Televised “Wicked in Concert” Reimagines the Sound of Oz

Amber Riley performing at Warner Theatre for “Wicked in Concert.” Photo by Elman Studio.


There’s no place like home, and that’s where you can catch PBS’s upcoming “Wicked in Concert: A Musical Celebration of the Iconic Broadway Score” on Sunday, August 29 at 9 p.m. Eastern. The event’s creators, Nouveau Productions’ Executive Producer Robert Pullen and American Pops Orchestra’s Founder and Music Director Luke Frazier talked with the magazine to discuss this star-studded new spin on the musical set in the merry old Land of Oz.

District Fray: There’s hardly a superlative that doesn’t apply to Wicked. How did you approach working on it?
Luke Frazier:
“Wicked” has touched so many people over the years. I listened to the album over and over when I was in high school, and many in my 30-somethings generation have listened to it [repeatedly]. I wanted to take the music and hear it through fresh ears.  For me, I know the music so well that ideas immediately came to mind. And this is what APO specializes in, brand new versions of classic American music. We reimagine icons like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein, so this concert fits right in.

I’d love to hear a re-imaging of “Wicked” if you can share.
Frazier: When the musical came out, I cannot tell you how many singers came to me, and pianists all across the country, wanting to sing a song from it. So, I did a tribute with just four pianos to all those accompanists who played this score many times. And Stephen Schwartz gave me the go-ahead on all of my concepts. He didn’t change a single one. He is one of the most generous collaborators you could ask for [Ed. Note: Schwartz is the composer and lyricist to the original “Wicked” score].

Robert Pullen: Another layer to Luke’s re-envisioning is we cast only people who had never done the show before. Of course, our emcee’s Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel have been the faces of “Wicked” since the beginning, but every other person has never been on Broadway before in “Wicked” or appeared in those roles. Amber Riley told us she kept thinking, “They would never ask me to sing ‘Defying Gravity.’” That’s exactly the piece Luke asked her to sing, and she knocks it out of the park. Cynthia Eviro sings “Thank Goodness.” Luke’s arrangement is this amazing lullaby with backup vocals, and what Cynthia accomplishes is gorgeous. All the performers bring a really new, fresh perspective to the music.

Frazier: Predictable is so boring to me. When “Wicked” came on the scene, it was such a revolutionary piece. It is still revolutionizing the industry. I think we honored that through non-traditional casting, new orchestrations, and new instrumentations. You can go to any music hall around the country and hear a tribute or a concert version of a show. Those happen all the time. But if I’m going to do it, you can bet I’m going to shake it up.

Speaking of shaking, how did the cast feel? Nervous? Excited?
Frazier: I think all of us approached the project with a sense of reverence. For many of the performers, this music has been in their bones for so long. They sang it in the shower and the car or for a college audition or in a cabaret. But to get to perform it on this level, I saw many looks of excitement and almost disbelief, as in, ‘Wow. Do I really get to perform this song?’ There was also a lot of laughter. We’re all such perfectionists, but when something didn’t go right, we would all just stop and laugh before moving to the next take. There was great energy in the room.

And sometimes you were in multiple rooms because performers were filmed across the country, yes?  Pullen: We worked very carefully with every performer who wouldn’t be with us in D.C. Luke recorded the tracks with the American Pops Orchestra compliment in D.C. and then rehearsed with the performers online ahead of filming, so they were all on the same page. Then we took the recording to satellite studios at the performer’s convenience, whether it be Cynthia in LA, or Gavin Creel and Ali Stroker. Rita Moreno was not able to record after Luke did his track, so we hired one of our friends in New York to play live on a keyboard for her. Luke then matched the orchestra to her recording a week and a half later. There were several singers that Luke never got to see in person, like Jennifer Nettles.

Frazier: I was conducting in Manhattan when she was getting ready to film, and so there I am in my hotel room running over this folk-country version of “No Good Deed” with [Nettles] in between my rehearsals of Chopin and Mozart. Completely different programs.

Given those various recording methods, what will viewers like us see on August 29th?
Pullen: First and foremost is a live capture of all the incredible work that Luke did with APO. They’re at the Warner Theatre, one of the most beautiful, ornate jewels of D.C. We filmed many singers on-site there. And then recordings of artists all across the country. Many times, you’ll see a singer who actually recorded in the studio singing in front of the orchestra or backup singers through the magic of TV.

Frazier: We didn’t apologize for shooting in different locations. We asked, would we watch a movie with the exact same background, the exact same look, for every scene? And the answer, of course, is no. In our concert, you will see a lot of different looks and feels and hear a lot of different sounds. And quite honestly, I think that’s what makes it exciting. As we look at modern audiences and trends, that’s what people want. They want something new.

“Wicked in Concert: A Musical Celebration of the Iconic Broadway Score” premieres on PBS, Sunday, August 29 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

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