Hocus Pocus: Wicked On Broadway
by David Barbour and David Johnson on February 1, 2004
Broadway’s big hit of the season features full makeup on the main character, outrageous costumes, a tuneful pop score, and a large foreboding presence overseeing the whole thing — and no, we’re not talking about Taboo.
It’s Wicked of course, the new musical based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, which tells the back story of two main characters from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Glinda, who would come to be known as The Good Witch, and Elphaba, who would be forever known as The Wicked Witch of the West. While the novel explores such adult themes as animal rights, political oppression, and the nature of evil, the Broadway production, featuring a book by Winnie Holzman and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, tones down the politics to zero in on the relationship between the two women, from their meeting — and tentative friendship — at Shiz University to their fateful journey to the Emerald City to their eventual iconic destinies. Directed by Joe Mantello and starring Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Idina Menzel as Elphaba, Wicked received mixed notices both in its San Francisco tryout at the Curran last summer and in its Broadway opening at the Gershwin in November, but has garnered spectacular word of mouth plus hefty advance ticket sales, and as of now looks to be the show to beat come Tony time.
The veteran creative team Mantello assembled for the production — set designer Eugene Lee, costume designer Susan Hilferty, lighting designer Ken Posner, sound designer Tony Meola, wig and hair designer Tom Watson, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy — have created a world that’s at once fantastical and instantly recognizable; otherworldly yet homespun. For his part, Lee’s design was rooted in the novel. Having been asked by Mantello to submit some ideas for the project, Lee focused on one particular part of the novel that deals with something called The Clock of the Time Dragon. In the novel, Maguire describes it thusly:
“The Clock of the Time Dragon is mounted on a wagon and stands as high as a giraffe. It is nothing more than a tottering, freestanding theatre, punched on all four sides with alcoves and proscenium arches. On the flat roof is a clockwork dragon, an invention of green painted leather, silvery claws, and ruby jeweled eyes. Its skin is made of hundreds of overlapping discs of copper, bronze, and iron. Beneath the flexible folds of its scales is an armature controlled by clockwork. The Time Dragon circles on its pedestal, flexes its narrow leathery wings (they make a sound like a bellows), and belches out sulfurous balls of flaming orange stink.”
Using that as inspiration (minus the belching and orange stink), Lee, with the help of local college intern Patrick Lynch, went to work one weekend in his Rhode Island studio, constructing a half-inch scale model of a wooden set, with alcoves and stairs stage left and right, massive cogs and wheels interspersed throughout the space, and a huge, copper dragon hanging over the stage.
“The script was very complicated at that point,” Lee explains. “It was like a movie script in that it jumped around a lot. I determined the problem was one of realism: how do you get from one scene to another? So I put my director’s hat on, and we put together a full model and I tried to answer questions my way. There were directions in the script that said things like, ‘Kitchen from the past appears.’ How does that happen? I thought, how about a pageant wagon? There’s a lot of that in the novel, of people pushing things around the community. And then there was the Clock of the Time Dragon. I had always wanted the dragon over the arch, because it was clock-like and kind of mechanical. We did the whole show, the way it was written, and tried to answer all the questions.”
Lee then brought this massive model to New York and set it up in the upper lobby of the Minetta Lane Theatre, where he was designing Thunder Knocking At My Door. “It was a gigantic model, there was no drafting to it, just the model,” Lee says. “We just built it. Sometimes it’s better to just do the model and get to the drafting later.”
Mantello, who was over at the Public working on Take Me Out, stopped by the Minetta Lane. “He was a little surprised by its size, I think,” Lee recalls. He stared at it and said, ‘Wow, I don’t quite see it that way, but I really like it.’ He told me how to fix it all; I give him full credit for fixing my mistakes.”
Actually, according to associate set designer Edward Pierce, the changes weren’t all that drastic. “The essence of the design that currently resides on stage at the Gershwin was present in that initial model,” he says.
“We opted to create an ‘environment’ inspired by the inner workings of a clock. The shapes, textures, colors, and functional aspects of clock gears and mechanisms contributed to a permanent environmental structure, which defines the stage space.”
The raked show deck is constructed of natural maple planks stained a dark, warm tone. “We were interested in natural, realistic materials, not the newest industrial-strength polymers,” says Pierce. “The wood has proven to be the perfect material and continues to improve with age and distress. The show deck is equipped with seven automated tracks, all lined with steel for visual interest. To stay consistent with our concept of clock mechanisms, many of the automated deck units are designed to reveal the mechanics that operated them.” Details such as the steel beams, oak planking, and rivets, were also constructed of natural materials, which resulted in, quite literally, heavy scenery. (“Ask the stagehands!” Pierce says.) F&D Scene Changes in Calgary, Canada fabricated the scenery. Automated effects were engineered and provided by Scenic Technologies.
Appropriately enough for a show like Wicked, there are a number of special effects. Glinda’s initial entrance is on a flying bubble machine as real bubbles fill the stage; the machine was built by Scenic Technologies, the bubble generators by Chic Silber. A magic wheelchair, ridden by Elphaba’s handicapped sister Nessarose, was by Scenic Technologies, who also devised Elphaba’s levitation at the climax of Act One. ZFX Illusions were responsible for the flying monkeys. And the dragon, which moves like a marionette, was made by modelmaker/puppeteer Bob Flanagan, who also created the giant mechanical, moving head of the wizard. Nick Francone served as assistant set designer.
Though the Gershwin often gets low marks from designers due to it’s sheer size, not to mention its somewhat dated décor, it has always been a lucky space for Lee, who designed Sweeney Todd in the space and won a Tony in the process (He also did Show Boat there). “I always fought for the Gershwin,” he says. “There are a lot of people who worry about its size, but I don’t have that feeling about it. I don’t like its décor, but I like the way the orchestra seats rake up, so you don’t feel buried like in a lot of Broadway theatres. They seem happy now that the show is selling.”
Susan Hilferty’s costumes for Wicked can be traced not to the novel but rather to the original L. Frank Baum Oz books, particularly those featuring illustrations by W. W. Denslow. One source she did not tap was the film of The Wizard of Oz, partly because the production didn’t have the rights to it, but mostly because Hilferty wasn’t interested in taking that route.
“My goal was to create a third world, a world that we considered to be a parallel universe,” she explains. “It’s a world where animals can talk, so we know it’s not our world. It’s a world that deals with a kind of inventiveness, things that we might call magic. The boundaries of the world are different than anything we know or are familiar with, but at the same time, the issues for the people of this world of Oz are in many cases the same kind of issues we deal with. So I knew it had to be something that was of the imagination but in some ways had to thread back to things that we knew.”
Hilferty’s focus was twofold: to help tell the story of the two women, and to provide a sense of the world of Oz. She looked at fashions around the turn of the century, which was when Baum wrote the books, for inspiration. She describes the resulting costumes as “twisted Edwardian.” “I found what I was doing was almost designing each idea twice; I had an idea that was straight, and then I had to transform it. In some cases I was acting like a fashion designer, much like Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen, who will look at another time period and then exaggerate it and make it their own.”
The school uniforms for Shiz University started with a school color-blue, in this instance-and then expanded to provide the students with a sense of individuality. “I designed with the idea that there was a Shiz store, where you could get a blazer or a skirt or a vest,” Hilferty explains. “There were like 10 pieces in the store. And to provide variety, the jackets are all split up the back and laced together, so you could have one half of this jacket and half of that and then lace them together. Boys can wear skirts if they want; it’s a parallel universe after all. And then it was just a mixing of colors.”
The Shiz school colors also represented for Hilferty the emotional journey of Glinda and Elphaba. “What I was trying to get at the end was an icon for each of them, where they become specifically representative: Glinda for goodness and Elphaba for evil. By using blue and white as the school colors, I was able to have Elphaba all in blue, and Glinda all in white. The goal was to make the two women be the most outstanding thing in every world they entered.” Hilferty points out that Elphaba is never in black, as that would be too much of a contrast. “Black would sink into a hole for all of Act Two.”
The whole notion of “twisted fashion” also extended to the entire dressmaking process. “I’m totally indebted to some brilliant drapers on this, who had the vision not to try to straighten out the clothes, but to allow them to go off into another world,” Hilferty says, citing milliners Lynne Mackey and Rodney Gordon as well as Eric Winterling of Eric Winterling Costumes and Kathy Marshall of Tricorne. “It was all about asymmetry, and keeping the costumes balanced,” says Marshall, whose shop worked on the verdant Emerald City outfits, prompting the dressmaker to quip “It was a green studio for a while.”
Other costume credits include associate designers Michael Sharpe and Ken Mooney, assistants Maiko Matsushima, Amanda Whidden, and Amy Clark, production wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert, and assistant supervisor Dennis Paver.
Hilferty reserves her highest praise for lighting designer Ken Posner. “I gave him the biggest challenge you can give a lighting designer: two leading ladies, onstage together for most of the show, and standing next to each other for most of the show; one dark girl with black hair, green skin, dark clothes, and a hat with a brim on it, standing next to a blonde in white shiny clothes, white skin, no hat. That’s hard. That’s the classic. Kenny was brilliant about it and made it balanced so you never knew it was an issue.”
Normally, we discuss a production’s lighting and projection design in separate pieces. Not this time — in Wicked, the lighting and projections are too closely intertwined. In conversation with lighting designer Kenneth Posner and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, one finds oneself frequently corrected-what looks like a lighting effect is really a projection, and vice-versa. If Oz is a city of illusions, Posner and McCarthy are masters of the game.
“We really strove to blend the lights and projections together,” says Posner; “you can’t tell where one begins and one ends.” McCarthy, who used the High End Systems Catalyst digital media server, adds, “Catalyst is a cross-breed of video projector and moving light. It literally is the melding of the two design environments. You can’t ignore the moving light aspect of it. I was able to an additional layer of moving video to the colors and gobos. It gave me the opportunity to think about projections.”
Posner, who often gets his effects through a subtle approach, here unleashes a new, more flamboyant style, with bold color choices and stunningly theatrical arrangements of beams coming from severely angled front-side positions. “It is absolutely the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he says — bold words coming from the designer who helped give Hairspray is extravagant Pop Art sheen. Asked about the style of Wicked, he says, wryly, “Ozian was the term. Joe [Mantello] and [choreographer] Wayne Cilento pushed me on this. ‘This needs to be Ozian,’ they said. I decided that ‘Ozian’ meant theatrical and bold and beautiful and went on from there. I started in a more austere direction, then exploded into what it is now.”
First of all, Posner had to deal with the dark, looming construct of Eugene Lee’s set, which reaches out into the Gershwin auditorium. “Eugene’s set is so heavy, deliberately dark in its textures-stone, steel, timber,” Posner says. “Part of my plot was designed to pull things out and enhance the textures; the other part was designed to make aspects of it recede, as needed. It is a visually flexible environment. Joe and Wayne both have very extreme aesthetics — they like sculpted, bold strokes.” To achieve theses looks, Posner made use of extreme side positions. “Wicked is a sidelight-driven design,” he says. “The only front light, except for one scene and the curtain call, are from the the three front-of-house followspots.”
Over the stage, and elsewhere, can be found a number of moving units; for this production, Posner went entirely with Vari-Lite units for his automated rig (which includes 24 VL2000 Spot units, 14 VL Wash units, and 13 VL3000 Spots. “I’m enamored of the VL3000, because of its beautiful fading and colors,” he says, adding, “We had, I think, the first 15 units off the line. Also, the VL2000 Wash is the best unit Vari-Lite has ever made.” The latter unit’s compact size was also an important factor in the designer’s decision-making. The conventional gear includes ETC Source Fours of various types, mini-strips, Altman strips, four Arri Fresnels, Lycian followspots (more about followspots later), City Theatrical AutoYokes, Wybron scrollers, High End Systems Dataflash strobes, MDG and City Theatrical foggers, and Bowen and Mole fans. Lighting was supplied by Fourth Phase.
Practically speaking, Posner’s lighting works cinematically, contracting the stage for solo and duet numbers like “The Wizard and I,” or “I’m Not That Girl,” and opening up the space for numbers like the first-act finale “Defying Gravity,” in which Elphaba first takes flight in rebellion against Oz. One particular challenge was the Emerald City segment that opens Act II. As you can imagine, Susan Hilferty’s costumes are very, very green. “In those scenes, it’s a range of green light from a high steep angle to enhance and amplify the color of the costume palette, and a lot of white ballet sidelight cutting through the green to make the actors stand out. I had 40 units of custom Emerald City glass gobos applied to both moving and conventional units to help transform the world into Emerald City.” In addition, Posner’s lighting works closely with Cilento’s musical staging, shaping individual numbers as they build to big finishes and supporting the dance sequences, which, in most cases, are designed as transitions that move the action from one location to another.
Throughout, there are little flourishes that may or may not be projections. In “The Wizard and I” little magical spell patterns that appear on the floor (lighting, says McCarthy); then there are the images of flying monkeys on the proscenium during a sequences in which the Wizard’s airborne simians escape their prison (projections, McCarthy notes). There is a giant Wicked Witch shadow at one point, as befits the designer who created similar effects for the recent revivals of Into the Woods and Man of La Mancha. But there are many more, almost subliminal, projection touches that fill out and expand the stage picture. The show drop, a map of Oz is highlighted by a green glow. When confetti is shot into auditorium, the effect is augmented by projected confetti; similarly, when Glinda makes her first, outrageous entrance in a giant bubble, projected bubbles appear around here. Still, this seamless blend of lighting and imagery didn’t happen overnight.
“In San Francisco [where Wicked tried out] we were trying to find our way in the larger scheme,” says McCarthy. “The projections started out graphically, at Joe’s request,” says Posner. “But when Elaine’s work became more abstract, then it really started to take off.” McCarthy adds, “We had images-like a house and a cyclone-with an etched quality, but they didn’t meld into the design. When the images became too graphical, they become too slick-looking, too contemporary. So we set up our little mad scientist laboratory in San Francisco, shooting things like bowls of water in which we stirred up sparkles — that became the cyclone that appears when the witch melts. Instead of fabricating smoke in a digital environment, we created a barrel with a vacuum cleaner shooting through a hole, playing around with that and dry ice for the hurricane. We played with water, smoke, and fire, taking them into animation programs, changing the color, making them look otherworldly.” (Projections were created by Vermilion Border Productions)
This is where the advantage of an out-of-town tryout, followed by a several-week production pause, revealed itself. “We dissected every moment,” says Posner. “It took three weeks to tech in San Francisco and three weeks again in New York. We re-examined every beat of the show — in all areas. The producers were very smart about that. That was always the plan — to have the out-of-town tryout, lay off for five weeks, then re-explore the material.” McCarthy adds, “Ken said something significant to me in New York when we started to tech. He said, ‘Elaine, this time around I want us to push what’s already built into the Catalyst-let’s work more with gobos and colors.’”
McCarthy uses Christie L8 projectors in Wicked — “they’re my favorites,” she says. “They’re quiet and fairly compact, and they have four lamps, which eliminates the needs for a backup projector. The L8s don’t have a mechanical dowser, which was a problem in San Francisco. How do you get a full blackout without being obvious? So Scharff Weisberg [supplier of the projection equipment] opened up the projectors and jerry-rigged them with mechanical shutters for New York.”
Lighting in Wicked is controlled off of a Wholehog II console from High End Systems, with the projections run off a Hog PC, with Artistic Licence’s Common-Sense boxes used to control projector functions. Posner worked with programmer Warren Flynn and McCarthy worked with projection programmer Mark Gilmore. Again the dividing line between disciplines grew ever more blurred. “In New York, we had a monitor off the lighting board, so we could see cues,” says McCarthy. “When we needed, we asked Warren ‘What’s your timing on that? What gobo are you using?’ Michael Patterson, my assistant, is a lighting designer, which helped. I could ask him ‘How would you describe that color? Is that a Lee 152?” She adds, laughing, “I said ‘Look guys, I’m choosing gobos and color — I’m designing lights!” (Other personnel on the production included production electrician Bob Fehribach, associate lighting designer Karen Spahn, assistant lighting designer Ben Stanton, and studio lighting assistant Jonathan Spencer, assistant projection designer Jenny Lee, and projection animators Gareth Smith and Ari Sachter Waitz).
Of course, there are still singular design issues that one must solve alone. For example, says Posner, “I did something unusual for a Broadway musical — I used Source Four Lekos as followspots. I did it for the units’ color temperature and to keep and organic quality to the lighting. I didn’t want an HMI look. It was tricky — I have a pink girl and a green girl.” Speaking of Idina Menzel’s green makeup, however, he adds, “Once we found the balance of the lighting and her makeup, she really radiated.”
One man’s dream is another man’s nightmare. While Eugene Lee likes the Gershwin Theatre, it is not among sound designer Tony Meola’s favorite venues. “It’s a difficult space, because you have such a long orchestra floor,” he explains. “It’s tough to get to sound into the side aisle seats without making other things too loud.”
Sometimes a designer can end up doing as much work on the venue as he does on the sound; such was the case for Meola on Wicked. “Much of the stuff I needed to do to make the show work had to do with architecture, moving things or changing things in the building or in the scenery,” he says. Back in June, he met with the venue’s head engineer to rebalance the entire ventilation system. They had also discovered a large vent that had been installed for Starlight Express to cool projectors on the balcony rail, which was removed in order to place under-balcony speakers. “It made all the difference in the world,” he says. “It took the ambient noise in the room down quite a bit.”
Once the show had moved into the Gershwin, Meola discovered that the orchestra pit was not at its real level; it had been trapped. “Somebody at some point a long time ago decided the orchestra pit was too deep and made it shallower,” he says. “So we lowered the pit two feet. It works much better. Musicians like to play with a little bit more air around them.” Even after lowering it by two feet, the Gershwin pit posed challenges. The entire orchestra fit into the Curran in San Francisco, but for Broadway the harp player and percussionist had to be placed in the dressing room.
Actually designing the show was easier, though not without its challenges. The huge dragon over the stage meant that Meola couldn’t have a center cluster position, so he split center with two separate Meyer M1D line arrays. Meola had to use larger, and a larger number of speakers in the Gershwin as compared to the Curran, though he used exclusively Meyer boxes for both, including MM-4s (front fills and stalls), UPA-1Ps for orchestra left and right, and CQ-1s for the balcony. The show is run on a Cadac J-Type console.
The two leads also posed challenges. “They’re very different singers,” Meola says of Chenoweth and Menzel. “They have different voices. Idina’s tougher than Kristen, but a lot of it has to do with her hat. We tried a million different microphones on Idina in a million different places. She now wears three of them most of the time during the show, when she has her witch’s hat on. There is one that gets covered by the hat, one on her right sideburn as a backup, and one transmitter and mic in the hat itself. I just couldn’t let her sing the end of Act One not sounding as good as I knew she could sound. And it worked.” All the singers wear Countryman B6s.
Though he says this is the first show since he can remember in which he attended every preview, it wasn’t all hard work for Meola. “I had a blast on the sound effects,” he says. “I was inspired a lot by Eugene’s set; I took every single creaking wood sound effect that I’d either made in the past or in stock sound effect libraries. I used it in the cyclone cue, when Dorothy’s house comes crashing in. When the monkeys fly, that’s actually a wood sound too.” Meola worked closely with both John Kilgore and David Bullard at Masque Sound Studios to build the effects.
Many of the reverb-heavy effects used in the show are done live by Douglas Graves, the board operator. (Kai Harada once again served as Meola’s associate designer, a relationship going back nine years.) For instance, Joel Grey’s voice as the Wizard is actually a clean mini-disc, but Graves adds the reverb during each performance. “I find that in doing it that way, especially in previews, you can change it really quickly,” says Meola, especially on something like the Wizard effect, where you’re always running the risk of not understanding because there’s too much effect. You can do a lot of stuff that way.”
In the end, despite his misgivings about Wicked going into the Gershwin, Meola concedes that the end result was worth the effort. “The thing is, I think we were all fairly successful,” he says. “I’m speaking modestly about my own stuff, but certainly Eugene’s work, I’ve never seen anything look better in that theatre. Ken, Eugene, Susan, and Tom, the wig designer — we all really did it as a group. I have to say I’m not displeased that we ended up at the Gershwin.”