The whole world has heard of The Wizard Of Oz, but what do you know about Wicked, the untold story of the witches of Oz? Well, since the production premiered in London in 2006, Wicked has been seen by more than four million people and I am one of the happy theatre-goers.
Based on the novel Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West by Gregory Maguire, the musical tells the tale of two witches from the Land of Oz – green-skinned Elphaba (played by Rachel Tucker) and beautiful blonde Galinda (later Glinda, played by Gina Beck). A riot of colour and song, it is, above all else, a tale of friendship. And its popularity continues to soar. I went backstage to see what goes on behind the wizardry, sorcery and spells that audiences love so much.
Rachel Tucker spends the entirety of the musical painted green. But when we chat in her dressing room at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, there’s not the slightest tinge of emerald on her. So how does she get it all on – and off?
‘It’s a MAC-based water paint. I wear what is, in effect, a green skin, so I’m not fully greened. That’s what the trick is: I just green my hands, up past my wrists. And I get my face, ears, neck and chest done. Where the pinafore stops, that’s where the green stops. The girls do it in about 15 to 20 minutes – and I do my hands just before. You might notice a tinge of green hanging off everything in here. It does come off everywhere. Whenever I’m offstage, I’m constantly being topped up with green.’
But for Rachel the invasion of green on her life (all her fan mail is green, too: ‘It’s amazing what people find that comes in green,’ she laughs) is a small price to pay to play her dream role.
‘I had my eye on this for eight years,’ she reveals. She’s now the longest-running Elphaba in the West End – something she was told by fans – but she still gets stage fright.
While everything is green in Rachel’s dressing room, Gina’s is as girly as one would imagine Glinda’s to be: all shades of pink. There’s even sparkly glitter in a salt shaker (to be liberally applied).
Glinda is Gina’s first big comic role. Previously she’d been cast in rather more tragic roles (‘young, desperate girls,’ she explains) in productions such as Les Misérables and Phantom Of The Opera (although her very first performance was as Little Miss Magic – aged four).
She has had no disasters onstage – aside from occasionally bashing herself on the head with her wand (occupational hazard it would appear) and says she made many friends in the show. And that includes co-star Matt Willis (previously of boy band Busted).
While Rachel is married (to a theatre director) and Gina is newly engaged (with a wedding in Hertfordshire to look forward to) both have a soft spot for their ex-boy band costar who, it must be said, is something of a heart-throb. ‘He’s amazing – such a lovely, lovely person. A great family man,’ says Gina – and Rachel concurs. Both laugh when I mention the wolf whistles that accompanied his debut.
For both actresses, the enduring magic of the show is the friendship between their two characters. ‘I don’t think there’s anything else like it in terms of musicals,’ says Gina. ‘The real friendship through the years between them, through the trials and tribulations…’
As curtain-up draws ever closer I leave them both preparing for the evening’s performance and take a trip to the bowels of the theatre to where the props and costume department lives.
It’s a veritable treasure trove. Witches’ costumes sit alongside broomsticks and monkey masks, all lovingly looked after to withstand the rigours of eight performances a week. All the principals have spare costumes – there are actually four bubble dresses and I spot four of Elphaba’s hats. Up close, the detailing is phenomenal, as is the weight of the outfits, even the hats. For the cast, just getting to the stage in all this clobber must be a challenge – let alone performing in it.
As I depart through the stage door, backstage is a hive of activity. Lifts crank from floor to floor and the cast scurry to their places ready for the evening’s warmup. I can hear the chords of No One Mourns The Wicked quietly playing somewhere. A true sentiment, and yet I can’t help but think that, if it did end, Wicked would be greatly mourned, by four million, and counting…
Wicked is at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, Wilton Road, London SW1: 0844-826 8000, wickedthemusical.co.uk
Interview first published in the Lady magazine