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“Wicked” says goodbye to Chicago

By Molly Snyder Edler

Remember in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy throws water on the wicked witch and she screeches, “I’m melting?” Well, metaphorically speaking, The Chicago company of “Wicked” melts away on Jan. 25, 2009, after an insanely successful three-year run. The final show will be the group’s 1,500th performance.

Since June 2005, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts’ Oriental Theatre staged “Wicked” eight times a week. The musical brought in $200 million, making it the top-grossing and longest-running Broadway musical in Chicago history. By January 2009, more than 3 million people — representing all 50 states and 20 foreign countries — will have seen the Chicago-based show.

“Of all the companies performing around the world, we have been most proud of the success and accomplishments of ‘Wicked’ in Chicago, because it had been decades since a dedicated Broadway company was created for this wonderful city. From the moment we decided to make Chicago our home, the entire city has truly embraced and welcomed us,” says producer David Stone.

“Wicked” pre-dates Dorothy and her yellow brick road companions (although famous “Wizard of Oz” lines are cleverly referenced a few times during the performance). Instead, “Wicked” tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, and how they became the familiar characters in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The two witches have a history of both friendship and betrayal. The wicked witch — named Elphaba — was born with green skin, and her “wickedness” was unfairly labeled based on people’s fears of her appearance. Glinda, on the other hand, is conventionally beautiful, so people adore her despite her insensitivity and shallowness.

“Wicked” comments on the deception of appearances, the value of loyalty and asks the question, “What does it mean to be wicked?”

Audience members identify with the show regardless of how they were categorized in their youth. Anyone who experienced alienation for being different will feel empathy towards Elphaba, whereas those who were popular might relate to the common misconception that popular people have easier lives.

The winner of 15 major awards including a Grammy and three Tonys, “Wicked” currently has productions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Stuttgart, Melbourne and a North American tour.

“Wicked” is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, a book by Winnie Holzman and features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who is hailed for his abilities to delve into the female psyche. The final number, “For Good,” creates a deeply emotional ending, and the song is now a favorite for graduations, memorial services and other milestone events.

Gene Weygandt plays The Wizard, and he says he will deeply miss the role after the show closes.

“I will miss the cast most of all. It’s cliché but true: over time, we have become family,” he says.