Wicked Witch of the West heads for the West End

Louise Jury,Arts Correspondent
Friday 03 February 2006 01:00
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The Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wizard of Oz, was once voted the fourth greatest screen villain, behind Darth Vader, Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. Gregory Maguire wondered why she had been so vilified.

A writer, he then created Wicked, the story of a misunderstood, green-skinned girl who sets out to unseat the tyrannical Wizard of Oz. His book has now become a blockbuster stage show which has been the highest grossing musical on Broadway for the past 82 weeks. It has been seen by 1.75 million people, and won a Grammy and three Tonys, American theatre's top awards.

Yesterday, producers revealed their plans to open a British production at the Apollo Victoria theatre in London this September, which they promised would be no less impressive than the New York version with its flying witches and monkeys and levitating broomsticks. David Stone, the producer, said the London production would be "just as spectacular. It won't be scaled down or cut back one bit".

The musical tells the story of Elphaba, a green woman who is "smart, feisty and misunderstood", and the blonde, beautiful and self-absorbed Glinda. The two become friends and travel to the land of Oz, à la Shrek meets Thelma and Louise.

With its folksy message not to judge by appearances - and a strong implied criticism of the George Bush administration - it has provoked cult-like adulation among theatre-goers of all ages in America. The Washington Post described it as "a breathtaking success story of a magnitude the theatre has not witnessed since the peak years of The Phantom of the Opera".

Some critics have been less effusive - the New York Times' Ben Brantley observed: "Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical."

But with takings totalling $1.6m (£900,000) in a single week over the New Year period, the team behind it can afford to ignore the carping.

Auditions began yesterday for a British cast. With a budget believed to be in the region of £8m, the production will be one of the biggest yet seen in London when it opens on 27 September.

It is set to be another big year for musicals in the West End. Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled details this week of the first London revival of his 1978 show Evita. It will open at the Adelphi theatre in June, starring Elena Roger, an Argentinian, as Eva Peron in a production directed by Michael Grandage, who directed Ewan McGregor in Guys and Dolls.

Ms Roger said it was very important to her to have secured the role. "Although I didn't live in those times, I feel in my blood all that happened to the Argentine people," she said.

Another American hit, Spamalot, developed by the former Monty Python actor Eric Idle from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is coming to Britain in the autumn. And the biggest show of all time, a stage version of Tolkien's fantasy epic Lord of the Rings, is due top open at the Dominion theatre at the end of the year. The show opens in Canada this month because no available venue in London was big enough to take it.

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