For an entire generation of young theatergoers, “Wicked” is the new gold standard – or make that the green standard – for musical theater success.
When the power ballad-stuffed “Wizard of Oz” takeoff opened on Broadway in 2003, legions of teenage fans lined up outside the Gershwin Theatre for a chance to watch Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth belt out the show’s soaring melodies and act out its uplifting tale of friendship, empowerment and redemption.
Ten years after “Wicked” shook up the musical theater world like a Kansas twister, it has become a bona fide international phenomenon.
Bedrooms from San Francisco to Seoul are papered with “Wicked” posters. Hordes of green-faced young Elphabas and glittery Galindas – young prototypes for the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good – roam the streets every Halloween. A new off-pitch dorm-room duet of the show’s biggest number, “Defying Gravity,” seems to appear on YouTube every day. And the show, according to the New York Times, just set a Broadway record for the highest one-week gross – $3,201,333 – for the week ending Dec. 29.
The mega-musical to shame all mega-musicals returns to Buffalo for the third time in six years on Thursday for a three-week run that has local “Wicked” enthusiasts ecstatic at the prospect of reuniting with their old fractured fairy-tale friends. (A preview performance is scheduled for Wednesday night.)
For many fans who live in Buffalo or are making the trek from nearby cities, this will be just the latest opportunity to add yet another ticket stub to a growing stack.
Dana Jaskier, a Lancaster native studying the music industry at Syracuse University, said she plans to see the show for the eighth (and possibly ninth) time during its run at Shea’s. Like many “Wicked” devotees from Western New York, Jaskier first saw the show during high school on a trip to Toronto, where it began its North American tour in 2005. She saw it three times when it first came to Buffalo three years later and twice on its following stop here in 2011. She even saw it on London’s West End while studying abroad.
So what is it about the show that keeps fans coming back?
For Jaskier, as for so many other women who first saw the production as teenagers, the innate appeal of “Wicked” boils down to its two nontraditional central characters.
“What I mainly like about the musical is having two female leads. It’s very rare to have two females be the main leads,” she said. “It’s really about rooting for the underdog, showing that it’s not always the popular girl that gets the guy.”
And while the show contains all the requisite business about young love that the American musical theater formula requires, Jaskier praised the fact that it revolves mostly around the friendship between Glinda and Elphaba, the two complex women at its center.
As with any film or musical that gets its hooks into viewers early on, the desire to see “Wicked” comes as much from a love for the characters or Stephen Schwartz’s catchy music as from a yearning to reconnect with the purity of that first, formative experience.
Once those hooks are in, the musical tends to spread into nearly every aspect of a super-fan’s life. Jaskier said she compares her against-the-grain desire to pursue a career in the music industry to “Defying Gravity,” a song about reaching for your true potential against great odds: “As someone told me lately,” Elphaba sings before she sails off toward her dark destiny, “everyone deserves a chance to fly.”
The same goes for Lauren Kirchmeyer, a West Seneca native who will see the show for the fourth time during its Buffalo run, the “Wicked” cast album has provided the soundtrack to some key moments in her life.
“I would go on road trips with my cousins and we would sing the soundtrack to it over and over again,” she said. “I am a dork and I sing every part that I can. And I’m not the best singer either, but I give it my best shot.”
The song “For Good,” a paean to Glinda and Elphaba’s friendship after it’s been through put through the musical theater wringer, is a standout for Kirchmeyer, who sang the song as part of her high school graduation ceremony and also played it as a tribute at her grandmother’s funeral.
“A lot of us in our family like it so we decided that the meaning of it had a lot to do with how my grandma was,” she said.
Matt Refermat of Cheektowaga, a recent graduate of the Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, first came into contact with “Wicked” in his early teens and hasn’t let go since. He got the cast recording as a birthday present and later traveled to see the show in Toronto. Since then, he’s seen the show seven times – in Buffalo, Toronto, Pittsburgh and New York City.
But Refermat insists that he is not obsessed with “Wicked,” if only because he has friends who have seen the show more than 20 times and who, he said, “qualify for, like, even crazier prizes.”
While he admits that it may not be the most sophisticated piece of material, Refermat praised its universally accessible characters, its clever expansion on the “Wizard of Oz” story and its adherence to the time-tested formula of the musical form.
“It’s not something that’s like revolutionary musical theater. It’s very much: here is the opening number, here is the ‘I want’ number, here is the conflict song. It’s very set up,” he said. “But I think that it’s probably one of those shows that in 20 years, people can say, the reason I’m doing what I’m doing is because I saw ‘Wicked.’ ”