'Wicked' casts a spell on Broadway despite evil omens from the critics

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The Independent US

Some Broadway musicals, such as the recent Lennon, about the late Beatles icon, start out their life with bad omens, open on the Great White Way to rotten reviews and then promptly fold. A few start out in much the same way and, as if by some sort of magic, end up flourishing.

Straight into the latter category goes Wicked, a garish and loud carnival of witches and broomsticks drawn from a book that is meant to be a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. When it opened in New York in October 2003 it was widely written off as a flop. Today it is a worldwide phenomenon.

The near-death and subsequent blossoming of Wicked - a production is set to open in London next year and in several other cities around the globe thereafter - is being seen by industry insiders as a model for how the obstacles of a disastrous opening can be overcome if the right marketing and franchising techniques are applied.

Not that emulating how Wicked cheated disaster will be easy. It is still the case that about 80 per cent of musicals staged on Broadway close at a loss. (The six-week nosedive of the Yoko Ono-supported Lennon was a particularly salutary experience for its hapless investors.)

When it opened, Wicked had advance ticket sales of $9m (£m), hardly encouraging for a show that had had already cost $14m to stage. The New York Times was withering, declaring: "There's trouble in the Emerald City." This was more troubling since the production had no household name superstars to bring bums on to seats.

But Wicked had some powerful backers, notably the film studio Universal Studios. Its triumph in saving the show is being seen as a sign of the future for Broadway: that it must adopt some of the practices of Hollywood to thrive. Revenue must be tapped not just from ticket sales but from the ancillary marketing of everything. And the show must be cloned quickly for touring.

When disaster loomed, Universal pulled out all the stops. The show promised to appeal to teenagers - it features a pair of young witches, one evil, the other, sweetly benign - and the producers set about generating buzz on the internet. They slashed ticket prices by 30 per cent. They also developed a Wicked clothes line and made a deal with a cosmetics company.

The strategy worked. Wicked has become a highly successful marketplace brand. Advance sales in the US now stand at $30m, there are two national tours drawing in sell-out audiences and sales of everything from Wicked golf balls to necklaces are generating $300,000 a week. Marketing tie-ins are planned with a mobile phone company and Mars.

It remains to be seen how successfully Wicked canmove abroad, whereaudiences will be less culturally connected to the lore of The Wizard of Oz than Americans. Already, though, Wicked has gone a long way to changing the way Broadway will do business.