So Good, It Must Be Wicked

by Kelly Mantick

Bringing the wonderful land of Oz right to your doorstep, the Broadway cast of Wicked swoops into Peoria to deliver a show worthy of the Great Wizard himself.

From her bright green skin to her tall pointed hat and sweeping black cloak, the Wicked Witch of the West strikes an ominous figure. But, asks the world-famous musical Wicked, who exactly is the witch behind the warty nose? Investigating the unusual girlhood friendship of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, Wicked reveals the road of unfortunate events that led to Elphaba’s infamy.

This prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz story has grown in fame since opening on Broadway in 2003, winning 35 major awards, including three Grammys and a Tony. This fall, the cast will leave the Big Apple and follow the brick road all the way to Peoria. Marc Burnett, marketing director for the Peoria Civic Center, has been vying for Wicked to play here for quite some time.

“I basically begged the Wicked decision-makers for years just to put Peoria on the list...and I built a positive rapport with them,” says Burnett. “When there was an opportunity for the show to come in this year, we about had a heart attack!”

Having sifted through negotiations, royalties, talent fees and routing details to ensure a stop in central Illinois, all that hard work will pay off when the cast storms the stage on October 12th for the first of two dozen shows at the Civic Center. And for Wicked’s conductor and music director, Jason Yarcho, the trip to Peoria will be somewhat like returning to Kansas after a long stay in the Emerald City.

Wielding the Baton
The string of Peoria dates affords Yarcho the chance to return to his hometown of Lincoln, Illinois, and his family will share in the excitement of his homecoming. “We have been all over the country to see Wicked and to see him conduct,” explains his aunt, Betsy Yarcho. “It has been so exciting for our family, and we are thrilled that Wicked will be in Peoria.”

Lincoln is where Yarcho’s love for music was first sparked. His musical background began with piano lessons in the sixth grade, and from there, he played in his high school’s rendition of Little Shop of Horrors as a freshman, which helped to catalyze his love for the theater. “Since then,” he explains, “I did every single show I could possibly get my hands on.”

During the summer months, Yarcho honed his skills at the Little Theater on the Square in Sullivan, Illinois, which he describes as a “bootcamp for musical theater.” He spent much of his time re-orchestrating shows whose scores were originally intended for orchestras much larger than the Little Theater’s seven or eight members. And his muscial repertoire grew immensely.

Yarcho also worked shows in Lincoln, Springfield, Decatur and Charleston, Illinois, where he received a piano scholarship to attend Eastern Illinois University. He continued his education by pursuing a graduate degree at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, before becoming the rehearsal pianist for the St. Louis Municipal Opera. That gig, however, was short-lived, for not long into it, he landed the associate conductor position for Wicked’s first national tour.

He played keyboards for the show six days a week and conducted on the seventh, which allowed the conductor to sit in the audience and gauge how the orchestra sounded. After just 15 months, Yarcho himself ascended to the conductor/musical director position, becoming the maestro of the show’s wickedly tricky score.

Wicked is basically scored like a movie, meaning that when the characters aren’t singing, there is all of this underscoring, and it’s very specifically timed to what’s going on onstage,” he explains. “So you really, really have to be focused to conduct this show, because it’s never the same twice…”

One of Yarcho’s biggest challenges comes while on tour. With the addition of local musicians, the orchestra changes in each city, and with only about a day to practice the difficult score with the new members, he has to perform something of a magic act to put it all together for the opening show. But he always pulls through in time, revealing what qualities are necessary in a conductor for this to happen.

“You have to be a good communicator, especially for musical theater, because you talk to all sides: the actors, the dancers, stage management and all the supervisors,” he explains. He adds that because of this constant stream of communication, conductors must be laid-back and able to deal with the hectic, often overwhelming nature of working in drama.

Above all, he emphasizes that the orchestra must respect its conductor, respect that is earned by displaying a high level of musicianship. In his experience playing in an orchestra and now leading one, Yarcho says that musicians don’t take to being instructed by anyone who is sub-par. But, he says, “If you have a leader who takes command and knows what they’re talking about, it’s easier and much more fun to relax and let [the conductor] lead.”

Along with his tremendous musical ability, Yarcho, just 28 years old, attributes some of the success in his young life to plain old luck. “I definitely have talent, and I don’t want to minimize that, but since I got into Cincinnati Conservatory, it has been one lucky string of events after another,” he explains. “I have sort of been in the right place at the right time.”

Yarcho’s “lucky string of events” has unfolded quickly, leading him to a position of prestige at an unusually young age. “It is a very rare occurrence, I think, that someone this young gets a big show like this,” he admits. But this musician takes it all in stride, presiding over the performance of a score admired by many.

A Wicked Fan
One such admirer is Lisa Zell, a Wicked fan five times over. Having seen the musical in New York, Detroit, Chicago—twice—and St. Louis, she plans to double that number by taking in five performances during the show’s Peoria run.

Zell’s first taste of Wicked came in 2006 when she and a few siblings traveled to New York City to finally see the musical they had been dreaming about for so long. She explains that her whole family grew up listening to the Wicked soundtrack and rereading the novel that inspired the musical, and jokes that the land of Oz is in her blood. Watching Wicked brings her one step further into that magical realm.

“Here is all that was happening in Oz besides Dorothy,” she explains. For fellow Wizard of Oz fans, Zell offers a piece of advice when attending the show. Careful not to reveal too much, she hints, “I wouldn’t want to wreck it, but I would want [audience members] to pay attention to the little references to the Wizard of Oz.” She adds that feats of flying and other grand surprises take place, but refuses to give away more than that.

Overall, Zell raves about the flawless technique of the production. “Wicked is one of the most professional musicals I have ever seen. The technical [aspect] is incredible. It is so amazing!” It is this professionalism that Zell anticipates seeing at home in Peoria.

“One of the things I am really looking forward to is taking pride in Peoria producing something of this caliber,” Zell says. “[Audience members] are going to get the same show that they would get in Chicago, St. Louis or New York. Wicked will make sure of that, and the Civic Center will make sure of that.” iBi