WHILE the audience lose themselves in the shimmering sparkle of Wicked and its gloriously glittery world of soaring power ballads and sparky sorcery students, there’s an altogether different show going on backstage.
Carefully-choreographed costume changes and giant set pieces waiting in the wings for their moment in the spotlight create a busy backstage ballet designed to make everything on stage appear as if by magic.
The musical is currently in the second week of a month-long stint at Sunderland Empire, where its touring cast and crew of 81 have been joined by 30 local crew to help transport audiences to the wonderfully wicked world of Oz.
Anthony Field, company manager – Wicked UK Tour, says the behind-the-scenes drama, which began its journey when the tour premiered in Manchester in September 2013, is now a well-oiled machine.
It takes three days to load the show in to each venue, making sure each sequin is sewn on, each flying monkey ready to spring into action and the fibreglass head of the Wizard ready to boom his commands.
“We have 12 trucks, which is less than some shows, but they’re really well-packed,” explained Anthony. “We’re a green show and try to be environmental and keep our carbon footprint down.
My hat really goes off to the girls, they have the hardest job because they’re dancing in heelsAnthony Field, company manager
“It can be restrictive when we tour, but we’re having a great time here as there’s plenty of space for us. We’ve had a great response from the audiences here.
“Press night was great too, Joe McElderry was here, which we were really excited about because we’d love him to do a Boq.”
Anthony, who’s worked on the West End Wicked before helping to take the show on the road, says it’s lost none of its London sparkle.
“We have the same production values as the West End show,” he said. “A lot of the Wicked pieces have come from all over world. We’ve found the best set designers who make everything so brilliantly.
“Very rarely do we have problems with the sets, we’re pretty much on target. That actually happened more with the London show because the pieces are older.
“It took a lot of working out how to take Defying Gravity – the famous ending to Act 1 – on stage, because a lot of that is built into the stage in London.
“We don’t reveal exactly how we do it, let’s just say it’s portable magic.
“Glinda’s bubble is another big scene. The actress is clipped in, it’s built into her dress.
“There was a moment years ago when she got caught in a cable. But our guys are so good, everything is checked, double checked and certified.”
There’s a cool calm as you walk on stage in front of the giant clockface which features in the show.
Step beyond the wings and space is at a premium in wardrobe village where the giant costumes, swathes of various shades of green, await the cast.
It’s here you can see the intricacies of the Tony Award-winning costumes – 500 metres of ribbon is used in just one of the Emerald City outfits.
“My hat really goes off to the girls, they have the hardest job because they’re dancing in heels,” said Anthony.
“Elphaba and Glinda are really well-established roles in the States, and the original creative team still sees each production.
“They do allow actresses to make the role their own though, they’re allowed to use their English accents for instance, which is great.”
One of the biggest costume conundrums is how they make leading lady Ashleigh Gray stay evergreen as Elphaba.
While thin fabric is used to turn her arms green, her hands, face and neck are painted.
It starts with a white base and is built upon with green make-up over the course of 45 minutes to create the full Elphaba effect.
“The body paint is a special blend, which is specially made for us,” said Anthony.
“Each Elphaba has a number of skin consultations to get used to how her skin will react with the paint, and she gets taught a good cleansing routine.
“There’s constant touch-ups backstage. She actually changes colour and becomes a darker green towards the end.
“Rachel Tucker (a former West End Elphaba) didn’t sweat much at all, but other actresses perspire more.
“It’s interesting when Fiyero goes in for a kiss as he often comes off stage covered in green and he has to have a quick wet wipe off stage.”
Other cast members also have to undergo a drastic transformation, as Anthony explains: “A lot of the ensemble are cast as actors with a gymnast ability. The 81st person in our cast and crew is a physio.
“With a character like Chistery (head flying monkey), the actor is crouched down the entire time in a costume that weighs around a stone. So he has to have thighs of steel. Every two days he has an ice bath to help recovery.”
All these magic ingredients have combined to make Wicked the tenth-longest-running show in the West End, and its touring production a blockbuster success.
“I think the reason it’s struck such a chord with people is because it’s truly magical, but at its heart is this story of innocence and the journey the girls go on,” says Anthony.
“Joe Mantello – the show’s original director – said Wicked is like the before, during and after of Wizard of Oz.
“When that film’s on screen if you looked just to the left of that, that would be our story.
“It’s got politics, relationships and the story of how these witches grow up. It makes it a fuller show.”
• Wicked is at Sunderland Empire until April 25. The best availability for tickets is Monday to Thursday performances, including midweek matinees.
Tickets, priced £15-£55, are available in person from the box office in High Street West, from Tel. 0844 871 3022 or online at www.atgtickets.com/sunderland.