When did you last see a stage show (let alone a musical) in which the leads were two young women and the heart of the show was their friendship? In "Wicked" a major off-stage presence is also female — that dratted girl blown in on a tornado who behaves as if she were “brought up in a barn”, as the Wicked Witch of the West — Elpheba, by name (Eden Espinosa) -- disgustedly remarks.
And there’s a scheming old woman, Madame Morrible (Carol Kane), who starts out running the academy where Elpheba and her friend and antagonist Glinda the Good (Kendra Kassenbaum) first meet (and, as in all “buddy” stories, hate each other on sight). Morrible ends up as the uniformed and bemedaled Rumsfeld of the Great Wizard of (where else?) Oz.
He, the titular central character of Baum’s book, is a bum (well, a badly strayed — in every sense — patent-medicine salesman from 19th century America). He is also, it turns out, a lothario, mountebank and general all-round fraud with a self-righteous, manipulative streak that inclines him toward creeping fascism. The other important males are Boq, a lovelorn Munchkin (Logan Lipton), and Fiyero (Derrick Williams), a handsome and exotic princeling who’s the third point of the Glinda-Elpheba triangle of rivalry.
But the axis of the story is the two young witches.
That remarkable fact is one key to the enthusiasm with which the San Francisco audience greeted the show when I saw it (the run was sold out, and many spectators that night seemed to be returnees from earlier performances).
At last, a musical that’s not about boy-meets-girl! A musical in which women are both powerful and sexy, silly and serious, and above all are seen as significant enough in their own right to have a whole story devoted to their antagonisms, alliances, ambitions, and chequered progress toward true respect and fondness for — each other!
There’s a standard love story too — the triangle with Fiyero — but that’s only one element in the complex weave of the two young witches’ dealings with each other and the world around them. This musical is a spectacular distillation of L. Frank Baum’s "Wizard of Oz", as embodied in the famous movie version of the same tale, and, most recently, as turned inside out in the novel by Gregory MacGuire on which the stage show is directly based. Discussing the show without always pausing to sort out which of these incarnations a particular comment applies to may be confusing, like trying to cut your own hair in a hall of mirrors, but I’m going to give it a try.
Let’s talk plot first.
MacGuire's novel "Wicked" isn’t a book I’d have chosen to put on stage. In form it’s a rambling bildungsroman spanning decades, during which Elpheba’s response to parental rejection, plus ridicule, marginalization, and betrayal by almost everyone else, develops into frustrated rage and aggression — which, when expressed, others label “wickedness”. The process is a political one, involving Elpheba in armed resistance to the suppression of some forms of magic in Oz — specifically, the ability of animals to speak and to participate in society as equals to humans.
This protest-element of MacGuire’s plot gives the book the feel of a sort of alternative pre-Revolutionary Russia, full of dissident students, radical networks, and increasingly sinister soldiers and secret police.
Onstage, much of this literary background is sharply compressed. Events that unfold more slowly in the book become iconically brief on stage — wonderful examples, when successful, of the distillation of verbal material into actualized drama that makes good theater, tv, and film. Some of this, however, like the revelation of the Wizard’s relationship to Elpheba, whizzed by so fast that I felt not just a bit cheated but dizzy.
A great deal of the book has been simply dropped: Turtle Heart and his people, gentle primitives whose lives and lands are being wrecked by the exploitative imperium of the Emerald City, and Elpheba’s long, bitterly transforming exile at Fiyero’s isolated family castle. MacGuire’s ending changes, onstage, from grim to upbeat. This suits the bright, fast, energetic musical version well — although my daughter-in-law, who has not read MacGuire’s book, remarked that the show’s surprise-save ending felt as if it didn’t really fit with the rest of the story.
She’s right, of course. A strong story determines its own ending, whatever the author’s original intent. That organic resolution, grown from the sinews of the story as it develops, is forcibly turned into its opposite at the author’s — and the story’s — peril.
Nevertheless, it all worked here well enough to bring the audience to its feet cheering at the fall of the curtain.
It works because of excellent acting, some very funny and incisive dialog, brilliant sets and costumes (the most is made of the technicolor glitter of the Emerald City), and because MacGuire’s revolutionary version of an imagined backstory to Dorothy’s adventure is a perfect way of revisiting a beloved old tale while at the same time commenting cleverly upon it -- and us.
Dorothy? Pah! She never even shows up onstage. Who did she think she was anyway, plunking herself down in the middle of other people’s business and wrenching their lives all out of shape just to get herself back, by hook or by crook, to dreary old Kansas?
Without Dorothy (or anything but the most glancing allusions to her and her traveling companions), Elpheba and Glinda are free to create between them a richly realized relationship of opposites. One is green, angry, and sultry, the other a delicious caricature of the word “perky", complete with little skipping steps of joyful, sexy energy, and pert tosses of her curly blonde mop fit to set a college football team afire. Both are much more than cardboard foils for each other.
The Wizard has a vaudeville number in which he explains how he’s stayed in Oz because he can’t resist the flattery of being told how “wonderful” he is by everyone. He’s played by David Garrison, who does a nifty shuffle-and-patter song that’s a high point of the show, in part because it’s long enough and given a leisurely enough tempo for him to bring out its full wit and flavor.
There’s a startling shift of scene to a cornfield in the second act with a reddish sky, corn plants in silhouette, and one end of a broken down barn that has clearly fallen from the sky. This is, of course, the, er, a crime scene of the death of Elpheba’s sister Nessarose (aka the Wicked Witch of the East). You didn’t think that tornado just whipped itself up by chance, did you? The fun of developing a backstory is working out what really happened and why.
The Wizard’s “public face” is a huge metal head on springs in a frame lit like a makeup mirror, deliciously grandiose and grotesque (and it nicely complements the steam-breathing dragon that crowns the proscenium, although the significance of the Dragon Clock from MaGuire’s book was lost on me).
The "ruby slippers" are jeweled magic shoes which allow crippled Nessarose to walk. The actress (Jenna Leigh Green) does a wonderful job of making the shoes appear to do the walking, hauling her upright and marching her along with them and even lagging behind.
All of this is brilliant, exuberant invention, boldly realized. Now, less happily, a few words about the music.
The production I saw is a revised version of a show that originally opened in San Francisco to tepid reviews, closed, opened in New York to more of the same, closed, and then reopened in the city of its birth. I hear that the creative team responsible for fixing "Wicked" added a good bit of new music after New York. In my opinion, they needn’t have bothered.
The musical armature of the show — its skinny handful of tiny tunes and nearly shapeless motifs — is the least impressive thing about it. Not the lyrics, mind you — there are some very clever verbal turns, with off-rhymes made on the middles of broken words, so that I found I sometimes had to scramble, quite happily, to keep up. But one failure in the lyrics is that just where you want a song that expresses a deeply personal moment of connection between two characters, you get a generic love song that I suppose the producers hope might make it as a single exactly because it doesn’t relate to anything or anyone specific. For the most part, though, the lyrics are smart, to the point, and a whole lot better than the music.
Musically, even the “big” numbers — ensemble pieces, or ballads "belted" to indicate passion — are flavorless. They depend for impact on orchestration tricks and clichés familiar from pop music-by-the-yard: the swelling background roar to indicate that the Big Message is Coming up Right Here, or This Flattening of a Key Word into Two Dissonant Syllables Means Deep Feeling (it’s also a device that allows a hairsbreadth escape from the threat of producing any actual melody).
I doubt that most people who've seen the show once — or even twice — could sing any music from it, not even the last duet between Glinda and Elpheba. This song, about the preciousness of relationships that are not just warm but also so difficult as to test the participants and so to change and strengthen them, is unusual and moving. It deserved better music.
Worse, the stage was so over-miked that the sound level was more suited to a World War One trench than a San Francisco theater. I blush to admit that a good part of the time I sat with one or both ears partly covered to keep out the aural assault, especially the repeated resort to a whining high note forced at endless length through a female singer’s nose and cheekbones and amped up to panful decibel levels.
The problem seems to be intense amplification, designed to carry poor voices and/or good voices that haven’t been trained properly, so they can pretend to be good voices that *have* been trained and *do* project all on their own, as with — well, real singers; remember them? Instead, you end up with a double dose of LOUD. I felt as if my brain was liquifying and dribbling out of my eyes, under the relentless pounding.
But then, I like to actually *hear* the music I’m listening to. I avoid the kind of over-amped live concerts that have apparently deafened modern audiences so effectively that they don’t even notice any more when their eardrums are being carpet-bombed.
For a musical with music that’s a letdown to still be a success is no mean feat. "Wicked" is a highly entertaining accomplishment; if you get a chance to see it, don’t pass it up. Just be prepared to protect your ears. But I suppose you can say that about any kind of modern musical show except a classical concert — which remark surely shows that I’m verging on old-fartdom, so my opinions are silly and outdated and don’t matter. Just don't say I didn't warn you.
I SAID, DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU.
Speaking of generational differences in perception, I saw the show with my granddaughter, Juliet. She got her seat as one of her birthday presents (she was turning thirteen). This is what she thought of the show:
“Wicked was spectacular, the best play I have ever seen. The costumes were amazing and the sets made you feel like you were right in Oz. Although the songs were not great, Elpheba and Glinda’s acting was fantastic. The two women were perfect for the roles. Glinda, the dingy blonde, had you laughing through the whole play and Elpheba, the misunderstood green witch, had you on the edge of your seat eager to watch her next move. I enjoyed Wicked so much that I wish I could go see it again.”
Happy birthday, Juliet! And p.s.: a sequel to "Wicked", neatly titled "Son of a Witch", is in the bookstores. I haven't read it yet, and would love to hear from anyone who has.
[At the time of this writing, Wicked was playing its second year at the Gershwin Theater on Broadway.]