Wicked flies into Beijing

The stars of hit Broadway show Wicked on defying gravity in Beijing

When Dorothy got stuck in a tornado, travelled to Oz and defeated the Wicked Witch, her quest for home gained a following of epic proportions. So epic, in fact, that it’s been inspiring adaptations and alternate storylines for over a century. And like the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the musical stage production Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, is one version that has yet to lose velocity. Since its premiere over a decade ago, the play has been an unstoppable force on Broadway, and this month arrives in China for the first time as part of the international cast’s year-and-a-half-long global tour.

The storyline of the play, composed of lyrics by award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz and an accompanying book by Winnie Holzman, was adapted from Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the first of his instalments from The Wicked Years series. Set before, during and after Dorothy’s arrival, this Oz adventure explores things from a rather different perspective: one revealing an improbable friendship that grows between two women who ultimately (and perhaps erroneously) come to be known as the 'Wicked Witch' and the 'Good Witch'. Wicked proposes an alternate truth: that the black and white portrait of good and evil in Oz is riddled with more shades of grey than we’d previously imagined.

Alongside a captivating narrative that’s simultaneously dark and whimsical, Wicked’s production quality is unparalleled – audiences experience visually stunning stage sets, elaborate lighting and effects, and of course, a soundtrack that’s nothing short of enchanting. There are about 100 people involved with the
live production – 70 who travel with the play, the rest hired locally in each city it visits. From automation to sound, wigs to wardrobe, choreography to management, the actors tell us that it takes the passion and dedication of every single team member to turn vision into reality.

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The stars of Wicked are Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast with a talent for sorcery, played by Jacqueline Hughes; the bubbly, pretty and popular Glinda, played by Caroline Anderson; and Fiyero, their dreamy mutual love interest, played by Bradley Jaden. When we meet with the three leading cast members during their first trip to China, we quickly find they’re every bit as charming as the magically inclined characters they portray on the stage. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re all gorgeous.

But the magic really seems to come from Hughes, Anderson and Jaden surrendering themselves so completely to their characters. We ask Hughes if there are days when she looks in the mirror and is shocked to find that her skin’s not truly green like Elphaba’s. She laughs. 'Everyday I’m green!' she says. 'I’ve got green everywhere – in my ears, in my hairline!' For each show, the three say they leave themselves behind and let Elphaba, Glinda and Fiyero take over – roles that are vocally, physically and emotionally challenging.

'Once the music starts, you’re just sort of in that, and you’re off,' explains Hughes. 'That’s what I love about it. It never stops, it just keeps taking over.' They each find their character a joy to play. The process is exhilarating; the challenge welcome. 'It’s a journey we go on every night,' says Anderson. ‘Quite a lot happens in those few hours. It’s incredible, I’ve never worked on a production like this.'

Wicked UK International Tour_2013-2014 London Company_photo by Matt Crockett_6616_RT

But despite the job being everything a stage actor ever desires, there are, of course, struggles to a life on the road: packing a year’s worth of stuff into two suitcases, lacking the small comforts of home, adjusting to new cuisines and acclimating to all kinds of weather and (ahem) air qualities. They share that you just never quite feel 'settled', which in turn makes it difficult to really relax. But all in all, the three insist that the positives – the opportunity to see the world and do what they most love, foremost – completely outweigh the negatives, and always do.

In the big scheme of things, being away from home for so long is a small sacrifice for the actors. 'A year in forever is nothing,' says Jaden. 'To be given this career opportunity, to be paid to travel the globe with such an incredible, world-renowned show – it’s just a no-brainer.' For all of them, it’s a chance they’re confident will never come again, particularly because they get over a month in each place; enough time to immerse themselves in new cultures and experiences in their spare time rather than merely being tourists.

Wicked UK International Tour_Jacqueline Hughes and Bradley Jaden_Photo Matt Crockett_9196_Ext

Even after landing the starring parts in the play, the three are still astounded and awed by the idea that they’re the faces of a production that’s become a global phenomenon. For Hughes, Anderson and Jaden alike, these are their first leading roles. As they explain, it’s very rare for a production of this size to give three understudies the leads, and anything but a given – they’ve all worked for years towards this goal
without ever being sure that it was achievable. And in the end, to be chosen to perform the roles of such iconic stage figures is not only an honour, but a tremendous compliment.

At the time Jaden received the call about Wicked, he was performing in Les Miserables, and had planned for that role to be his last. He says that 'hand to heart', he believed it to be the peak of his career, and felt that not in a million years would he be given a role like Fiyero. But despite feeling that the role was out of his league, it happened. 'If someone said to me tomorrow, "you can’t sing anymore," I’d reply that I’ve surpassed any dream that I thought possible.'

For the star witches, the sentiments are the same: Hughes says that leading the cast as Elphaba is something beyond even her wildest dreams, while Anderson remarks that had she been told a year
ago that she’d being playing Glinda, she would’ve bet against it with every penny she had. The three are living the dream. We also inquire a bit about the stars’ quirkier sides. We learn that Hughes feels totally freaked out being onstage without a spritz of her favourite perfume and a cough sweet in hand, while Anderson gets a bit panicky if she hasn’t gotten her pin curls done up before warm-ups. Jaden, on the other hand, tries to steer away from superstitions and needful things, but admits it’s a known fact that before going on stage for 'As Long as You’re Mine', he has the habit of singing the song to himself in the toilet.
By Elysia Bagley

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