According to Stephen Schwartz, nothing can follow “Defying Gravity.” And for the “Wicked” songwriter, that’s one key reason why the movie version of his blockbuster Broadway musical has to be split into two parts.
It’s not just about overall length, the composer is saying — it’s about the audience needing a breather after one of the great Act 1 closers of all time. (Even if that breather is 12 months of moviegoers going on with their daily business, versus 20 minutes cooling their heels outside a Broadway house.)
“We found it very difficult to get past ‘Defying Gravity’ without a break,” Schwartz says. “That song is written specifically to bring a curtain down, and whatever scene to follow it without a break just seemed hugely anti-climactic.”
Schwartz made the comment regarding “Defying Gravity” in a statement he released to “The Schwartz Scene,” a fan newsletter. He had other reasons to agree with the decision to split “Wicked” in two, with the films currently set for release on two successive days well into the future: Dec. 25, 2024 and Dec. 25, 2025.
“The truth is we tried for some time to make it one movie, even if it had to be one very long movie,” Schwartz said in his statement to the newsletter. “But we kept running into two problems. The first is that even as a very long single movie, it required us cutting or omitting things that we wanted to include and that we think fans of the show and the story will appreciate.” The second reason, as he explained it, came down to the show-stopper number, and the inability for what comes at the beginning of Act 2 to escape its gravitational pull.
“So, for these two reasons,” Schwartz continued, “plus the excitement of doing something that’s never been done before with a musical, we have decided to do two movies. Of course, when it’s all done, if it doesn’t work that way, we’ll have to figure something out. But we strongly believe that this is what’s best for our story, our show, and our fans.”
Additionally, Schwartz said, “What we have discussed is that changes need to be ‘additive,’ to use (producer) Marc Platt’s term. They need to add something to the story or the characters. They can’t just be changes to do something different. I feel confident that by the time the movie is made, if we all continue to have the same degree of input, I could have a conversation with anyone who has a question about any of the changes made from the stage show and justify why I think it’s better for the movie.”
All parties have indicated that additional material is being added in lengthening a show that runs 2 hours and 45 minutes on Broadway — with an intermission — into two films that will presumably last at least an hour and a half each. Schwartz is understood to be working on at least one new song.
The Universal films will be directed by Jon M. Chu and have Cynthia Erivo as the Wicked Witch delivering “Defying Gravity,” with Ariana Grande as her blonde-privileged counterpart.
Apparently never under consideration: an initial road-show version of a long movie with an intermission built in. This was common practice in the late ’50s, 1960s and even early ’70s, with a significant number of musicals going out to cinemas with a break mirroring where the intermission spot came in their Broadway incarnations, including “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “West Side Story,” “Camelot,” “South Pacific,” “Sweet Charity,” “Star!,” “Oliver!,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
But Quentin Tarantino is the only major filmmaker to try a theatrical intermission in recent years, with “Hateful Eight,” and that was limited to a very narrow run before he went nationwide with an intermission-free cut at the same running time.
Chu issued his own announcement about the halving when the news was revealed April 26. He did not address the power of “Defying Gravity,” the most pop-u-lahr song in the score. But he did write at the time that there was no way to “wrestle” the stage show “into a single film without doing some real damage to it. … So we decided to give ourselves a bigger canvas.”
The director said in his April statement that up until the decision to break “Wicked” into two films, he and the creative team had “tried to cut songs or trim characters, (but) those decisions began to feel like fatal compromises to the source material that has entertained us all for so many years.” Some of the show’s diehard fans were confused about why songs or characters would have been needed to be cut for a single film, since a straight-forward rendering of the stage material would run about two and a half hours without intermission, shorter than most recent superhero films.
Fans of Schwartz’s songs won’t have to wait till Christmas 2024 to get any of them on the screen: He co-wrote new tunes for “Disenchanted,” the sequel to “Enchanted,” which will be released as a Disney+ streaming exclusive on Thanksgiving Day of this year — with a song for Idina Menzel, the original “Defying Gravity” singer, who did not get any musical numbers in the first film back in 2007.