Could L. Frank Baum have ever imagined that his children's fantasy, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, would join the pantheon of immortal literary works? Ever since the American author penned his bestselling magical tale in 1896, Oz has lived on in countless new adaptations, from the 1939 movie classic starring Judy Garland to the ill-conceived 2005 Oz burlesque featuring The Muppets and pop diva Ashanti.
The latest iteration of America's favorite fable is Wicked, a hit Broadway musical adapted from Gregory Maguire's novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Playing to sold-out audiences around the country, Wicked takes Oz in a new direction, shining its spotlight on Elphaba, the much-maligned Wicked Witch of the West. Instead of rehashing original Oz themes, the musical explains how the wicked witch got to be so mean-spirited. The musical concludes that, far from being the evil foil to glittering Glinda the Good Witch, Elphaba is a tragically misunderstood girl who has suffered emotional abuse from those around her. Although Wicked is a radical departure from classic Oz, it does feature a cast of familiar characters, including Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow.
But if Wicked has anything to say about contemporary society, it's that Americans continue to be Ozified by L. Frank Baum's fable. Wicked's popularity rocketed after the opening receiving good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, and the musical's box office sales—more than $56 million during its first year—spiked even higher when the show was nominated for ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Capacity crowds are still turning up for the enchanting tale: during the week of January 1, 2006, Wicked broke the record for the highest weekly box office gross in Broadway history, with $1,610,934.
It's easy to imagine that the Oz franchise lives by the power of its own magic. However, the real wizards standing behind the curtain of Oz mania are the savvy marketers that conjure up fresh enthusiasm for Baum's creation using only the powers of promotion. The 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz was accompanied by radio and newspaper specials designed to capture the public's attention. Also, the film marked the first time a movie was promoted by the sales of promotional toys, games, dolls, Valentines, soaps, and clothing. Although the promotion didn't create an overnight box office success, the film later became a smash hit on television—Oz aired yearly from 1956 to 1988, grossing about 20 million.
Americans still haven't tired of the story. Since those successful TV years, The Wizard of Oz has been re-released in movie theaters and on home video. In addition, sales of Oz memorabilia have remained steady—Dorothy's ruby red slippers famously sold at auction in 1988 for $168,000. And today, Wicked plays to sold-out crowds. It doesn't take a wizard to see that the yellow bricks in L. Frank Baum's story are bricks of gold.