Idina Menzel performing a segment from “Wicked” during the 58th annual Tony Awards on June 6, 2004. … [+] (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
One political wizard worked her magic to keep the Emerald City in the Dogwood City.
After politicians in Georgia passed controversial legislation to change the state’s voting rules, the team behind the much-anticipated film adaptation of the Broadway musical Wicked had second thoughts about shooting in Atlanta. Other Hollywood film producers had decided to pull their productions from the Peach State, and Major League Baseball had announced that its All Star Game would be played elsewhere. “Many people or organizations had decided to boycott Georgia because of it, … and we were considering doing that,” admitted Stephen Schwartz, the composer of the show.
The new law limits the number of ballot boxes in each county, reduces the amount of time voters have to request absentee ballots, and now requires people to provide an accepted form of identification to receive their absentee ballots. With the new rules, “Georgia will take another step toward ensuring our elections are secure, accessible, and fair,” stated its governor, Brian Kemp.
However, many people believe that the purpose of the legislation was less about protecting the integrity of the election process, and more about suppressing African-American votes.
Tending to lean more liberal, African-American voters helped flip the state from Republicans to Democrats for the second time in four decades during the recent presidential election and Senate run-off elections.
“These legislative actions occurred at a time when the Black population in Georgia continues to steadily increase, and after a historic election that saw record voter turnout across the state, particularly for absentee voting, which Black voters are now more likely to use than white voters,” explained Kristen Clark, the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which filed a lawsuit against Georgia over the law last week. Several provisions of the law “were adopted with the intent to deny or abridge Black citizens equal access to the political process,” she argued.
“Whether it was deliberate or inadvertent, … the new bill impinges on the rights of people to vote, makes it more difficult, and particularly targets certain groups,” commented Schwartz. “For those of us at Wicked,” he said, “this is not a partisan issue; [we have] fans who are Republicans, we have fans who are Democrats, and we have fans who are independents.” “But, I believe that all our Wicked fans believe in democracy, and … that people who are old enough to vote and want to vote should have the right to do so without having that right impinged upon or suppressed,” Schwartz continued.
Despite the sizable tax credit given to film studios that shoot in Georgia, Schwartz and the producers of Wicked discussed moving the movie elsewhere. The yellow brick road could be diverted to another location where they could construct the Land of Oz.
But, then, Schwartz received a call from the Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician who had helped get more African-American citizens to vote.
“She strongly urged us not to boycott,” Schwartz said. “She pointed out that a boycott and withdrawing the film from Atlanta would hurt the very people that we are trying to help in terms of workers and in terms of small businesses,” he stated. One study found that the growing film industry in Georgia generated about $8.5 billion in economic impact and employed about 90,000 Georgia residents in 2019.
“What she asked us to do instead is, as she says, ‘stay in fight,’” Schwartz recalled.
The minds of the producers of Wicked were changed for good, and they decided to stay and shoot in Georgia. The film is “currently planned to start production … in Atlanta later this year, and then film all through next year,” confirmed Schwartz. Jon M. Chu, who directed the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, will direct the movie, which has been in development at Universal Pictures for well over a decade.
However, Schwartz confirmed that, in addition to making “meaningful contributions to organizations which are supporting, for instance, voters who now need ID’s,” the team behind the film will support federal “bills to protect the right to vote.” One bill named the “For the People Act” did not survive a filibuster in the U.S. Senate last week, and Democratic leaders are now preparing to introduce another voting rights bill.
“We can come to Atlanta, which we wanted to do, and still feel good about ourselves for doing so,” Schwartz said with a smile.