NEW YORK — Never mind Dorothy. According to "Wicked," the new musical that opens on Broadway Thursday night, the women who matter in Oz are Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and her alter ego, Glinda, the Good Witch.
The musical, adapted from the evocative 1995 novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, pictures life in the Land of Oz before Dorothy and Toto landed.
Unlike L. Frank Baum's book and the 1939 film which remains an icon of American childhood, this musical has Dorothy arriving only at the end, and off-stage.
"We like to say that 'Wicked' is behind the scenes of what you saw in the movie," says Idina Menzel, who plays the role of Elphaba. "The film is [the witches'] public persona; their real life is what you see in our show."
"Wicked" begins when the two witches meet as unlikely roommates at college. Maguire's novel goes back even further, before Elphaba was born. In his dark vision, Oz is a fascist state where a portion of the population has been deprived of its rights and finally dehumanized and enslaved. Elphaba - an intelligent, passionate idealist - turns revolutionary and is forced underground to fight. Glinda represents those who believe the Wizard's party line.
But the political story is just a subplot in the musical, whichexamines the relationship of the two witches.
"The book is so expansive and beautiful, but ... I'm glad that the focus is on the two women," says Ms. Menzel. "There are very few musicals that have two women leads and are about friendship and women."
These are starmaking roles for Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda and Menzel, no matter how the $14 million dollar spectacle fares with the critics.
Chenoweth, a tiny, blond former cheerleader from Oklahoma who began singing in the church choir as a child, was first choice for the creative team of Winnie Holzman, who adapted Maguire's book, and Stephen Schwartz, the composer and lyricist.
Ms. Chenoweth says Glinda could have been Miss America, but appearances are deceiving. For starters, she's not always Miss Congeniality.
"She doesn't have the natural gifts of Elphaba, which makes her insecure, sometimes a little bit ... not mean, but she has issues," says the actress. "What I love about both women [is] they have what each other wants," she says.
Menzel, a tall, dark-haired Long Island native, sang in school choirs and acted in local productions as a child and teenager, including playing Dorothy in fourth grade.
Unlike Chenoweth's natural soprano, honed by a master's degree in opera performance, Menzel, a New York University drama major who made her Broadway debut in "Rent," belts out songs like a pop vocalist.
The musical also finds contrasting ways for them to travel. At opening curtain, Glinda floats down in a large bubble. Act I ends with Elphaba flying on her broom to the top of the proscenium arch.
Director Joe Mantello also makes the most of the two women's physical differences. Elphaba wears a crumpled pointed hat; Chenoweth's characteristic gesture is a tossing of her golden ringlets, suggested by a line in Maguire's book about Glinda arranging herself by a window, "so the light could dazzle itself off her curls."
Elphaba has had green skin since birth.
"There's racial elements that are there, subversive stuff about the tone of our society and how we treat people who are different from us," says Menzel. "People who come to the show are really moved by this woman who overcomes these obstacles."
The lanky actress begins her transformation into the character each night with the time-honored theatrical ritual of putting on makeup. Lots of it. In fact, she has to use a fixing spray to stop the green stuff from sweating off.
The Wicked Witch of the West may resemble her counterpart in the movie, but the creators of the musical had to steer around the film because of copyright issues - for example, they changed Judy Garland's ruby slippers to jeweled slippers.
Even so, Menzel admits that viewers will "be reminded of the film." The play, though, has its own theme and journey.
"My character teaches Glinda honesty and truth and that taking the long road might be harder but more fulfilling," Menzel says.