Sing a song, or search your soul?
Wicked allows—in fact, encourages—both, conjuring up enough Big Ideas to provoke a philosophy discussion at your neighborhood coven.
Toss them into a witches’ brew and stir them around now that Wicked touches down in a land nicknamed Sin City for a nearly six-week stint at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
First, a primer: Conceived as a Wizard of Oz prequel, the musical is based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (HarperCollins, 1995). Beginning before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz, it tracks the early years and improbable friendship of green-skinned broomstick jockey Elphaba (pronounced “EL-faba) and sugary-sweet sorceress Galinda (later Glinda, Good Witch of the North).
Through their journey, which begins as roomies at a sorcery school called “Shiz University,” we learn what led them to their respective fates. Along the way, Wicked addresses the notions that goodness and evil are not as simple as we think, and people bearing those labels are more complex than we imagine. Turns out that the eventual behavior of “wicked” Elphaba is actually born of nobility while “good” Galinda grows from callous youth into a leader by dint of her relationship with Elphaba. Veteran composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) penned the music and lyrics, while Winnie Holzman (TV’s My So-Called Life) adapted Maguire’s book for the stage. Having debuted in New York in 2003, the sprawling production is now the 12th-longest-running show in Broadway history, with tours worldwide and a rabid fan base.
Now, the cream of Wicked’s themes:
Outsiders vs. Insiders: Who hasn’t felt the pangs of being the outcast as a child or a teen? Well, a few. Bubbly and prom-queen pretty, Galinda is shallow but popular. Pea soup-colored and freakish, Elphaba is smart but shunned—and massively misunderstood. (Everyone who was a metaphorical Elphaba at school, raise your hand.)
Ugliness of Racism: Discrimination based on skin color? Green, black or brown, you get the point, without need of metaphor or subtext.
Horrors of Fascism: Suppressing Oz’s population of talking animals, the Wizard confiscates their voices and locks them away. Devaluing a segment of society and curtailing their freedoms has resonance in issues as diverse as the current debate over women’s reproductive and abortion rights, and the genocide of the Holocaust.
Nobility of Conviction: Appalled at the Wizard’s oppression of the animals—after having once idolized him—Elphaba crusades to free them, doing so against popular sentiment, and earning her the sobriquet “Wicked Witch of the West.” Appearing physically different is difficult, but a matter of nature. Insisting on being ideologically different is a matter of courage.
Popularity vs. Integrity: Although she eventually befriends Elphaba, Galinda’s behavior isn’t always pure. Craving popularity, the future “good witch” initially sides with those who ostracize Elphaba so as not to risk alienation herself—even though she secretly sympathizes with her. One is willing to betray what she really feels to hold onto the majority’s acceptance. One is willing to be thought wrong and hold true to her principles. One is about style. One is about substance.
Political Treachery: Determined to quash Elphaba’s public resistance, the Wizard launches a propaganda assault on her. As he sings: “Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.” Remind you of a couple of guys who trade those “I approved this message” barbs? Whoever labels best … wins.
Good and Evil isn’t Black and White: Dejected after realizing her good intentions have amounted to nothing, Elphaba sings “No Good Deed,” declaring: “No good deed will I attempt to do again.” Evil? Or disillusioned idealist?
Gay Play: Lesbian attraction between Galinda and Elphaba, hinted at in print, goes underground onstage. Noting that “magic is a metaphor for sexual eagerness,” Maguire, who is gay, addressed the different approaches to it in the book and play in a piece titled “How Gay Was My Oz?” in the Huffington Post.
“I wanted to make gay affection and even sex a legitimate, if minority, reality in Oz. … I only suggested a little bit about the tendresse—even once when they shared a bed at an inn—that might have grown up between them. … The musical stepped even more steeply back from the hint of romantic attraction, with the effect, some feel, of heightening the possibility of what remains unsaid.”
More overt—and what gay observers have pointed out—is that Elphaba’s “difference” could be a stand-in for homosexuality, and the animus toward her an indictment of homophobia, which could also be the metaphorical parallel to the persecution of the talking animals.
To Err Is Human … You Know the Rest: During “For Good,” sung at the climax, Elphaba and Glinda trade expressions of forgiveness, which is, of course, divine.
Oh Hell, Just Enjoy Yourself: Loaded with special effects, modern classic show tunes highlighted by “Defying Gravity” and messages that reach all ages, Wicked gained a reputation around the globe as being, well, really good.
Sociological intentions notwithstanding, however, Wicked can’t suddenly turn us into Saint City.
Let’s Chat for a Spell
Now, a word from our Wicked producer Marc Platt and his lime-tinted, ex-Broadway/current tour star, Nicole Parker.
On a rumored movie version of Wicked.
Platt: “There will be the film version. We’re just working on the script, and it’s a couple of years down the road. It’s coming in the not-so-distant future.”
On being painted green once a day, twice on matinee days. Parker: “It only takes about 20 minutes before you’re green, and often I start to feel more attractive in the green makeup than when I’m outside of it. It’s very beautiful makeup, though you do get tired of people saying where you’ve still got it [after a performance]. No one else is walking around with green in their ears. People in hotels wonder what’s going on, they see their towels are green and the sheets are green.”
On Wicked’s journey from book to play.
Platt: “I’m a film producer, and I wanted to develop Wicked as a film. I had developed a couple of screenplays, and yet there was for me something lacking in the storytelling. I couldn’t get my arms around what was missing and why this great story wasn’t taking flight cinematically, and I knew [author] Gregory Maguire had his heart set on a film. Then [composer] Stephen Schwartz called me and asked me if I would consider turning it into a musical. The minute he said it, the lightbulb went off in my head. It’s a world that wants to be musicalized.”
On the physical dangers of Wicked.
Parker: “It was [original star Idina Menzel’s] second to last show, and she fell through a trapdoor and her ribs broke the fall. There are so many tiny-to-large, bizarre injuries that happen only if you’re Elphaba that there’s a mythology around it. Where else can you get your cornea scratched by a monkey wing? It’s well-rehearsed and well-choreographed, but there are so many things that can go wrong between the lighting, the fog, the monkeys, things flying. It’s not your everyday occupational hazards. You wake up every day, and something new hurts.”
On reaction to Wicked when it was performed as a reading in front of a small audience.
Platt: “It’s so much about anyone who has felt like an outsider. I had an African-American woman come up to me with tears streaming down her face, and she said, ‘This story is the story of my life. You’ve told the story of a black woman in America.’”
On reaction to Wicked after it became a Broadway hit.
Parker: “I came out the stage door on Broadway and there was a small girl, blond, in a pink raincoat, and she had Down syndrome. She reached up and said, ‘Hi Elphaba,’ and she hugged me. I’m already about to cry, and then her mother said, ‘This is Rosie, and she and I have been talking about how Rosie is different and that’s OK.’ Rosie looks up at me and says, ‘I’m different, and that’s OK.’ I was done. Anytime I’m not feeling energized for the show, my husband says, ‘There could be a Rosie out there. Do it for Rosie.’”