Off to Be The Wizard with Mark Jacoby of WICKED, Broadway’s Upside-Down Journey Back to Oz

Mark Jacoby as the Wizard in WICKED. Photo © Joan Marcus.

From the original L. Frank Baum novel to the 1939 musical movie version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, the tale of Dorothy Gale, her dog Toto and three misfits who deemed themselves incomplete without a physical brain, heart and courage could easily be called the quintessential American fantasy epic. Like Middle Earth is England in simpler, more magical times, Oz is an expression of Retro-Americana Midwestern know-how and whimsy. And that spunky little girl from Kansas, like her prairie counterpart Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an uniquely all-American heroine.

That is, until Gregory Maguire turned that heroine’s journey on its head, gave the Wicked Witch of the West a name, Elphaba, and had the chutzpah to suggest that things went down considerably differently and were rewritten by a government-run, propagandist media, as it were. (Shades of contemporary media politics? Well, the original Oz may have had some circa 1990 political satire between its pages, too.) The Broadway version of Maguire’s novel WICKED is more a twist on the familiar movie than the book, and whether or not you approve of tampering with a classic, the imaginative sets and costumes look even more magical on the Fabulous Fox Theatre stage, where it opens today and will be playing through Oct. 9 as part of the Broadway Across America series.

WICKED focuses on who’s the real good witch and who’s the real bad witch. But actor Mark Jacoby, a Georgia State University alumnus, got to tackle the conundrum of an all-American carnie man who landed in Oz accidentally and found himself, thanks to his seemingly magical balloon-borne arrival, declared Wizard and ruler of the capitol Emerald City. Jacoby is no stranger to playing sympathetic villains, having donned the mask of the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for three years on Broadway. He’s also stepped into the shoes of many of American musical theater’s most iconic characters including SHOWBOAT’s Gaylord Ravenal (Tony Award nomination for Harold Prince revival), FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’s Tevye (Barrymore Award) and Father in the original Broadway run of RAGTIME. ATLRetro caught up with Mark recently to find out how he approached America’s most famous humbug in this villain-friendly version of Oz.

How is the character of the Wizard different in WICKED than in the 1939 movie WIZARD OF OZ and even the book? Do you think it is different? One of the intriguing things about this piece is how it’s been overlaid on the story we’re all so familiar with, mostly from the movie WIZARD OF OZ. They are the same people theoretically in context. You’re just looking at them from a different angle. I suppose an actor doesn’t have to take that literally. He can do what he wants. But I tend to think and the powers that be also do, that I should approach him as the same character we encountered in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  You just find out different things, and different things are emphasized. He’s flushed out a bit more. There’s more explanation as to how he got there, why he’s there, and what makes him tick.

The Wizard's dramatic counterfeit persona from the original Broadway company of WICKED. Photo © Joan Marcus.

I think the Wizard of Oz was someone who was in the right place at at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time, whichever way you look at it. He’s regarded by the people of Oz as somewhat supernatural. As he says, I never asked for this, I was just blown here by the wings of chance. One could take that literally or is he telling a story? I choose to think he is talking literally. He has wound up in this situation, but he wasn’t malevolent. He wasn’t planning to become a tyrant or anyone overbearing with the population, but now he’s stuck with it. I’m not saying he’s a perfect man. He got hooked with all the adulation and all the power and all he has to do to maintain it.

You’ve said that the Wizard is not a bad person. Can you explain? He’s a fraud even in the film that we are all familiar with, but he’s not a stereotypical villain. As Dorothy says in THE WIZARD OF OZ, I think you’re a very “good man and a very bad Wizard.” The actor Frank Morgan, he’s a likable man. In fact [in the movie], Dorothy is having this dream, and all these characters are people in real life, and [actor] Frank Morgan in her real life plays someone she likes very much. That’s the kind of double-edged sword. He really is doing some things he shouldn’t be doing, but he’s not necessarily bad person. He just got carried away.

Dee Roscioli as Elphaba on Broadway. Photo © Joan Marcus.

Did you do anything in particular to prepare for playing the Wizard? I reread the primary source material. I didn’t go back to the movie, because I know the movie pretty well, as so many of us do. It wasn’t like I had to reference that performance. I did read [THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ] and WICKED and saw a production of WICKED in New York. As far as the character was concerned, I developed that with the directorial staff. I didn’t do anything unique. In THE WIZARD OF OZ, all of the characters Dorothy encountered [were real people from her real life]. The Wicked Witch  was actually a mean lady on a bicycle. But WICKED [Editor’s note: like Baum’s book] doesn’t have the premise that we’re watching a dream unfold. It’s presented as a story about real people who are in Oz.

We like to say the Wizard is from Kansas, but we don’t know that from THE WIZARD OF OZ. We want to see something very American Midwestern because of what we know from the film. I kind of struggled with where is he really from, but I have decided he is from the land of Dorothy, and I think it works for the juxtaposition of great power but rather simple bearing associated with the Wizard of Oz. It’s almost a country thing—a nice dichotomy with all his glory, power and acquired mystique.

What’s your favorite scene that you play in WICKED and why? I like the Wizard’s entrance, which is sort of taken in a sense out of the film—the big Oz head and all the mechanical aspects of that image developed around him. Then he steps around, and all he is is a simple guy. He presents to the two witches a very simple persona: “Here I am; hope I didn’t startle you.” It’s almost a bit of a sight gag, a bit of a tonal thing. He seems so big and powerful, but he sings this ballad called “Wonderful” which reveals he’s a simple man with simple tastes. I don’t know. I enjoy it for some reason.

Dee Roscioli and Amanda Jane Cooper as Elphaba and Glinda during happier, friendly college days. Photo © Joan Marcus.

Why do you think WICKED the musical has taken off so much with audiences? This is a very good question and one I’ve thought about a lot. First of all, the work is very good. The book, the script is very clever. The way that the references to THE WIZARD OF OZ are worked in is very fun, and the audience enjoys it very much. What causes it to capture the audience’s imagination is two things. It focuses on two witches [Elphaba and Glinda]. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that young females have driven the commercial success of the show. I think they go and see a story they can relate to in very simple way. That combined with the occult-ness of it. People do seem to be entranced by mystery, mystique, things that are not quite real. It’s not a magic show. It’s not over the top. It’s not science fiction but it is otherworldly. Similar to the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, there’s a paranormal aspect to it that can be very exciting.

The Fox holds a lot of memories for Atlantans. Do you have a favorite one and what does it mean to you as an actor from Atlanta to be playing on the Fox stage? Just generally speaking, I always get off myself in playing in older theaters. I like walking into old theaters and thinking about all the legends that have played there, the shows that played there. It’s like going into Yankee Stadium or some old ballpark.

Also, I like that it’s quasi open-air [in the Fox]. Some people think that’s a little hokey, but I think it’s cool.  I love the atmosphere of sitting in a building where one can very well imagine you’re outside. The only downside is it is so big. In small theaters, you can get more intimate with the audience. But if you’re going to play in a large theater, the Fox is an exciting place to play.

What are some of your favorite Retro things to do in Atlanta? My family lived in College Park, and I finished college at GSU, got my [Actor’s] Equity card at the Theater of the Stars. One place would be Stone Mountain. Also, when I was living in Atlanta was when they built the Hyatt Regency Hotel. That design is very common now with the atrium and internal elevators, but we were just dazzled at the time at how marvelous it was. My family and I would go sit in the lobby and watch the elevators go up and down. It’s kind of corny, but it was very impressive when I was 21.

Performances are Tues. through Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 6:30 p.m., with matinees Sat. at 2 p.m. and Sun. at 1 p.m. For more information or tickets to the Atlanta four-week limited engagement of WICKED, click here. Or arrive 2 1/2 hours prior to showtime for a chance to enter a lottery for a limited number of daily  $25 orchestra seats (cash only).

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