A ‘Wicked’ Decade: How a Critically Trashed Musical Became a Long-Running Smash

Ten years ago, ‘Wicked’ opened on Broadway. Here’s how a ‘popular’ good witch, a tortured green witch, and a legion of fans defied bad reviews—and gravity—to change Broadway.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times, via Redux

What did critics think of the Broadway blockbuster Wicked when it opened in 2003?

An “overproduced, overblown, confusingly dark and laboriously ambitious jumble,” ruled Newsday. “The show’s twenty-two songs were written by Stephen Schwartz, and not one of them is memorable,” wrote The New Yorker. Perhaps The New York Times carried the most damning review: “Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.”

But ten years, 38 million theatergoers, $3.1 billion in ticket sales, and countless compacts of green makeup later, it couldn’t be clearer that the Broadway spectacle about a good witch and a bad witch—and why we should never reduce people to such descriptors—has indeed changed the future of the Broadway musical “for good.”

But how did a musical that was so middlingly reviewed become so popular (lar)?

Wicked, based on the 1995 book by Gregory Maguire, is a reverse trip down the yellow brick road to before Dorothy ever landed in Oz, before there were tin men and skittish lions, and before the Wicked Witch of the West was ever wicked. The ingenious origin tale—The Wizard of Oz from the witches’ point of view—cast such a spell that it’s no wonder it’s credited with giving flight to the modern “backstory” craze.

All of the stories you never knew you wanted to know behind Oz’s smallest details are filled in. Why is the Wicked Witch green? When did the monkeys start flying? Just how long has Glinda been traveling by bubble? (Turns out, for a long time.) It takes a narrative that everyone already knew backwards and forwards and spins them into this Technicolor new, odd, and, occasionally, wicked new world—not much unlike what one tornado does to one pigtailed young girl in the original book and film.

Elphaba, she who would be “wicked,” and Glinda, the “good,” meet as roommates at boarding school. Elphaba is an angsty introvert whose green skin won’t allow her to be the wallflower she thinks she should be. Glinda is vapid and beautiful and well-liked. Both end up showing colors—green, or otherwise—more complicated than either one imagined, and end up becoming best friends.

There are certainly many things that could be attributed to what would be the mammoth success of Wicked: the brains to craft such a clever spin on the source material, the courage to mount such a lavish production, the heart found in the relationship between the two leads. But turning that original run into the champagne toast of Broadway run is owed to the intoxicating chemistry of its two leads: the bubbly spunk of Kristin Chenoweth and the crisp bite of Idina Menzel.

Both already breakout stars—Chenoweth a Tony winner for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Menzel a nominee for RENTWicked turned the actresses into Broadway royalty. As Glinda, Chenoweth scorched the stage like a solar flare of comedic energy. Her rendition of Glinda’s signature song, “Popular,” is the perfect example of the complicated balance Chenoweth’s performance struck, in one moment serving up physical comedy on Red Bull and poignantly tugging at your heart with calming grace the next. Proof is in the pirated clip:

Then there’s the Tony-winning performance of Menzel as Elphaba, belted to—and, in one unforgettable moment, actually from—the rafters, a marvel of sheer force (singing Schwartz’s soaring score eight times a week is an inhumane task) made impressive by the gritty vulnerability she gave a character otherwise defined by her power. Oh yeah, and she defied gravity:

So, great leads. Clever source material. Fans who turn the show into a religion, spending hundreds—thousands—of dollars on repeat visits. What was it about Wicked that got critics so riled up a decade ago?

To begin with, while there’s no denying the catchiness of its most recognizable songs, be it “Popular,” “Denying Gravity,” or the quietly moving “For Good,” there’s also no denying the meandering superfluity of a large part of its score—as anyone who’s seen the show once knows, the minute that teacher starts bleating and turning into a goat while singing, it’s time for a bathroom break.

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There’s the problematic tone, too, a complicated brew of earnestness, irony, silliness, knowingness, and even a dash of activism that never properly settles in the right proportions. Those Cheno quips are fun and it couldn’t be easier to root for Elphaba’s defiant journey, but do preachy messages about equal rights and animal cruelty really need to be bubbling up in the plot as well? (Spoiler: they don’t.)

But plenty of modern musicals with open with less-than-perfect scores (Spamalot, In the Heights) and issues with tone and plotting (Spring Awakening, Urinetown) and have escaped the ill-willed damnation afforded to Wicked when it opened—and none of these shows were able to last an iota as long or have been as globally adored as Wicked, either.

It’s helpful to remember when Wicked opened on Broadway. The race for each new show to out-spectacle the one before it was already long in progress, with the buzzy special effects of Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, and the like transforming the Great White Way into a nightly fireworks show of on-stage pyrotechnics, Seussian costumes, and jaw-dropping stunts. Fatigue had already set in—and this was a decade ago—over the presumed laziness of jukebox musicals and shows based on unoriginal source material, be it adapted directly from movies or spun from well-known fairy tales. Bombast was trumping originality and critics were at the end of their ropes with it.

Then something wicked this way comes: an expensive new musical defined by both of those so-called despicable trends. The monkeys—and witches—fly. (Ugh, effects!) The characters are all from The Wizard of Oz. (Ugh, unoriginal!) Broadway was at the peak of its, to some, unwelcome transition from cultural cornerstone to Disney in New York, and Wicked’s arrival was perfectly timed during that period to make most critics all too eager to toss buckets of negative reviews on it and hope for it to melt away.

As Ben Brantley wrote in the Times, were it not for the leads’ performances, Wicked would be a “bloated production that might otherwise spend close to three hours flapping its oversized wings without taking off.”

But with the show still selling out New York’s Gershwin Theatre on a nightly basis and productions now mounted in 13 different countries, there’s more to Wicked that helped it not just take off, but remain in flight this entire decade.

It’s the soft-rock-goes-Broadway score that we’ve all, by this point, be subjected to the unique appeal of, whether it’s the casting director listening to yet another auditioner’s voice crack at the “Defying Gravity” high F (itself the plot of an episode of Glee), the parents watching the fifth consecutive fourth grader in a tutu hop perform “Popular” at the school talent show, or the parents who quietly weeped through a rendition of “For Good” at a high-school graduation.

It’s our ceaseless obsession with that land over the rainbow, which continues to birth hit adaptations ranging from last summer’s Oz: The Great and Powerful to Lady Gaga’s recent Dorothy-inspired Good Morning America performance. But more than that, it’s the characters at the center, regardless of their L. Frank Baum roots, which resonate. It’s about a friendship that blossoms between adversaries, at once a love story between these two girls and an underdog tale. Elphaba is the ugly ducking turned all-powerful swan, and anyone who’s lived in the shadow of a Glinda can relate to that.

It’s old news at this point that critics’ taste and audience reaction rarely match up—the reign of the Transformers film franchise is proof enough of that. But as Wicked turns ten, it’s no less fun to celebrate the power of unabashed populism, and a show that defied odds, and a little bit of gravity, to become that future of Broadway critics feared so much. Because as it turns out, this scary “future” of musical theatre that Wicked represents is one that the public at large actually gets to be a part of.