`Wicked’ witches swarm Union Square

Green-faced fans of all kinds swarmed San Francisco’s Union Square on Friday, Sept. 26 – Wicked Day in San Francisco, according to a proclamation from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom – at a party celebrating Wicked’s return to the city that gave it birth next January. Photos by J. Lynne McVey


San Francisco has often been compared to the Emerald City of Oz. On Friday in Union Square, the comparison was more than apt.

A full-on party, complete with balloons, bubbles and babies bedecked in witchery, surrounded the noon hour in celebration of Wicked, the worldwide hit musical about the witches of Oz that got its start in San Francisco.

Wicked, which premiered at the Curran Theatre in 2003, has become a phenomenon of over-the-rainbow proportions. The show returned briefly in the summer of 2005, but this January, Wicked flies back into town – this time at the Orpheum – for an open-ended run that producers foresee lasting at least a year.

It was no coincidence that the face-painting booths, the singing and trivia contests, the proclamation from the Mayor’s office declaring Wicked Day in San Francisco and performances by cast members from the Los Angeles company occurred on the same day that “Wicked” tickets went on sale.

SHN/Best of Broadway CEO Greg Holland described Wicked as a “theatrical earthquake” first felt in San Francisco. “We were the first fans,” he said, “so we take pride in the show’s coming back.”

Producer David Stone who, along with producing partner Marc Platt, helped bring Wicked to life, said it’s an emotional thing to bring the show back to the place it started.

Looking around a Union Square crowded with miniature witches, moms and daughters, teenagers and fans of all stripes and colors, Stone said he remembered being locked in a hotel room with the entire creative team at the Clift for eight hours making cuts.

Looking up at the Cheesecake Factory atop Macy’s, Stone remembered taking star Kristin Chenoweth (who originated the role of Glinda) out for a giant piece of cheesecake to ease her worries when some of her funny lines had to be cut for legal reasons (MGM, the movie studio behind The Wizard of Oz, was being very careful about what the Wicked folks could and couldn’t use from the land of Oz).

“I remember Marc and (composer) Stephen (Schwartz) having an animated discussion in front of the Geary Theater that ended up in the street,” Stone said. “And one time, Kristin was taking a breather in front of the theater when a homeless man came up to her and said she looked like an alien. She was pretty upset until she realized she was still wearing her head microphone and earpiece.”

After the event over lunch, Stone recalled the tough birth of Wicked.

“New musicals just don’t want to be born,” he said. “The whole creative team basically saw the same show from the beginning, and we worked toward that, but the last 10 to 20 percent was tough to work out. We knew it was working and saw what it could be. That put the pressure on us not to screw up.”

Stone admitted that tension mounted, especially between Schwartz, director Joe Mantello and book writer Winnie Holzman.

“Everybody loves each other now – and why not? – but the nearly four months we took off between San Francisco and Broadway was tough. March and I did a lot of shuttle diplomacy. But by the time rehearsals started in New York, everyone was fine.”

Stone said those months in between the San Francisco production and the opening of New York was the best possible route the show could have taken. He credits Schwartz with the idea of not rushing straight to Broadway.

“I can’t even tell you how valuable that time was,” Stone said. “Stephen knew that once the train left the station, it would be unstoppable. It cost us a million and a half dollars, and it was worth it. I don’t know about these shows like The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein and Shrek and how they have time to get done what needs to get done between out of town and Broadway.”

Now that Wicked is a worldwide sensation – with four companies abroad in London, Australia, Japan, Germany and four in the U.S. in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and on tour – Stone finds his days consumed with witchy business that sells about $9.5 million in tickets every week.

But he has managed to produce other shows, some of which we’ve seen in San Francisco such as Fully Committed, The Vagina Monologues and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

He may be working again with the Spelling Bee team of composer William Finn and director/librettist James Lapine, who are reportedly at work on a musical version of the hit indie film Little Miss Sunshine. He’s hopeful about a rock musical that’s still evolving called Next to Normal about a woman (played by Alice Ripley) with bipolar disorder and the effect her illness has on her family.

Earlier in the day, Stone summed up his Wicked experience with a memory: the first preview at the Curran and Idina Menzel as Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West in training, makes her entrance and comes running downstage toward the audience.

“Here was this character people had known and been scared of most of their lives and she turns out to be nothing like they thought she was,” he said. “She’s more complicated than they could have imagined, and that’s a big idea to put across, but the audience got it in a moment. In that moment we understood what this show might be. This country likes to point fingers and say you are this: right or left, black or white. Maybe there’s no right or left or red or blue – only green.”

Wicked begins performances on Jan. 27, 2009 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.shnsf.com

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