15 Magical Facts About Wicked

Frank Micelotta, Getty Images
Frank Micelotta, Getty Images

Wicked gained a devoted following and made Broadway history so fast that it seems like it’s been around forever. In reality, the musical officially opened on June 10, 2003, at the Curran Theater in San Francisco—and it was just announced that it will be turned into a film, hitting theaters December 2021. Here's what you need to know about the musical.

1. The idea for Wicked came to Stephen Schwartz on vacation.

Stephen Schwartz, known for writing the musicals Pippin and Godspell, was on vacation in Hawaii in 1996 when a friend mentioned an interesting book she was reading about the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West. Intrigued, Schwartz got the book—Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—and was immediately hooked. As soon as he got home from vacation, Schwartz called his lawyer and started working on obtaining the rights.

2. There's a surprising connection between Elphaba and Jordan Catalano.

Winnie Holzman, the writer who wrote the musical’s book, also created one of the most beloved TV shows of our era: My So-Called Life. She also wrote for thirtysomething and Once and Again.

3. There was an Elphaba before Idina Menzel.

Though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Idina Menzel making the role famous, she wasn’t the first person to step into Elphaba’s pointed shoes. Stephanie Block read the part while the show was being developed, but was eventually replaced by Menzel, who already had a Tony nomination under her belt (for Rent). Block would have her day, though: She originated the role in the first national tour in 2005.

4. Wicked was a smash hit from the get-go …

Usually, it takes even the most successful productions two to three years to recoup the original investment. Wicked made back the $14 million that had been put into it in just 14 months.

5. … but critics weren't initially on board.

“The yellow road has a few bricks missing,” wrote Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle. According to San Jose Mercury News reviewer Karen D’Souza, “Dorothy isn’t the only one who thinks there’s no place like home. About an hour into Wicked, this reviewer started to yearn for a pair of ruby slippers. Style over substance is the real theme in this Emerald City.” After these reviews, Holzman and Schwartz spent three months reworking the show before its Broadway debut.

6. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel were both nominated for Best Actress Tony Awards in 2004.

In the end, Idina Menzel ended up taking home her first Tony. She won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album the same year (as did Chenoweth). Chenoweth already had a Tony under her belt; she won her first in 1999 for her role as Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

7. Menzel missed her final performance as Elphaba due to an injury.

The day before her final show, Menzel fell several feet through a trap door during a performance. The New York Times reported that Menzel was rushed to the hospital, still wearing her witch costume and green makeup. Fans began to wonder if the Wicked Witch role was cursed—Margaret Hamilton, who played the witch in the Wizard of Oz, suffered serious burns while she was filming the movie.

8. The secret to Elphaba’s emerald skin: MAC makeup.

The trick to getting Elphaba’s skin so brilliantly verdant is a product you can buy at any MAC makeup store: Chromacake, a solid watercolor cake activated with water. We’re assuming the Wicked folks are able to get the stuff in quantities larger than the 3.3 oz. size sold on the website.

You can see the transformation happen here:

9. The show requires a lot of power.

Twelve homes could be powered with the amount of electricity it takes to stage the show every night. The production also requires about 250 pounds of dry ice to create all of that dramatic fog.

10. Wicked contains a tribute to The wizard of Oz's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The first few notes of the song "Unlimited/I'm Limited" theme pay homage to the show’s Wizard of Oz roots. But it's only the first seven notes due to copyright law: "When you get to the eighth note, the people can come and say, ‘Oh you stole our tune,’” Schwartz has said. “And of course it's obviously also disguised in that it's completely different rhythmically. And it's also harmonized completely differently … It's over a different chord and so on, but still it's the first seven notes of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'”

11. Kristin Chenoweth did an Anthony Weiner parody of “Popular.”

In 2013, Chenoweth poked a little fun at the Anthony Weiner scandal by modifying the lyrics to her famous song when she performed on the Tonight Show.

12. NASA has used Wicked's "Defying Gravity" as an astronaut wake-up call.

NASA often provides wake-up calls for astronauts in space. Sometimes it’s based on astronaut requests, and other times the song is space-themed or related to the activities planned for the day. On April 8, 2010, “Defying Gravity” was played [PDF] to wake up Mission Specialist Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger.

13. The Wicked Witch wasn’t named Elphaba in L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

She was nameless, until Gregory Maguire wrote Wicked. Maguire came up with the moniker by using Baum's initials. L.F.B. = El-pha-ba.

14. The film adaptation of Wicked is slated to hit theaters in 2021 ...

In 2014, Schwartz told Vulture last year that “We’re starting to do some work on it. I don’t know exactly how many years away it is. [We can] really look at it again and say, ‘Oh, we can do this, and we’ve always wanted to do that and we couldn’t onstage, but we can in a movie.’ We’re actually having a blast.” It took a few years, but the film is finally slated to hit theaters in December 2021. The film adaptation will be directed by Stephen Daldry, who previously helmed Billy Elliot.

15. ... but don’t expect Menzel and Chenoweth to reprise their roles.

“I would die to be in [the film], except … they told us we’re a little over the age for that,” Menzel told Andy Cohen in 2014.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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