Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Mourns the Wicked?

I started to really wonder about the magic of Wicked after I wrote my last post. There I, practically in the same sentence, claimed that Wicked's not that amazing a musical, and then gushed about giving the actors mini-sized plushie versions of their characters to remember Wicked forever. Clearly the show has something special about it, but what?
Knowing I couldn't figure this out myself, I asked help from an expert...

Wicked was a strange event in the Finnish theatre scene in every way.
It wasn't any theatre fan's first guess of a show Helsinki City Theatre would do. But even though The Wizard of Oz is practically unknown in our country, and a show that grand was deemed way too expensive by speculators, Stephen Schwartz himself wrote something surprising on his website last year: Wicked's composer was glad to announce that a new production of his fantasy musical would premiere in Helsinki, August 2011.

A Wicked fanclub head Riikka Kiviaho explains:
"As far as I know, Wicked was, above all, important to the director Hans Berndtsson. He had seen the original version many times and had planned bringing it to Helsinki City Theatre for years. He wanted to bring something new to the show, and, after long discussions, managed to convince the decision-makers. Finland would be the home for the world's first non-replica Wicked." 
Berndtsson indeed brought a lot of his own to the production. He wanted, for example, to hint to Finnish history and to the 1939 movie: the Wizard's new look was designed after Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, whose troops fought against the Finnish forces in World War II, and Dorothy, straight from silver screen with her brunette braids and iconic blue dress, was introduced to Finnish audiences onstage.

The leading ladies of Wicked, Anna-Maija Tuokko and Maria Ylipää.

Despite the unique approach, critics didn't exactly adore Wicked, but audiences loved it. It was, with 65 842 spectators, Helsinki City Theatre's most popular play in the 2010-11 season. It even caused some discussion outside Finland’s borders: seeing videos online, international fans debated about whether Wicked’s new design was too far from the original or nicely refreshing. Many Finnish viewers, then again, described Wicked as unbelievable and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Unexpectedly, Wicked closed only after one year. The reason is up to speculation; the production might be too expensive to keep up.

But so what, you ask. It’s live theatre. Productions come and go.

Yes – but what made Wicked a truly unique experience was the fans’ reaction. It’s not often that people get really involved in shows in the manner West End and Broadway in Finland. Yet Wicked has a Finnish fan club, ran by Riikka Kiviaho. Surprisingly, she’s not a long-time Wicked enthusiast:
"Before Wicked I went to the theatre really rarely, about once per year, usually to see a musical. And I was, at first, a little confused about the ads for Wicked. I hadn't heard of the show before and thought the green witch on the posters looked weird. But when Wicked premiered, a friend of mine praised it to me and I decided to find out a little about it, just out of curiosity.
Soon I had bought tickets to a performance that'd change my life in an amazing way. I fell in love from the first notes and that show was the strongest experience of my life so far – only the last performance in May could top it.”

Anna-Maija with fans.

How did the fan club come about?
"Wicked Fanclub Suomi was born on New Year's Day 2011. I had been interested in the fan culture around Wicked for quite some time, and especially the German fan club fascinated me. I wanted to find out if there would be a similar fanbase in Finland, and I also wanted to honor the unique Finnish production.
The club’s main objectives were to gather Finnish Wicked fans and inform them about all things Wicked. It got an amazing start, and after a month there were already a hundred members. They really wanted to show their support and plan new fan activities.
I was, and still am, amazed to see what my idea has grown into. When I found the club I never dreamed it would reach almost 200 members, forty of them really active, new ones still popping up even after the production has closed. Let alone having the full blessing of Wicked’s cast and crew!”

The fan club’s mere existence surprised the actors of the show. “It’s amazing. It’s really rare for any musical to gather a fanbase like this here”, they’ve enthused.
“When I first met Maria Ylipää, the Finnish Elphaba, at her gig before founding the fan club… I was horribly excited! After all I gathered my courage and went to talk to her. The meeting went really nicely and it was great seeing her expression when I told her that I’m a Wicked fan. Later on I got to know the cast of the show more closely, they started recognizing me in the theatre and we often met by the dressing rooms. They clearly appreciated the fans that came to see Wicked again and again”, Kiviaho tells.
Ylipää explains further in Gramexpress magazine: “The feedback has been incredible. The fans have sent us drawings and written about how they believe in dreams again. I feel like I’ve done something with a meaning. -- This’ll stay a unique experience in my life.”
Even the director Hans Berndtsson was really excited about the club from the beginning, to the point where he travelled to Finland from his home country Sweden to greet the fans at a meet.

The meet is one of the things Kiviaho is most proud of when talking about the club.
“In the meet about thirty fans toured the theatre with Hans. We got to see the sets and props, briefly met Tuukka Leppänen who plays Fiyero, and enjoyed the programs, posters and green drinks the theatre provided for us. After the show we got to meet the leading ladies, Maria Ylipää and Anna-Maija Tuokko – they were almost more thrilled about the event than we were! We got to hear back then, and afterwards too, that our passionate group of fans had left a lasting impression on the cast. They said it was just like performing on Broadway!”

Fans, Hans and the Wicked set.

The actors are certainly not the only people forever influenced by their experience with Wicked. The fans have also been touched for life. According to Kiviaho many of them, herself included, saw the piece over ten times.
“Everybody would certainly have seen the show more if they could’ve! The record for most times seen must belong to an older gentleman though – he allegedly saw it almost every week.”

What is it about Wicked, then, that draws people in again and again?
“Personally I’ve been captivated, ever since the first time, by the overall impression the show gives: I’ve always been completely absorbed in the story, the actors, the music, the sets, the choreography… The amount of details is incredible, and without talking to the cast I probably wouldn’t have noticed most of them!
The most inspiring themes in our fandom conversations, then again, have been accepting difference, finding one’s inner strength, believing in your dreams, the characters’ inner growth, everlasting friendship and the many faces of love.”
No wonder Berndtsson is happy about the fan club. When he spoke about Wicked before its premiere, he stressed that his version is all about accepting difference and the many aspects of love. Judging from their conversation topics, the production’s young fans truly saw what the director wanted to tell.

The secret love story of the witches of Oz is a very important detail for Kiviaho:
"It's something the audience won't necessarily get unless they watch it from a certain point of view, but the Finnish version had many hidden messages, and I’m extremely grateful for that. In the final show Maria and Anna-Maija paid their respects to the story of their characters and, instead of hugging after For Good, kissed each other. In my opinion that was the perfect tribute to Wicked’s essence – accepting difference."

Thank you, Wicked.

The last Finnish Wicked was a huge, emotional moment for both the fans and the cast. The actors knew there’d be fans awaiting a special night in the audience.
“The club had a goodbye event in May. It wasn’t as grand as the previous meet, but instead we gathered together to enjoy ourselves, to reminisce the months gone by and to say a special goodbye to the Wicked cast. There were lot of us around the theatre even before the show and the mood was electric.
The cast gave their best, the audience gave their best, and the result was an emotional spectacle everyone will remember for the rest of our lives. Both fans and cast had tears in their eyes, there were Thank You signs in the audience, confetti was flying and the volume was straight from a rock concert.
Maria and Anna-Maija met us fans after the show once more. We could see the fanbase Wicked had gained was something really new and very touching to them too.”

What does the future hold in store for the fan club now that the production’s over for good?
“The days after the last performance were quite depression-filled – we woke up to understand that none of us would ever see the Wicked we fell in love with again. But there was also gratitude: the story has inspired so many, given us strength to believe in our dreams and changed our lives for the better. Now the situation is calmer, even though fits of yearning still come and go.
I think it’s important the fandom activity continues. It’s much needed, if only from the peer support point of view… Knowing that people have gotten joy to their lives thanks to it is the best prize for running the club.
As for future plans, there’ll be a Wicked Summer Meet in the beginning of August, and the fans have been seeing other productions by the cast ever since Wicked ended. Myself, I have started appreciating theatre in a whole new way after Wicked and will surely see more than one show per year from now on.
I dream of seeing the original production of Wicked, too. But I’m afraid I will miss the astonishing atmosphere and the bond between the actors and the audience of Helsinki City Theatre’s version when watching Wicked on Broadway!
It was truly amazing to see how the Finnish Wicked developed during these eight months, always towards the better. It was a big, meaningful and touching experience for both the fans and the cast and crew, so we connected quite naturally. Thanks to that connection, many people from Wicked are still important parts of my life, even though the musical itself is over.”

Maria, Riikka and Anna-Maija.

Pictures belong to Riikka Kiviaho - visit her at her blog!
Sources:  Gramexpress 2/2011, MTV3 Uutiset
If you wish to know more, you can read a quite detailed review/description of the Finnish Wicked: click.


  1. Tämä oli tosi hieno lukea Wicked faniklubin jäsenenä. Sitä pystyi samaistumaan useampaankin kohtaan Riikan haastattelussa.

    And then same in english if there is someone who want to understand what I wrote.

    It was great to read this as a member of Wicked fanclub. I was able to identify many parts of interview of Riikka.