The Wicked Young Witches
”IT’S good to see me, isn’t it?”
Thus does Glinda the Good Witch introduce herself, suspended in midair and floating down into Munchkinland at the start of ”Wicked,” the new $14 million Broadway musical that takes place in the fictionally familiar land of Oz and opens at the Gershwin Theater on Thursday.
The scene is reminiscent of the bubble-carriage entrance of Glinda in the film of ”The Wizard of Oz,” and the opening line is meant to be a pithy and shrewd bit of postmodern self-awareness. What it requires from the actress playing the spoiled and sweetly conceited Glinda is that she give off a sense, equally, of mischief and sincerity, of self-mockery and self-confidence, of being a dreamgirl and knowing there is no such thing.
In other words, it has to be Kristin Chenoweth. A blond pixie with a Pepsodent smile, Ms. Chenoweth, 33, has a soprano capable of both fine-china delicacy and sonic-boom belting, and the kind of presence, both on and offstage, that glows with the aura of too-good-to-be-true. After all, she did arrive for an interview in a Midtown Manhattan rehearsal studio recently with her face literally asparkle (with glitter lotion).
But Ms. Chenoweth, who won a Tony Award in 1999 for her role as Sally in ”You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and has had her own short-lived sitcom, is also disarmingly self-aware. She’s a legitimate star and yet she manages to embrace the personality of a star and send it up at the same time. It’s hard not to ask her if she feels as though there is some of Glinda in her, the good, the fortunate, the privileged.
”Maybe a little,” she said, giggling coyly.
In any case, her entrance in ”Wicked” certainly marks her as the star of the show. Right?
Well, sort of. Not long after Glinda’s arrival, another character enters, this one earthbound, in an awkward fluster, not terribly well dressed or well groomed, and with a distinctly unsavory complexion.
”What?” she says. ”What are you looking at? Oh, do I have something in my teeth? Or wait, is my underskirt showing? All right, fine. We might as well get this over with. Yes, I’ve always been green.”
This is Elphaba, an insecure but bitingly, passionately intelligent young woman who, it turns out, has as much claim on the center of the show as does Glinda; in fact, she is the title character. Elphaba, you see, is better known as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Played by the big-voiced, dark-haired beauty Idina Menzel (who was the original Maureen in ”Rent”), Elphaba shows herself to possess layers of complexity that, it seems fair to say, the cackling Margaret Hamilton never considered when she donned the famous pointed black hat and rode a bicycle across the sky. A woman who has none of Ms. Chenoweth’s naughty effervescence, Ms. Menzel, 32 (who isn’t really green, by the way), is introspective and seems almost shy.
”The cool thing about the show,” said Ms. Menzel, ”is that I get to be the ingénue and the wicked lady.”
”Wicked” is a kind of prequel to ”The Wizard of Oz.” It has been loosely adapted for the stage, from Gregory Maguire’s fantasy novel of the same name, by the composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (”Godspell,” ”Pippin”) and the writer of the show’s book, Winnie Holzman, who has had a successful career in television on shows like ”thirtysomething” and ”My So-Called Life.”
The playwright Eve Ensler has called ”Wicked” a surprisingly feminist Broadway musical, and there’s something to that; it tells the story of a complicated relationship between two women, both of whom, in their way, suggest Everywoman.
The show — which has choreography by Wayne Cilento, an extravagant set design by Eugene Lee, fantastical costumes by Susan Hilferty and a large cast that includes Carole Shelley as the college dean, Madame Morrible; Norbert Leo Butz as Fiyero, the seeming wastrel who earns the affections of both Glinda and Elphaba; and Joel Grey as the Wizard — has a lot of attractions to recommend it (including plausible back stories for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion).
But to everyone involved in the show — and from the reaction of an early preview audience, to theatergoers as well — its primary charm comes from the two leading actresses, whose superficial qualities so suggest the dichotomy of their characters that they seem almost preposterously typecast. (Both actresses are committed to ”Wicked” into next summer.)
In separate interviews, Ms. Chenoweth and Ms. Menzel spoke about the appeal of playing against each other instead of male leads. ”I’ve seen so many people act the way Glinda does, and deep down they’re insecure,” Ms. Chenoweth said. ”Women can be tricky. In life, I mean, we’re not always nice to one another, and I don’t understand why we do that. We should be on the same team, in other words.”
For Ms. Menzel, the central issue is ”the idea of wanting to do good.”
”Elphaba has some bitterness,” she said. ”Some things to say, some things to stand up for. But you know, sometimes we want to do good just because then our fathers will like us.”
The show’s presumptive gag is that years before Dorothy (who appears in ”Wicked” only as a silhouette) landed in Oz, Glinda and Elphaba were college roommates at Shiz University, where they majored in sorcery. The story, which is told in the form of a flashback, depicts how they became friends and how their disparate natures pushed them along divergent paths.
”It’s like they are two halves that have been separated for years,” said the show’s director, Joe Mantello. ”And the whole piece is about their finding their way back to each other.”
Like Elphaba and Glinda, Ms. Menzel and Ms. Chenoweth can also seem like two sides of the same coin, and at times they almost appear to be playing themselves. Glinda is sassy, pert, not a keeper of unspoken thoughts and not above a little pouty or flirty manipulation to get her way; the same might be said of Ms. Chenoweth, a single woman who has had, by her own assessment, ”a lot of wonderful boyfriends,” including the actor Marc Kudisch, to whom she was once engaged. ”Great guys,” she said. ”Just not the guy.”
Elphaba, on the other hand — the name is Mr. Maguire’s concoction, a nod to L. Frank Baum, the author of the original novel ”The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — is more of a brooder, a weigher of alternatives, a formulator of arguments, a deflector of attention.
”It’s strange the way their personalities mirror the story of our show,” Mr. Mantello said. ”Idina is very slow to make decisions, very soulful, private for a long time. You have to be patient with her. She almost retreats from the glare of the lights. Kristin goes toward it. She’s extremely facile, extremely creative, a creature who can go straight to 100 percent. It’s a question of editing with her.”
Their biographies bear out these differences. Unlike Glinda, Ms. Chenoweth does not come from minor royalty, but her story is something of a fairy tale. An Oklahoman who grew up in a place called Broken Arrow (a suburb of Tulsa, not the remote outpost it sounds like), she was adopted as an infant into a family she describes as very supportive but ”analytic-minded, not artistic at all.”
She started ballet when she was 5; her mother took her to Broadway road shows in Tulsa.
”I remember her covering my ears with her hands during the racier parts of ‘A Chorus Line,’ ” Ms. Chenoweth said. ”It was the Bible belt.”
She grew up singing in church, making enough of an impression to have sung, at age 11, in front of 20,000 people at the Southern Baptist Convention. Her selection? ”I’m Only 4-Foot-11 but I’m Going to Heaven and That Makes Me Feel 10 Feet Tall.”
She earned scholarship money participating in beauty contests, including finishing as second runner-up to Miss Oklahoma.
”I didn’t do very many,” Ms. Chenoweth said, ”and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just entered them and won.”
She graduated from Oklahoma City University, majoring in musical theater. But she planned to study opera and was only weeks away from enrolling in the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia when she visited New York for the first time with a friend. While there, she went to an open call audition for a musical — ”Animal Crackers” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey — and got the part. She made her Broadway debut in the short-lived 1997 musical ”Steel Pier.” She has thus far made a stage career on Broadway by outshining her material.
Her second album — featuring country songs; she thought, for a while of moving to Nashville — is in the works (the first, titled ”Let Yourself Go,” is mostly Broadway show music from the 1930’s and 40’s). Next year she will sing opposite Plácido Domingo in an opera commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera based on ”Alice in Wonderland.”
Compared to Ms. Chenoweth’s colorful tale, Ms. Menzel said, ”My story is so boring: Long Island Jewish parents take their daughters to Broadway.”
She is underselling herself. Ms. Menzel grew up in Syosset. Like Elphaba, she was the daughter of squabbling parents. Her mother, a therapist who now lives in Boulder, Colo., and her father, a pajama salesman, split up when she was 15.
”From the time I was born, I had drawers tumbling over with great pajamas,” she said. ”Feeties, robes with dogs with ears on them that squeaked. And pretty nightgowns, satin, and baby dolls. I was a very lucky child. I had beautiful pajamas. Why am I telling you this?”
Her mother didn’t want a showbiz kid, so Ms. Menzel was not allowed to audition for theater as a child, but she did earn money as a singer for a band that played at weddings and bar mitzvahs, performing everything from pop standards to Motown to bossa nova. Her 1998 album, ”Still I Can’t Be Still,” is a collection of songs she deems ”eclectic pop-soul.”
She went to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and ”Rent,” in which she was cast in 1995, was her first professional theater gig. Among other things it did for her, the show introduced her to Taye Diggs, now a film star but then an unknown fellow cast member. He became her husband in January. She also appeared in the replacement cast of ”Aida” on Broadway.
Different as the witches of ”Wicked” are, get them together, of course, and they’re a mutual admiration society. Not great friends, but great and affectionate colleagues whose idiosyncrasies clash rather amusingly. When Ms. Menzel said she was thinking about having children soon, Ms. Chenoweth gasped in surprise, but she had a quick verbal response.
”Are you going to name your little daughter Kristin or Glinda?” she said. To which a nonplussed Ms. Menzel responded, ”I don’t know about that.”
Elphaba and Glinda connect, they agree, because each recognizes the essential insecurity in the other. It isn’t an uncomplicated affection, but the emotional bond between their characters is something both actresses say they feel.
”I think they hold a mirror up to each other,” Ms. Menzel said.
”It’s sort of like a love-hate relationship,” Ms. Chenoweth said. ”It happens pretty quickly that Glinda hates her, but she’s also drawn to her.”
And what about between the two actresses? Is there any of that between them? The question made them giggle.
”I don’t hate her,” Ms. Menzel said quickly. ”I’m very envious of her, though. And I find myself very jealous of the things she has, and I would like to walk away from this experience, hopefully, to walk away with some of what she has.”
This time it was Ms. Chenoweth who was nonplussed.
”I can’t even believe it,” she said. ”That’s so sweet.”
Photos: Idina Menzel is introspective and can seem almost shy.; Kristin Chenoweth, an actress eager for the glare of the lights. (Photographs by Joan Marcus)(pg. 6); Kristin Chenoweth as the Good Witch: ”I’ve seen so many people act the way Glinda does, and deep down they’re insecure.”; Idina Menzel as the Wicked Witch: ”Elphaba has some bitterness. Some things to say, some things to stand up for.” (Photographs by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)(pg. 5)
Correction: October 26, 2003, Sunday An article on Page 5 of Arts & Leisure today about Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel of the musical ”Wicked” misstates the schedule and refers incorrectly to the casting of an opera based on ”Alice in Wonderland,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, in which Ms. Chenoweth will appear. It will not be ready for performance by next year, and Plácido Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera, will not sing in it.