It’s official, Universal’s adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster Wicked has gone to Act Two before the rest of us.
Director John M. Chu last night took to social media to announce the musical will be divided into two movies. The In the Heights director in a press release said “It became increasingly clear that it would be impossible to wrestle the story of Wicked into a single film without doing some real damage to it.”
The stage production of Wicked is approximately 145 minutes long, not counting an interval. Its cast recording clocks in at 71 minutes, not counting background scoring. The Second Act makes up just under 28 minutes of songs, begging the question: how is this split going to work? And why carve up a familiar production for a movie adaptation already surrounded by unknowns?
Wicked has been in the pre-production hell typical of musicals making the jump from stage to screen for decades. Its production dates have been postponed several times and original director Stephen Daldy eventually left due to scheduling conflicts. Wicked was to have been Daldry’s first movie musical. His successor John M. Chu has 4 dance movies from the Step Up franchise and the disastrous movie-with-music Jem and the Holograms under his belt. More recently, he directed the critically revered In the Heights, whose box-office failure Variety attributed to its 143 minute run time limiting the number of daily screenings.
The argument is a stretch given 2012’s Les Miserables clocked in at 158 minutes and still grossed $441 million. More accurately, In the Heights lacks the identifiable global blockbuster status of Les Mis.
Wicked does not.
If all goes to plan, the Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman penned smash hit will turn 20 next October, fourteen months shy of its big-screen debut. Wicked is the second most profitable Broadway musical of all time, boasting gross revenue of over $1.3 billion. Were it not for shutdowns caused by the COVID pandemic, it would already have eclipsed Cats as the fourth longest-running musical in Broadway history. Neither quality is a guarantee of success, as the screen adaptations of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera have made abundantly clear. The musical still has to fit the medium and then find its audience appeal.
The decision to divide Wicked at least makes it clear the production is aware some form of special sauce will be needed to make the blockbuster work on the big screen.
What’s not clear, yet, is who made the decision. The split could be born of Jon Chu’s experience with In the Heights. But at this point, the screenwriters for Wicked are still Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, whose credits lie overwhelming on stage.
If Wicked the stage musical has a problem, it lies in its book. Gregory Maguire’s source novel is a sprawling, fantastical allegory of Stalinism: Animal Farm but with socially integrated animals. The musical, to put it mildly, dumbs it down. The score with its soprano-heavy collection of anthems has always been the winner. Even with the announcement by Schwartz the movie would need at least two new songs, it’s tough to see just where the score can be cut without rendering the second movie a dark and dismal affair.
Ending the first movie on iconic showstopper “Defying Gravity” is the obvious solution. Audiences will be able to leave the cinema on the same euphoric note they have left Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre. This means part one will also house “The Wizard and I”, “Dancing Through Life” and “Popular”, three of the show’s most upbeat songs. Part Two will be left with more seething and introspective ballads: “As Long as You’re Mine”, “No Good Deed” and “For Good”, scored amidst a plot where one of the heroines has become a monster and an outcast.
Wicked Part’s One and Two will be extremely different movies.
The duology’s leads have been cast with Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo as the Wicked Witch of the West and multi-platinum selling recording artist Ariana Grande as Glinda the Good. Both have voices that pass muster for what is a notoriously difficult score, but neither is a box-office star in their own right. Chu will have developed a cult following from Heights, but at present, no one attached to this movie is a known entity so far as movie musicals go, or, blockbuster movie musicals.
The choice to divide Wicked is undeniably bold. With production scheduled to begin in London in June, and the first part due for a big screen release, Christmas Day 2024, Wicked the movie(s) remains unpredictable and entirely unknown.