Tech Blog: Wicked

by Chris Armstrong, longtime techie.

Let's get one think straight first, I don't like Wicked as a musical - actually, I don't like many musicals at all, the ones I do like tend to shift more towards opera or at least have something unique about them, so Jerry Springer, Les Miserables and so on. Wicked to me contains formulaic and unimaginative music that could have been ripped directly from any half-arsed Broadway show you care to mention, the lyrics are cringe-worthy and the accompanying dialogue is so clunky that even the best actors have trouble making it believable. Stephen Schwartz also seems to have no concept of conventional vocal range, with many of our most ardent tenors dropping themselves to "bass" in the chorus and our sopranos being relegated to mere dog whistles. I'm sure this isn't a problem in musical theatre where it doesn't matter if you've destroyed your vocal chords by the time you're 30, but for a chorus most used to actually singing rather than belting out rock opera screams it was a strain. Its continued popularity continues to astound me - for the record Wicked is not an "acclaimed" musical as our review suggested, its critical reviews were mixed.

Anyway, enough bitching about how I hate musicals and on to how we pulled it all off. The main technical point for this year was rear projection, an experiment that we had been meaning to try for a few years now. The concept is simple enough, while "front" projection is nice and highly visible, it would be interfered with by the cast milling around in the projection beam, causing shadows as well as lighting the cast in a bad way; you get no such problems with "rear" projection where the beam comes from behind stage. The main difference is that, for good contrast, you need to use a dark, semi-transparent gauze to project on to - and providing your projector is powerful enough, you get a good enough result beaming through. We also had issues with the "throw" of the projectors, that is, the distance the beam has to travel before it makes a suitably sized image. It turns out that projectors certainly couldn't do it in the distance we had to work with behind the set in L/028 so we compensated using mirrors that Mike managed to acquire (we're still looking for another use for these as they're pretty high quality). The mirrors were mounted in frames to direct the beam to the 8 ft x 8 ft screens, and the distortion was digitally compensated for. The backdrops were assembled in Photoshop and presented using custom built presentation software, rather than powerpoint. This had the advantage of being able to do animations much better, but getting video to work proved much more difficult and was eventually dropped; the wizard's talking head was a series of stills and the radiant energy effect animated for 'Defying Gravity' was replaced with something else. The rear-projection produced mixed results, but wasn't bad for a first attempt done in such a short period of time. It mostly failed when the lights turned up full, washing out the projection completely but bizarrely, it's visible on camera much more clearly than in real life. If we returned to the concept of rear projection - and I do think it's worth considering - I think it would be much more successful, as we've learned enough about its strengths and weaknesses to revisit it and use it better; i.e., it certainly can't be used for a full show where you also want lighting, but you could easily project special effects through a gauze (we could have certainly done some "interesting" things with it in Ruddigore).

The rest of Wicked relies heavily on effects that we just don't have the budget or health and safety approval to do; so no sending Elphaba up on a platform during 'Defying Gravity' (quite how they manage to do that in the West End without vomiting is anyone's guess, as some of the productions do it at quite a speed). Instead we just had Kathy stand on a raised section at the back to sing and the cast to kneel down in front of her; just so that it was clear we weren't really intending for her to fly. The full blown effect probably isn't possible on our budget and time scale. A few other effects were border-line comical; the script requires Elphaba to unwittingly reveal her magical powers by sending her sister's wheelchair flying across the stage. This was to be done by one of the characters pushing it (we were originally going to put it on a rope but that was A) obviously visible and B) impossible to put on stage discreetly), but on all but the last performance, the wheelchair seemed to travel a grand total of six inches - so when the line "how did you do that?" was said, most people were left thinking "do what?". The transformation of Stuart's Boq (Foc, Soq, whatever) into the Tin Man was also an issue. Despite an amazingly well rehearsed and quick costume change, the Tin Man costume was just too bulky to be of any use to Stuart on stage, and his ill-fitting funnel hat kept falling off when he was pushed through the stage curtains. Perhaps if we had about 8 months instead of 8 weeks to work on these, we'd have managed better - most of it could have been avoided by taking more artistic license with the script. One of the better effects was the flying broom, which was attached to fishing wire via magnets (although it still looked like a broom attached to fishing wire via magnets) and it managed to raise up in a suitable way for Elphaba to pluck it from the air.

Nevertheless, the cast enjoyed putting it on and singing cheesy musical tunes in Langwith and most of the principals had stand out performances that (I'm reliably told) rivaled the professional productions in London and New York.

Did I mention I hate Wicked?

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