For those among you who have been living in an impenetrable, Glinda-esque bubble for the last 15 years, Wicked is one of the most successful musicals in the world. Winner of more than 100 awards, Wicked (based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name) wonderfully reimagines the world created in L.F. Baum’s beloved The Wizard Of Oz and tells the story of the two witches – Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good – and their unlikely friendship before, during and after Dorothy ever blew in from Kansas.
One of only three Broadway transfers in London theatre history to run for 10 years or longer (alongside Disney’s The Lion King and the 1997 revival of Chicago) and already the 14th longest-running show ever on the West End, the British incarnation of Wicked continues to grow in popularity with every year that passes.
And with good reason – as well as a killer score that combines intricately-witty wordplay with a deftness of emotional expression and rousing musicality (that will have you laughing, crying, and everything in between) the complexity of Wicked’s politically-charged story will also excite the minds of adults and children alike.
‘Our fans are so loyal,’ says Helen Woolf, who plays the role of Glinda the Good in the UK tour. ‘When I was in London, we’d see the same faces come back day after day, maybe like six shows a week, which is lovely. I just think you can never stop looking at the layers within the show. On the surface level – yes, it’s beautiful, yes, you’ve got two strong female leads; but then you can delve that level deeper and there’s the political elements of Madame Morrible and the Wizard playing with myself and Elphaba, and that relates to how we believe what we’re told in the media. So I think every time you see it, you’ll spot something new. It’s so clever.’
This year, the mesmerising musical has spread its wings from its ongoing residency in London’s Apollo Victoria and has flown in to theatres across the UK and Ireland – with a team of over 80 production workers collectively managing the journeys of over 15 trucks, filled with full-scale sets, props, broomsticks, spell books and general wiz-o-mania.
‘It’s huge!’ says Helen. ‘It’s such an absolute monster. I’m proud to be part of this show in that a lot of shows, when they come from the West End, tend to be scaled-down versions, but this is everything you’d see in the West End, no expense spared. I think that really helps the extra level of magic in our show and the overall spectacle.’
In a role originated by the inimitable star of stage and screen Kristin Chenoweth and reprised time and time again by different actresses around the world, Glinda has big (if not ruby) shoes to fill. Not that Helen, who understudied the role in London as well as in the original UK tour, finds that daunting.
‘I was fortunate because I’d understudied it, so I’ve witnessed a lot of people’s performances. What I wanted to do the most was to try not to imitate what anyone else has done. The thing about Glinda, I find, is that you have to play her with absolute sincerity in order for her to be funny; so when she has those funny moments – for example, when she’s in Shiz [the university in the show] she says: “oh something’s wrong, I didn’t get my way!” – she means that! And it’s only funny if you play it with sincerity. So I think everyone that plays the part naturally brings a bit of themselves to the role. That’s what I love about her. So I don’t feel under any pressure to be the same as anyone else, I just think playing her truthfully is the way to go about it.
‘It’s no coincidence that I’ve been cast as Glinda – I am pretty similar to her really! Well I’m not, I’m absolutely a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl, but there’s obviously bits of her that they see in you as a person.’
On show days, backstage is a veritable hive of emerald-tinted activity – with production workers testing out the mechanics of Elphaba’s ‘broomstick’ that sends her soaring above the audience each and every night, as well as making any last-minute adjustments to Glinda’s flying bubble (in which Helen enters at the start of the show); the affectionately-termed ‘wiggies’ (who work the longest hours of anyone in the company) preening countless heads of fake hair ahead of showtime; and a costume department bursting with all the colours, jewels, sparkles and sensational shoulder-pads that you’d expect from a magical realm governed by the self-titled Wonderful Wizard.
Wicked’s journey across the UK has now led them to the Sunderland Empire, for a 23-day run lasting until 29th September. And there is no better venue for a musical of such quality than the ‘West End of the North East’; with a history of hosting the best shows on the theatre circuit within its 2,000-seater Edwardian theatre, the Sunderland Empire promises to create a magical atmosphere befitting of one of the hottest musical of our time.
‘Every venue you go to, it sort of feels like you’re starting over again,’ says Helen. ‘Every venue the audience react differently, they laugh at different things – it’s really interesting to see the regional changes. But, essentially, at the end of every show we get a standing ovation, which is amazing.’
Wicked will be performed at the Sunderland Empire until 29th September.
For more information and tickets, visit: www.atgtickets.com/venues/sunderland-empire