

There are thousands of entries when Googling the question "how many times have you seen Wicked"? Vying for a top spot at BroadwayWorld.com was musicaltheatrefan3, who posted "15, not including the shortened Universal Studios Japan version, which I've seen once."

So it's no wonder that Mr. Schwartz says he never tires of talking about "Wicked" or working on getting it in front of new audiences.

He obtained the rights to Gregory Maguire's book of the same title because he loved the premise of telling the Oz story from a new point of view, but the similarity between his work with Ms. Holzman and Mr. Maguire's novel pretty much ends there.

The book is a dark, sometimes R-rated fairy tale with Elphaba everpresent and Glinda barely seen, whereas the musical it spawned is a teen-girl buddy fantasy of friendship and betrayal, acceptance and rejection, coming of age and finding one's place -- or not -- in society.

The dynamic lead roles earned a Tony Award for Idina Menzel as Elphaba and a nomination for Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda.

"As we worked on adapting the book, the things that were key for us -- Winnie and myself, [producer] Marc Platt and [director] Joe Mantello -- began to emerge more, particularly the relationship with the two girls. Their complicated friendship, the enmity and love, began to take over the show, although that's not really central to the book at all. It certainly appears [in the novel] -- Greg had the brilliant idea of making them reluctant roommates.

'Wicked' by the numbers

"Wicked" facts and figures as of April 17, 2011:

• On Broadway, more than 5.5 million people have attended "Wicked" in its eight years at the 1,900-seat Gershwin Theater. In January it grossed more than $2.2 million for the highest one-week box office take in Broadway history.

• North American touring companies have grossed a combined total of $1.65 billion in 425 weeks and have been seen by more than 8.6 million people.

• The Grammy-winning original cast recording of "Wicked" has gone double platinum, with sales of 2 million copies.

• The 1995 novel "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire has sold 4 million copies, 3.3 million since the musical opened in 2003.

• "Wicked" owns the highest weekly gross in London's West End history with a take of 1,002,885 pounds. Other international productions include a Japanese-language "Wicked" that opened in Tokyo in 2007 and moved to Osaka in 2009. A Dutch-language production will open in November.

Source: "Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz"

"In creating the show, we found that relationship had more appeal. The central character of Elphaba also is much more complicated than we know her from 'The Wizard of Oz.' As one of our producers, David Stone, says, 'We all have that green girl inside us.' That's what speaks to so many people."

Mr. Schwartz knows how to entertain an audience. The current president of the Dramatists Guild has three Oscars for songs and music in the animated features "Pocahontas" ("Color of the Wind") and "The Prince of Egypt," four Grammys for recordings of "Pocahontas," "Wicked" and "Godspell," and six Tony nominations.

He's about to go back to his roots with "Godspell." Producers invited Mr. Schwartz to create the score for the show created by fellow CMU grad John-Michael Tebelak, who developed it while at school. The musical based on the Gospel of Matthew became one of off-Broadway's longest-running shows after its 1971 launch and spawned the radio hit "Day by Day" and a 1973 film.

"Godspell" ran on Broadway from June 1976 to September 1977 and will make its return Nov. 7. Immediately after our phone conversation, Mr. Schwartz was due at a casting meeting for the revival.

He was excited about the fresh faces already cast, including Hunter Parrish, best known as Silas on "Weeds." One Broadway veteran in the group is Telly Leung, who also has been a member of the Warblers musical group on "Glee."

The Fox hit series has been a booster of "Wicked" from the get-go, featuring Ms. Mendel and Ms. Chenoweth as guest stars and a "diva showdown" episode utilizing the belting anthem "Defying Gravity."

"I think 'Glee' has been great for musical theater and for kids who are interested in musical theater and singing because it has made it somehow seem less uncool even while supposedly being about the uncool kids in school," Mr. Schwartz said. "Shows like 'Glee' and 'American Idol' have been a big boost to the whole idea of young people pursuing a singing career or a career in music, and that's been great."

When he comes back to CMU, he notices mostly how well-trained the musical theater kids are these days.

"There are a lot more programs these days, and they are a lot more rigorous. Those who attend CMU, Michigan, the Cincinnati Conservatory, they come out and they are really prepared, very skilled. The level has gone up noticeably. There's a triple-threatedness, that they can act and sing, and even if they can't really be dancers, they move extremely well. ... If you see a resume that says 'Carnegie Mellon,' you know they have come in with a lot skills."

Mr. Schwartz keeps adding "threats" to his list of musical accomplishments, including opera composer, with the commission "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" for San Francisco Opera. Now he's trying his hand at "a big choral piece" for the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which had been performing some of his works.

"I'm more motivated by the particular topic," he said. "I did the opera just because I had never, well, I did one opera at Carnegie Mellon, and it was something I always wanted to try again. Then I got offered the commission, and that was how that came about. It's not like I have a bucket list; it's sort of what comes up, what's interesting about the work and the genre."

And let's not forget the new audiences and countries yet to conquer.

In some places where English is spoken, that level of success might be translated as: "Wicked."


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-264-1960.


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