From Sabrina to Charmed to American Horror Story ("On Wednesdays we wear black"), witches are hotter than a bubbling cauldron right now. But their magical allure has been a constant in entertainment for decades, from the cinematic sirens of Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick and The Craft to Samantha on TV's Bewitched to the creepy old hag in Disney's Snow White.
The most iconic witch of all time cannot be argued, though, can it? It's the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, a sad and sinister caricature representing bitterness and evil, whom no one understood or ever wanted to. That is, until the Broadway smash Wicked changed all that.
Based on the 1995 book by Gregory Maguire, the musical Wicked attempted to humanize the character with a backstory that everyone could relate to, exploring dysfunctional family dynamics, the damage done when parents play favorites, and true evils such as judging people for their looks (and, going a little deeper, the color of their skin) as well as bullying at school and in the adult world. Though it wasn't a hit right away, the talented cast in the original production (Kristin Chenoweth as beguiling good witch Galinda, aka Glinda, and Idina Menzel as dark and enigmatic Elphaba, as she is named in Maguire's book) combined with a majestic musical score made it a huge hit. Wicked continues to tour and sell out theaters around the world some 15 years since its debut.
Here in Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Pantages, the colorful musical is a hot ticket for new audiences and a winter highlight for old fans, especially since the current tour offers something extra special: a performance by the woman who has played the black-garbed, green-skinned protagonist longer than any other actress.
We caught New York–based Jackie Burns as Elphaba a few weeks ago at the Hollywood premiere, and her embodiment of the passionate, decidedly un-Wicked Witch of the West was a marvel to watch. From her vocal range to her feisty yet vulnerable take on the much maligned character, Burns conjures a perfect balance of likability and unpredictable badassness. She is clearly comfortable in the role, though it is one that she was initially in awe of.
"I was like, that is the most amazing role I've ever seen written for a woman. I was floored," Burns tells L.A. Weekly by phone after her opening night in L.A. As a teen, she saw the original cast featuring Chenoweth and Menzel, both of whom went on to become even more famous, Chenoweth in comedic film and TV roles and Menzel as the ice queen Elsa in Frozen. "I'd never seen anything like that. There hadn't been anything onstage like Elphaba before. I think the closest might be Evita, which was also a dream role. It's just such a rocking awesome role. So eight years later, to be playing it, and sitting in the same dressing room that Idina had been in on Broadway, was just such a crazy full-circle moment. It was a dream I would have never believed could come true. "
Burns has been playing the character on and off for 3½ years, starting with the touring cast before establishing herself and garnering fans in the Broadway production. She had never toured the West Coast with the show and says it's been "so exciting," and something she's always wanted to do. Of L.A., she says giddily, "I've never had such crazy audiences in my life!"
The big number "Defying Gravity," when Elphaba flies, is always a showstopper but in L.A., Burns says, it's truly a magical moment. "From the second I start flying, there's cheering and then midway there's still cheering. I mean, it's just electric," she enthuses. "Everybody in the [Pantages] is like super, super vocal. And it's throughout the whole show, too."
Keeping the role fresh has been easy here in L.A. thanks to the reactions and interactions. "You feed off each other's energy," she says. "It's like, yes, we're together on this ride."
Burns also notes differences between younger and older crowds in terms of Oz references and appreciation of them. Wicked is a family-friendly theater experience; while everyone has seen the film starring Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton as her shrill, genuinely scary nemesis in black, Burns finds that kids don't quite get all the jokes pertaining to the movie in the same way adults do. But Wicked has taken on a life of its own, proving to have universal appeal almost in spite of its classic cinematic and literary origins.
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For all the elaborate set production, Wicked is much more than pure spectacle. Sadly, its themes of discrimination and prejudice resonate now more than ever, but thankfully its core messages are powerful, too — the importance of friendship, love and being true to oneself. None of this is lost on Burns, no matter how many hours she spends transforming herself with green makeup or how many times she gets wired to fly. Even when she's wearing the pointy black hat and pushed to anger, there's a beauty to the character that shines through. Burns' obvious love of the role and understanding of the nuances of her character shine through, too.
The show has a wizard, a scarecrow, flying monkeys, a good witch and a bad witch. But the latter is obviously the most complex character, as Galinda is more of a ditzy blonde/mean girl stereotype. Still, it's the relationships depicted that make the characters real.
"I think it resonates so much with everybody because we all feel like outsiders sometimes, not comfortable in our own skin. We've all gone through that," says Burns, who says she might stick around L.A. for a little while after the show ends to pursue acting, and maybe music, too. "Seeing this character succeed in her journey and watching her ups and downs as she stays steadfast in her beliefs is inspiring. I think it's such a beautiful journey to watch."
Wicked, Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Jan. 27. pantages.la-theatre.org