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My startling new view of 'Wicked'

A 'Wicked' junkie gets to see the show from a new angle.

By Ellyn Ritterskamp
eritters@charlotteobserver.com

It was a dream come true, a dream that hadn’t even existed a few days earlier. And now it was happening.

I was in the pit at “Wicked” – and doesn’t that sound like something Dante would have thought up!

It was the orchestra pit at the long-running tour of the still-popular musical with the alternative version of Oz. The show was in Charlotte for 2 1/2 weeks; my mom and I had seen it on opening night, and this was the final day in town.

We’d seen it six times in four cities and were looking for a new angle.

A few nights before the show closed, the cast and local group RAIN (Regional Aids Interfaith Network) staged a cabaret fundraiser, “Wicked After Dark.” The cast came to Spirit Square after the Thursday night show and performed for an hour and a half.

There was a silent auction that included the chance to sit with the orchestra. The evil Scott and I bid against each other before and after the show, until a RAIN volunteer said, “Stop. We’ll see if you can both do it.” We could. (And Scott was not evil at all.)

RAIN and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS raised over $20,000 that night.

On show day, Jay, my guide, is the third keyboardist.

They asked if I was musically inclined, and I said I’d sung one of the show’s numbers, “For Good,” with my mom a few times in public, and that I could have seen myself as one of them in the pit years ago. After that, Jay brought me his master score so I could follow along.

They’d arranged for a chair next to the conductor’s elevated stand, with headphones that allow you to choose which track to feature. I mostly left it on Vocal, but it was fun to switch around.

I could see the front third or so of the stage, and of course I could hear everything. And how close was it? There were a couple of times that I think if I’d stood up, I could have touched the shoes of the actors crouched right on the apron. And Ryan winked at me once. I think.

I told a couple of people afterward: I may not want to see the show again, since it will be so pedestrian after this.

I asked a bunch of questions before the show and during intermission, which Jay patiently answered.

There’s a sound staff behind the house, which generates sound effects that aren’t tied to anything in the music. But if the sound is part of a song, it comes from the pit.

It’s on what they call a click track, prerecorded. One example is the early singing by the man seducing Elphaba’s mom – it’s sung by that actor, but maybe this helps not give away his secret too soon. Another click track: the intense drumming during the releasing of the flying monkeys.

About half of the musicians tour and nine are local (brass and woodwinds). One of the locals said she’d never seen the show because she’s always been playing for it. We agreed it was worth a stop at the Gershwin Theater next time she’s in New York.

I came to understand that some of the dialogue that we fans get so teary-eyed over is just a cue for some of the musicians.

And then I understood that I was with my people. The ones who make things go. The people behind the scenes who don’t always get their names in the program or the newspaper.

It was a new angle, indeed.

Ellyn Ritterskamp is a copy editor and page designer in the McClatchy Publishing Center at the Charlotte Observer.
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