Inception and development
Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz discovered writer Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West while on vacation, and saw its potential for a dramatic adaptation. Maguire, however, had released the rights to Universal Pictures, which had planned to develop a live-action feature film. In 1998, Schwartz persuaded Maguire to release the rights to a stage production while also making what Schwartz called an "impassioned plea" to Universal producer Marc Platt to realize Schwartz's own intended adaptation. Persuaded, Platt signed on as joint producer of the project with Universal and David Stone.
The novel, described as a political, social, and ethical commentary on the nature of good and evil, takes place in the Land of Oz, in the years leading to Dorothy's arrival. The story centers on Elphaba, the misunderstood, smart, and fiery girl of emerald-green skin who grows up to become the notorious Wicked Witch of the West and Galinda, the beautiful, blonde, popular girl who grows up to become Glinda the Good Witch of the South. The story is divided into five different sections based on the plot location, and presents events, characters, and situations from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its 1939 film adaptation in new ways. It is designed to set the reader thinking about what it really is to be "Wicked", and whether good intentions with bad results are the same as bad intentions with bad results. Schwartz considered how best to condense the novel's dense and complicated plot into a sensible script. To this end, he collaborated with Emmy Award–winning writer Winnie Holzman to develop the outline of the plot over the course of a year while meeting with producer Marc Platt to refine the structural outline of the show, spinning an original stage piece rather than creating a strict adaptation of Maguire's work.
While the draft followed Maguire's idea of retelling the story of the 1939 film from the perspective of its main villain, the storyline of the stage adaptation "goes far afield" from the novel. As Holzman observed in an interview with Playbill, "It was [Maguire's] brilliant idea to take this hated figure and tell things from her point of view, and to have the two witches be roommates in college, but the way in which their friendship develops – and really the whole plot – is different onstage." Schwartz justified the deviation, saying "Primarily we were interested in the relationship between Galinda – who becomes Glinda – and Elphaba...the friendship of these two women and how their characters lead them to completely different destinies." In addition to this change in focus, other major plot modifications include Fiyero's appearance as the scarecrow, Elphaba's survival at the end, Nessarose using a wheelchair instead of being born without arms, Boq having a continuing love interest for Glinda - and eventually becoming the Tin Woodman instead of Nick Chopper, the complete cutting of Elphaba's years in the Vinkus, the deletion of Liir's birth, Fiyero not having a wife and children, and Doctor Dillamond not being murdered.
The book, lyrics, and score for the musical were developed through a series of readings. For these developmental workshops, Kristin Chenoweth, the Tony Award–winning actress whom Stephen Schwartz had in mind while composing the music for the character, joined the project as Glinda. Stephanie J. Block played Elphaba in all of the workshops, (she was the original Elphaba in the first national tour and joined the Broadway cast later on) before fellow performer Idina Menzel was cast in the role in late 2000. In early 2000, the creators recruited New York producer David Stone, who began the transition of the workshop production into a full Broadway production. Joe Mantello was brought in as director and Wayne Cilento as choreographer while Tony Award–winning designer Eugene Lee created the set and visual style for the production based on both W. W. Denslow's original illustrations for Baum's novels and Maguire's concept of the story being told through a giant clock. Costume designer Susan Hilferty created a "twisted Edwardian" style through more than 200 costumes, while lighting designer Kenneth Posner used more than 800 individual lights to give each of the 54 distinct scenes and locations "its own mood". By April 2003, a full cast had been assembled and the show readied its debut.
On May 28, 2003, the first performance of Wicked was held at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, as the start of SHN pre-Broadway tryouts. After officially opening on June 10, 2003, it ran there for the month and finished on June 29, 2003. Audience reaction was mostly positive and although critics tended to compliment the aesthetic and spectacle of the show, they disparaged the state of its book, score, and choreography. Dennis Harvey of Variety commented positively of the "sleekly directed", "snazzily designed", and "smartly cast" production, yet still disapproved of its "mediocre" book, "trite" lyrics, and "largely generic" music while Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News wrote that "Style over substance is the real theme in this Emerald City." Noting mixed response, the creative team started making extensive changes, tweaking it before its transfer to Broadway. Winnie Holzman stated, "Stephen [Schwartz] wisely had insisted on having three months to rewrite in between the time we closed in San Francisco and when we were to go back into rehearsals in New York. That was crucial; that was the thing that made the biggest difference in the life of the show. That time is what made the show work."
Elements of the book were rewritten, while several songs underwent minor transformations. This included the excision of "Which Way is the Party?", the introductory song to the character Fiyero, which was subsequently replaced by "Dancing Through Life" in Schwartz's fear that the former failed to be a clear "statement of Fiyero's philosophy of life". In addition, concern existed that Menzel's Elphaba "got a little overshadowed" by Chenoweth's Glinda. San Francisco Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt wrote, "Menzel's brightly intense Elphaba the Wicked Witch [needs] a chance of holding her own alongside Chenoweth's gloriously, insidiously bubbly Glinda", so the creative team set about making her character "more prominent". On the subject of the Broadway revisions, Schwartz recalled, "It was clear there was work to be done and revisions to be made in the book and the score. The critical community was, frankly, very helpful to us. We learned a lot from the reviews, which were honest and constructive in the aggregate, unlike New York, where the critics make up their minds before they come to the theatre." On October 30, 2003, the musical opened on Broadway.