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How “Wicked” Works Its Magic!

Popular Broadway Sensation in RVA

The Broadway musical Wicked resonated with Keeley and Evie Maddux the first time the kids saw the bewitching blockbuster musical with their family when they were in second and fourth grades. 

Their mom Jen Maddux had prepped the kids for their first Broadway experience long before they headed to the show. “We listened to the soundtrack and told them part of the story, leaving a few pieces out so it would be a surprise to them,” says Maddux, who lives with her family in Henrico. “If kids get some backstory, they know what is happening on stage. Wicked was the perfect show for them.”

Wicked, the fifth longest-running Broadway show to date, tells the untold story of the witches of Oz from a different angle than the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Maddux’s children easily recognized tie-ins to the classic fantasy. “We got all the references,” says Keeley, who’s fourteen now. “It was a story we could actually understand.”

The show sparked an interest in theatre for 12-year-old Evie, who says she likes Wicked a “little more than The Wizard of Oz now.”

The story, based on the Gregory Maguire novel which is not for kids, provides more depth to the original character of Elphaba (known as the Wicked Witch of the West or the Wicked Witch in the L. Frank Baum series and film version). “We can see that Elphaba is not as evil as people say, and Glinda is not always that bubbly,” says Keeley. 

Maddux chose Wicked as her children’s first Broadway show because she was looking for a show that was family-friendly, with lots of spectacle and creative energy. “Those are all the things that make for an exciting Broadway experience,” she says. 

Justin Wirick has performed at Altria Theater twice and returns for this run of Wicked. He plays five different characters 
in the musical, including a flying monkey and a student at Shiv.

The Spectacle of Wicked

The touring production of Wicked opened at Altria Theater on August 31 and runs through September 11. This is the fourth time the show has played in Richmond. 

Wicked was the first three-week engagement of any Broadway touring show in Richmond in March 2010, at what was then the Landmark Theater. Due partially to Wicked’s success and the city’s commitment of bringing Broadway back to Richmond, renovations were initiated that benefited all shows and audiences alike,” says Brian Vogler, vice president of marketing for Nederlander National Markets, presenter of Broadway In Richmond.

Wicked ranks among the top three revenue-producing shows in Broadway in Richmond history,” he adds. “Well over 150,000 people attended the first three engagements, and we’re excited for another popular run this time.”

A perpetual crowd pleaser, the blockbuster won three Tony Awards in 2004, including the Tony for Best Costume Design, as well as seven Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical. It also was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album in 2005.

Actor Justin Wirick, a cast member of the touring production, has performed in Richmond twice and will be performing in the show at Altria Theater this time around.

“I have been with the show for twelve years,” says the Pittsburgh native. “It’s so special to be part of something so grand, a show that you know 99.9% of people who come to the theater are going to enjoy.”

Wirick plays five different characters in the show – a flying monkey, a Shiv student, a member of the Wizard’s guard, a citizen of the Emerald City, and a witch hunter.

He has a number of costume changes during the show, many that require lightning-fast speed. “We have a full set-up behind the stage that we call our backstage closet. We have dressers to help us. That keeps everything organized so that it runs seamlessly. What happens behind the scenes is its own show,” he says. 

He remembers his first Richmond engagement with the show. “It was springtime and everything was blooming. I walked around Hollywood Cemetery and checked out the beautiful architecture in the city. The second time was in the fall, and I remember shopping in Carytown for my Halloween costume,” he says. 

This time around, his parents are touring with him. “There’s so much we want to get out and see together,” he says. “Richmond has so much history.”

Wirick says he appreciates performing at Altria because it’s like a “vintage Broadway house,” he says. “Audiences in Richmond are very electric, and we really appreciate the energy.”

Wirick isn’t the only actor who has multiple changes. In fact, each actor in the production has approximately five costumes, totaling about 250 full changes — about 1,000 costume pieces. There are approximately seventy-five quick changes in any given show. 

Ensemble men and the understudies for the role of Fiyero have the most changes – ten in any given show. As far as the principal characters, Glinda has the most changes with nine. 

The wardrobe department for Wicked has three traveling supervisors and one advance supervisor who joins the show when it moves. “We hire thirteen local union workers in each city to help clean and repair the costumes and dress the actors,” says wardrobe supervisor Cynthia Lancaster. “Wardrobe works twenty-four hours or more per week for work calls, in addition to eight show calls.”

Richmonder Kate Parthemos has seen the show every time it has played at Altria Theater. “I love the costumes,” she says.

When Parthemos visited New York City, she took a Behind the Emerald City Curtain tour and learned even more about the costumes. “I found out that when the characters are regular Ozians and not a main character, their costumes are asymmetrical,” she says. “When they become main characters, their costumes become symmetrical.”

Parthemos, a long-time administrator at Collegiate School who is now retired, used to coordinate groups of students and teachers and school families to see Wicked, as well as other shows playing in Richmond. 

Wicked was very popular with the groups. It reaches across generations. It’s less scary for younger ones [than The Wizard of Oz],” she says. “The sounds, colors, lights – it’s the whole package. It’s a great show for anybody.”

Mike Boyd of Richmond, above with some of his equipment, has been the percussionist for Wicked every time the show has played at Altria Theater.

Turning the Richmond Stage into The Emerald City

David O’Brien is in charge of the artistic side of Wicked, ensuring both the director’s and designer’s original vision for the show is executed on stages throughout the tour. 

“I follow the way the director wanted the show,” says O’Brien, production stage manager. “If the show starts to look a little shabby, I am the one who has to say that. It’s for me to say we have to make this look better.”

O’Brien, who’s been with the show for ten years, orchestrates all the parts of the traveling production, from the load-in to arranging training for new actors stepping into principal roles. He was in Richmond the last time the show played Altria. 

There is a lot to maintain on a big show like Wicked, he says. “I have a fantastic crew.” It takes thirteen trucks to move the show from destination to destination. The two advance trucks rolled into Richmond the Monday before the show opened, and the crew put up the proscenium, the onstage frame around which the audience observes the show. The rest of the trucks arrived the next day, including one truck for Wicked merchandise alone. The cast arrived on Wednesday, in time for sound check before the first performance. 

“It takes about thirty hours to put the show in and about five hours to take it out,” O’Brien says.

The orchestra – six permanent orchestra members travel with the show – is loaded in and rehearsal begins. “We usually get another nine orchestra members that we pick up in each city,” O’Brien says. 

Mike Boyd, director of the arts at Collegiate School, has been the percussionist for Wicked every time the musical has played Richmond. Percussionists can play timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, maracas, and other instruments that require striking. The production sends the music as well as rehearsal tracks to him a few weeks in advance. He goes to the theater on Tuesday before opening night for rehearsal.

“You have to come in extremely prepared and ready to play the show,” says Boyd, who plays at other venues around Richmond and is a former drummer with the nineties regional favorite, Fighting Gravity. “Playing Wicked is an absolute blast. It’s the most challenging, the most rewarding music. It’s so well composed.”

Boyd has to bring all of his own instruments to the theater, everything from a concert bass drum to a glockenspiel. He has to rent a truck to bring all of his instruments to the theater.

“I bring between forty and sixty instruments to play. It takes me about six hours to pack up and three to four hours to load in,” Boyd says.

He is constantly switching instruments during the show. “The notes of the music aren’t hard, but there is choreography involved – knowing what instrument to go to next,” he said, noting the show is two hours and forty-five minutes long. “As a percussionist, it’s quite a workout for me. It’s very busy.”

He is also responsible for some of the sound effects in the show. “All of the sounds in Wicked are acoustic, which is a throwback to older shows. The sounds are produced organically,” he says. “That’s the beauty and fun of the show. It’s really well thought out. The show is fun. I do it because I love it.”

Boyd is also a real fan of the show and the storytelling. “It’s just so well done. You could see it forty times and pick up something new,” he says. “The story is about friendship. It’s more of a human story.”

One of his favorite moments in the show as a percussionist is hitting the last note to the song “Defying Gravity,” the iconic number which closes the first act. “I look up and Elphaba is elevated in the air. It’s the perfect ending to act one. It’s so magical,” he says. “Those moments are what keep people coming back.” 

Backstage at Altria Theater

In comparison to other venues Wicked plays on its tour, production stage manager O’Brien says Altria has a smaller backstage. Every time O’Brien comes to Richmond with the show, he takes notes so he’ll have a reference. “Either we can do the same thing when we move in again, or we can make changes,” he says. 

The amount of space backstage is tight, he adds. 

“We have to coordinate much more for safety reasons. We have close to sixty to seventy people backstage. At least half of the theaters we play in the country are similar to Richmond. The biggest challenge is coordinating the stage,” he says. “Wicked is not a show where we cut things to fit them into the theater. Once we get in, it becomes a question of making sure there are enough dressing rooms and room for wardrobe, hair, makeup, and a physical therapist who travels with the show.”

As Wicked loads in and preps for the run, there are close to one hundred people working – eighteen of those folks travel with the show. Everyone else is local. 

“For the run of the show, there are about thirty local members who stay for the entire run. They are either construction, lighting, dressers, or wardrobe,” he says.

Local Economic Boost

Company managers give the cast and crew a choice of two hotels during each run of the show. In Richmond, one option is usually within walking distance of the theater and the other is several miles away. “We have to coordinate transportation,” O’Brien says. He adds that in Richmond, some folks will opt for accommodations through Airbnb.

During the run of the show, the cast and crew frequent local restaurants and shops. They’ll also go to area museums and take in sporting events if they can, O’Brien says. “What’s great about the road is you get to go to new restaurants every few weeks, explore the city, and everybody talks about it. It gives new energy to the show that you don’t get when you are sitting in the same city. That is what I enjoy about touring.”

Andrew Clarke, co-owner of 821 Cafe with Chip Cooke, loves it when the cast and crew come in to eat. The Cary Street restaurant serves diner-inspired food with a lot of vegan and vegetarian choices. 

“Most times, they come see us for multiple meals, whether it’s a quick bite before the show or a party of twenty as the tech crew eats breakfast after putting up the show for opening night,” he says. “We have been doing this for a long time, and a good show season can help you put a little money in savings, but more importantly, we get to show who we are as a business.”

Many of the folks coming to Richmond to see the show also visit 821 Cafe. “That’s a lot of chances to make new repeat customers,” Clarke says. “I think diners like eating at 821 because we are super close to the theater, and it’s just so easy. We love it when the multi-week shows are in town.

 “The combination of increased business on show nights and feeding hungry cast and crew is always great,” he says. “And we secretly know that 821 food is the key to an amazing performance,” he adds with a wink.

Enduring Appeal

Wicked tells the story of a friendship in a unique way, using characters that are familiar to people, O’Brien says. “There are other themes in the show that are relatable – bullying, non-acceptance, skin color,” he says. “We do not update the script, but people think we are updating because it’s relatable to people. The themes were true twenty years ago, and they are true today.”

When O’Brien started with the show, he thought everybody knew The Wizard of Oz. Now there is a “whole generation that knows Wicked, and then they find out about the movie The Wizard of Oz. It will be interesting to see if Wicked becomes this generation’s The Wizard of Oz.

Richmonder Richard Waiton never misses an opportunity to see Wicked when it comes to Richmond. This year will mark the fourth time seeing the show. 

Wicked is one of a short list of Broadway shows that I can see and enjoy again and again and always discover some new subtlety or interpretation that I had missed before,” he says. “Only My Fair Lady, Hamilton, and Hadestown share that distinction for me. You might say that these shows are like gravity – please, forgive me!” he chuckles, playing on one of the show’s best-known songs. “They’re constantly drawing me back again in a way that few other Broadway shows can.”

Waiton was in the third grade when he discovered the entire Wizard of Oz series of books at his local public library. 

“I never missed the annual network television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz during my childhood years,” he says. “So seeing Wicked later in Richmond was like adding the best possible icing to my favorite cake.” 

If this artwork, from a local parent whose kids first saw the show when they were in elementary school, is any indication, O’Brien is onto something about Wicked being as popular as The Wizard of Oz.  

Photography: Joan Marcus (Wicked Production), Jimmy Dickenson, Cindy Creasy

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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