Stephen Schwartz, Wicked, “Popular”
The line in Wicked’s advertising, drawing audiences to this musical, has always been, “So much happened before Dorothy dropped in.” Dorothy is, of course, the youthful heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the tale that began life in 1900 with the book by L. Frank Baum (there would eventually be a whole series of Oz books —14 in all — over the next 16 years). The 1939 film adaptation of the first Oz book did more than anything to enchant the world with all things Oz, while at the same time leaving generations wondering what was going on in Oz pre-Dorothy. The answer came in 1995 with Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked (it, too, led to a series of new Oz books). The book attracted composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who’d made his name in musical theater in his twenties with Godspell and Pippin. After writing for a string of important films, Schwartz finally returned to Broadway in 2003 with Wicked. The fifth-longest-running show in Broadway history, it had amassed nearly 7,000 performances at the point when New York theaters closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Wicked reveals the ups and downs of the friendship between two very youthful, very different witches. We get to know Glinda and Elphaba through some of contemporary musical theater’s most captivating songs. One of them is “Popular,” in which Glinda valiantly attempts to convince Elphaba that a makeover is exactly what she needs, and that Glinda herself can provide it. The song (written to showcase the vocal and musical gifts of Kristin Chenoweth) requires a combination of textual crispness, rhythmic dexterity, and accuracy of pitch that makes it one of the most virtuosic numbers in any recent Broadway musical.