‘Wicked’ raises its curtain

Behind-the-scenes tour becomes its own miniature sensation

NEW YORK — “Wicked” may have completed the transformation from successful musical to successful industry.

A top Broadway grosser that has raked in close to $170 million after less than three years on the Rialto — and also has become a dominating force in road receipts — the “Wizard of Oz”-backstory tuner now has created a hit spinoff.

Since January, a weekly behind-the-scenes tour called “Behind the Emerald Curtain” has become its own miniature sensation, drawing in hundreds of people every Saturday morning who are eager to spend their time (and $25) discovering the secrets of Oz.

Funded by “Wicked” producers Marc Platt and David Stone and conceived by current cast members Sean McCourt and Anthony Galde, the tour is an elaborate production.

In groups of up to 150, auds are first ushered into the lobby of the Gershwin Theater, where original set models, props and costumes are displayed. They then move into the theater itself, where the curtain is raised so McCourt and Galde can discuss the set, field questions and screen a special, tour-only film recounting the show’s history.

Down to its limited-edition poster, the tour has the feel of an event. McCourt thinks the lavish staging helps it attract up to 600 people each Saturday, easily exceeding its $2,600 weekly operating cost.

“If we’re representing ‘Wicked,’ it can’t be small,” he says. “The production value is what it is out of respect to the brand.”

And the power of that brand shouldn’t be underestimated. Though the tour certainly generates enthusiasm by offering a glimpse at how Broadway works in general, including how Rialto actors find jobs, it also carries the imprimatur of a show that represents the current benchmark for legit success.

McCourt and Galde say they developed their idea because of their genuine enthusiasm for the show, but they also saw the tour’s business potential. “You want to catch a comet’s tail,” Galde notes.

Still, no one predicted that “Behind the Emerald Curtain” would be so popular, particularly beyond the young girls often assumed to be the tuner’s core fans. Galde explains: “We were so off-base about what our demographic was going to be. We thought it was just going to be teen girls, but it’s so much broader and wider than that. We get all ages and types. We’re getting people who can’t get tickets to ‘Wicked.’ ”

Lead “Wicked” producer Platt also has been surprised by the reception. “It was projected as a break-even proposition,” he says. “But it has far exceeded that goal. You can never predict when something becomes a phenomenon, and this tour is an extension of that.”

To continue this unexpected boon, every touring, regional and international production of “Wicked,” including the London staging opening in the fall, soon will have its own version of “Behind the Emerald Curtain,” with McCourt and Galde reaping weekly royalties as co-creators.

As large as it gets, however, careful attention will be paid to keeping this growing enterprise focused on the musical itself. “The tour’s main reason for being is to increase enthusiasm for the show and generate ticket sales,” says Platt. “It generates goodwill for the show, and that leads to repeat ticket sales and great word of mouth.”

“Wicked” culture will continue to grow this summer, when the show hosts booths at several Gotham street fairs, offering visitors the chance to take the “Which Witch Are You?” personality quiz and purchase Oz-themed merchandise.

Meanwhile, perpetual sales of the cast album continue to bolster the show’s identity. Whereas a cast recording that moves 100,000 units is considered a smash, the Grammy-winning “Wicked” recording has sold close to 800,000 copies.

McCourt and Galde feel they understand why this show has become an ever-diversifying success. They say the “Wicked” brand is defined by how the lead characters, particularly green-skinned Elphaba, struggle to stop feeling like outcasts in Oz. “There’s nobody on the planet who doesn’t feel like a misfit,” Galde explains. “There’s a little green in all of us.”

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