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Maybe it'll stay a spell

`Wicked' returns on an open-ended run, but can it bewitch L.A. audiences for the long haul?

February 18, 2007|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

ON a recent episode of ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," the siblings of a large, close-knit Los Angeles family must lure their mother out of the house before her surprise birthday party. The ruse they employ is to have one of the daughters take her to a matinee of "Wicked."

Apparently, or so the plot went, the lawyer-brother used to date one of the flying monkeys in the show. At the least, that suggests that "Wicked" must have been playing in L.A. long enough for him to have and to end an affair, not to mention slink back to his ex for help scoring good seats for Mom.

Well, art is about to imitate art. Not in the sense that untold lawyers are poised to embark on affairs with flying monkeys. But "Wicked," the long-running prequel-to-Oz musical, is launching what's known in the industry as a "sit-down" run -- meaning an open-ended engagement -- at the Pantages Theatre starting Wednesday.

Just how open-ended is it? Let's say "Wicked's" witches don't plan to broomstick it out of here any time soon. "If we ran two years we'd be thrilled," says producer Marc Platt, who has spearheaded the show from its beginnings. "If we got one year, we'd still feel good. It has a very healthy advance here, meaning as large as any advance has ever been for L.A."

Two years may sound like a tall order for a city in which theater people must ever grapple with the overweening presence of the film and television industry. What's more, because few open-ended commercial engagements have done well here in recent decades, L.A. is sometimes touted as a tough town for sit-downs. Yet insiders predict success.

"If any show can sit down and run, 'Wicked' is it," says producer-director Peter Schneider, former chief of Disney Theatricals, whose show "The Lion King" enjoyed a lengthy sit-down from 2000 to 2003, also at the Pantages. "It has tremendous appeal. It has proven to be a huge success in New York and in Chicago where it is sitting down. It has confounded everybody's prediction in terms of it being there for a very long time. It's a phenomenon, and I think it has the opportunity to be the same phenomenon in L.A."

Down the main road on the Universal lot, huge, boxy sound stages loom to your right, while to your left, modest brown bungalows house beehives of creative activity. Toward the end of the not-yellow-brick road where the stages stop, there are signs in slimy green and black advertising a musical. And just a bit farther on is Marc Platt Productions, home of "Wicked."

Platt's independent production company, which has a first-look deal with Universal, is where the show was launched. " 'Wicked' was really born right here in these bungalows," says Platt. "There was an emotional motivation to why we decided to come here and do the sit-down, which is that the show was born here, and one of its producers is a movie studio."

Formerly president of production at Universal -- and TriStar, and Orion, as well as an attorney -- Platt first encountered Gregory Maguire's novel 10 years ago. At that time, "Wicked," which tells a tale of friendship between a blond witch named Glinda and a green one known as Elphaba, was being developed as a film, originally optioned by Demi Moore's production company.

"When you're running production, there're 200 projects you're developing, but I really gravitated to it because I thought it was such a great idea," says Platt, dressed in a gray sweater and jeans and seated in a quietly tasteful room filled with comfortable furniture, the requisite family and celebrity photos, and a faux-antique memorabilia book of "Wicked" on the coffee table.

Movie takes a back seat

SEVERAL screenplays were commissioned, and when Platt became an independent producer, he took the project with him as a film. But the screenplays, he says, "were not satisfying."

Then one day Platt got a call from composer Stephen Schwartz. "He said, 'I know you're making it into a film -- did you ever consider turning it into a musical?' " says Platt. "And the moment he said it, the light went on in my head."

And, so the story goes, starting in 1999, Platt, Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman met in Platt's bungalow for a year, working out the story line for a musical.

Platt went to Universal to see how they felt about the project. "I said, 'I know you're not in the business of the theater, but I really believe in this as a stage musical; would you mind if I didn't develop the movie any further?' " he says. "And their response was 'Go ahead and we want to stay in touch.' To what end I wasn't sure, but they were very interested."

Still, even though Platt was putting a movie of "Wicked" aside for the time being, he wasn't ruling it out forever. "For most people, the reference point of 'The Wizard of Oz' isn't Frank Baum's books, it is rather the 1939 movie, which is a musical," he says. "And I thought if we were lucky and actually established something as a stage musical, the reference point for an eventual film of 'Wicked' would become the musical, not the 1939 movie."

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