Thursday, January 3, 2008

In Celebration of Wicked

Oh my gosh, not only do I love Les Miserables and not West Side Story, but I’m now going to bat for Wicked, which means I will probably lose fifty percent of the authority I have in the world of musical theatre. Tracy Turnblad would be proud. And knowing I am proud of that means I gain fifty percent of that authority back but lose thirty percent of the original fifty percent I kept.

Well, here goes.

My only experience seeing the show was in the summer of 2005 when it was playing in Los Angeles with Stephanie J. Block and Kendra Kassebaum, two immensely talented women. Not one to plan, I figured that if I showed up at the theatre, I could easily get a single ticket. I was driving to Los Angeles, was there to scout things out, get the lay of the land, and to see the sights, so I didn’t want to get a ticket in advance and then not be able to attend for some unforeseen reason.

Silly me.

The show was sold out. Not even an itty-bitty single seat was available. So when waiting in the cancellation line didn’t prove fruitful, I took advantage of being in downtown Los Angeles and took my first walk down Hollywood Boulevard.

The next night I returned to try the lottery. I got there early to put my name in and met a few people in line. There was this really nice woman who needed four tickets for her family and was hoping to net a few. Since I was alone, I told her that if my name was picked, I’d let her have one of mine.

When it came time to pick names, oddly enough, one of the men from the theatre was wearing the exact same shirt I was. Who knew I was so trendy? But it didn’t help my situation. The first name was picked. Not I. The next. Nope, not I. The next. The next. And the next . . . It was looking like I’d be back for another lottery. Still, hope beyond hope, there was one more name to be picked . . .

Not I.

I was at least happy that it was the woman whom I’d been chatting with. She went up, said something to one of the name-pickers, who then announced they’d pick one more name for a single seat. I waited, hoping beyond hope (again) that I would get that ticket, that of all those people waiting to see Wicked, that it would be I who would hear his name.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

But the next thing I knew, the woman whose name had been chosen, the woman I had been chatting with in line, came up to me. She had only bought one ticket because she needed four, and she was going to give me her ticket for the $26 face value.

I was in to see Wicked!

It was a double blessing as well, though, because by the time Wicked arrived in my home city, my understanding is that the tickets were gone shortly after being made available to the general public. There was such a hunger for them, no doubt doubled by ticket “agents” and scalpers, that I never would have had a chance to get a ticket otherwise.

First Impressions Can Be Tough [Spoilers Ahead]
I’ll be the first one to say that Wicked is not the greatest show ever written. I have, however, enjoyed many, many shows that were not the greatest shows ever written, most recently The Color Purple, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A show doesn’t have to be the next Guys and Dolls or A Little Night Music to be a wondrous night in the theatre.

After the first act, I actually entered the lobby of the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles feeling like I was seeing the greatest show ever written. First of all, “Defying Gravity” is an exhilarating song, at least for someone born in the 1970s with a fleeting interest in contemporary music. Add to that the flying effect, which echoes the song’s emotional high, and it makes for a tremendous Act I closer. And best of all, it’s a capper on a terrific first act with lots of humor and heart. I was flying as high as Elphaba, if not a little higher.

To me, however, the second act lacked follow through. For whatever reason, second acts are tough, probably because it’s a fine balancing act between the multiple plots and subplots started in the first act, not to mention the development and completion of themes. Having written a couple myself, I can vouch for the fact that it is much easier to write about the flaws of a second act than it is to write a second act in the first place.

Now keep in mind that it’s been two-and-a-half years since I’ve seen the show and that the OBCR doesn’t contain a synopsis, but to my way of thinking, the second act of Wicked, in short, attempted to stuff too much into the short time it had. The result was, for me, a series of events that lacked development, like trying to watch the moving figures on a Disneyland ride while on a roller coaster. There’s wasn’t much time for it to sink in emotionally.

The transformation of Fiyero into the scarecrow was developed, but my remembrance is that Boq’s change into the Tin Man was thrown at us, and the change of the lion cub was only addressed in a song lyric. These are major changes that are tossed at the audience like throwaway comedy lines.

As part of that, there’s the addition of Dorothy and friends, not to mention the development of the characters’ relationships and the use of new locales . . . There’s a lot of great stuff going on, but sitting in the theatre, by the time we got to “For Good,” I had lost emotional involvement in Glinda and Elphaba because of all this other stuff going on, storytelling that seemed to be reduced to a checklist of events.

Since walking out of the theatre, I have always felt as if the excising of the transformation into the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion would have thinned the proceedings out and allowed for more emotional development.

I do think, however, that when I do see the show a second time—which I would like to—after having heard the music a million times and having seen the show once already, I will more easily fall into the emotional core of the second act. Instead of trying to process something afresh, I will be able to focus on what I already expect.

However!
However, the phenomenal success of Wicked speaks volumes beyond my response or experiences. I might say that its initial success could have been a knee-jerk reaction to the hype or the subject matter, and perhaps at first there was, but the show has been a smash wherever it’s been and is still a hot ticket on Broadway. Tarzan survived over a year on name recognition and advertising, but to thrive as long as Wicked has, there must be something more to the show.

So Wicked didn’t speak to me on a great level, at least not as great a level as it was on the road to speaking, but very clearly it resonates with thousands upon thousands of others. As Lois Lane would say, that ain’t hay.

I’ve never fully understood the vituperative response some Broadway fans have had toward Wicked. I don’t know if they genuinely don’t care for the craftsmanship of the show, the story, or if they hate it because it’s such a success. When people are entirely dismissive of something, I personally wonder if they are doing so out of reason or some other force. I, for one, would heartily say that despite the flaws I perceive Wicked to have, that isn’t to say there isn’t much to love in Wicked.

The Music
Poor Stephen Schwartz—er, scratch that. Filthy rich Stephen Schwartz gets such flack for his work in Wicked, a CD which gets much play on my CD player and is probably the most beloved theatre score since Rent, if not well on the road to surpassing it.

Most of the flack springs from the listener’s personal taste. If you don’t like theatre music that integrates pop, then there’s no use trying to change your mind. Theatre music wasn’t always Jerry Herman and Bock and Harnick, nor will it continue to always be that. As one who appreciates pop vocals (though not most pop music), I can easily stand in awe of Idina Menzel, Stephanie J. Block, or Eden Espinoza as they do their thing in “Defying Gravity,” called screaming by the theatre elite (whom I highly respect and revere), named belting by everyone else (who I am, apparently). Count me as one who calls “Defying Gravity” enormously powerful; it is a song that has inspired me in many low moments.

Similarly, people have been vocal (maybe even screaming) about their dislike of “One Short Day” and “Popular.” I find “One Short Day” to be motivated by story—establishing Oz’s reverence for the Wizard—and fun, not an optional jaunt into spectacle. Also, as Alan Cumming said on the commentary track of Show Business: The Road to Broadway, “Popular” is a pretty much perfect song. It may not be to one’s taste for whatever reason, but that isn’t a reflection on Stephen Schwartz.

Some people take to task Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics. I would say Stephen Schwartz is a genius lyricist, evidenced by his prior work in Godspell, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Gepetto. He creates perfect rhymes that don’t require cheats in the music, and he writes in perfect poetic form. Some point at specific lines in Wicked’s lyrics, like Boq’s rhyming “Nessa” with “Confess, a,” but one’s personal taste doesn’t negate the cleverness of what Schwartz does. Again, look at his body of work. Schwartz is more than capable of writing great lyrics, so it’s not as if he’s a man of limited talents struggling within the confines of lyric-writing, something that could not be said of some songwriters with recent scores on Broadway.

Even the best lyric-writers of eras past get extra creative in writing lyrics. Dorothy Fields, for example, wrote that Charity thinks Charlie is a “hundred watt elec-a-tric light” (also a “Puli-i-itzer Prize”).The great Cole Porter pulled several cheats in his music, like switching the subject verb order (“So in love with you am I”) . No one ever criticizes Tom Eyen’s lyrics for Dreamgirls, which treats rhyme with a full pop sensibility, even in the book songs in which words like “out on the line” are expected to rhyme with “been too kind.” So whatever minor gripes one might have with Schwartz’s score, in the context of other writers, it’s nothing unique.

More importantly, I appreciate the score for how perfectly it suits the characters and develops the situations. Look at how perfectly “Popular” expresses Galinda’s personality, both in tone and lyrics, while “I’m Not That Girl” is a heartfelt, vulnerable expression of Elphaba’s experiences. Another “perfect” song in the show, those ones that some people hate for being too perfect, is “For Good,” which is such a beautiful expression of mutual love and respect, a song that has already started to have a life outside of the show (and, with a few lyrical changes to make it more general, would make for a great pop song).

For all that people criticize Schwartz, no one ever steps aside to praise the genius of his lyric-writing. Pick almost any song in Wicked, and there will be unearthed a treasure trove of rich rhymes and words. Some of my favorites include, but are not limited to:

Let’s just say—I loathe it all!
Ev’ry little trait, however small
makes my very flesh begin to crawl

“What is This Feeling?” is another one of those perfect songs, and the quick and catchy rhymes are part of the reason why it works so well.


Nothing matters
By knowing nothing matters

This is typical of Schwartz’s ability to cleverly use words to communicate his ideas. Here, Fiyero’s double use of the word nothing emphasizes his carelessness and happy-go-stupid outlook.


Enough to give pause
To anyone with paws

I admire Schwartz’s ability to play with words, to take either homonyms or word combinations with similar sounds and match them up.


Blithe smile, lithe limb
She who’s winsome, she wins him

The pairing of winsome with wins him is such an ingenious play on words, both poetic and truthful. I literally love hearing Idina Menzel sing it every time just for the word combination.


Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well, if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost

I admire Elphaba so greatly, and one reason is because of this line, her insistence on doing what is right no matter the personal cost. In her heart, she wants Fiyero, but she’s willing to give up the hope of having anyone or any love in order to do what is right. Schwartz’s lyrics sum her up so beautifully.

The score of Wicked does successfully what many scores have either not attempted to do or have not been capable of doing, which is embracing the traditional musical theatre tradition—smart, character-specific lyrics with exact rhymes—while communicating in a musical vernacular that is accessible to the public and, better, is written in a form to which they can relate. No, it doesn’t have the beauty of Michael John LaChiusa’s Marie Christine or the smartness of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, but it is the 2000s equivalent of Camelot, The Pajama Game, and South Pacific.

The music of Wicked, perhaps, isn’t intended to speak to everyone, but for those to whom it does speak so vividly—the general public—it is magic.

The Book
Even though I criticize the libretto to Wicked for being too busy in the second act, there’s a lot of greatness in Winnie Holzman’s book.

To begin, I greatly admire Holzman’s ability to find humor in the situations of the story. In looking at a synopsis, Wicked might be confused as pop opera type of show—one or two characters for comic relief, everyone else in misery or in love. I love the dialogue in “Popular,” which is so funny. Here is a moment that could be played very seriously—Galinda and Elphaba finally connect when Galinda makes Elphaba feel beautiful for the first time ever—yet Holzman balances the emotions of the scene with audience-roaring laughter. Now that’s talent.

Some take to task the school setting of the first act with the cute boy subplot; however, when one considers the story of two girls who meet, it’s far more likely to happen in a school than in a pumpkin patch or while working at a McMorrible’s burger joint.

And Holzman handles the setting with great dexterity. She takes the schoolroom setting—so common on television shows and in movies—and creates nuanced, realistic characters. So we are given a cheerleader type of character in Galinda and a goth in Elphaba, but both characters are far more than the labels others would attempt to pin on them. Galinda isn’t so much mean-spirited as oblivious to the plight of the unpopular, while Elphaba reacts to Galinda’s popularity. The events at the dance, in which cause leads to effect which leads to Galinda regretting some of her choices from that evening, are skillfully choreographed by Schwartz and Holzman until Galinda, in a beautiful and touching scene, legitimizes Elphaba’s bizarre dance so that it becomes popular. It’s a beautiful moment.

The blossoming of their friendship is handled so delicately and so well that by the end of Act I, it is a difficult thing to see them part their separate ways as Galinda decides to join the Wizard and Elphaba refuses to pair with evil.

Each of the three main young characters—Elphaba, Glinda, and Fiyero—undergoes a change; however, Elphaba is the one who stands out. Yes, she gets “I’m Not That Girl,” “Defying Gravity,” and “No Good Deed,” but she’s also a rich stage character. I’m jealous of her ability to turn her back on the world to pursue what is right, to sacrifice love and adoration to stand up for what she believes in, to go for what is just to the detriment of her career. Many teenagers relate to Elphaba because at some point, everyone feels less-than-perfect, like a wallflower in a room of bad 60s wallpaper. I, on the other hand, admire Elphaba because she is all that I want to be, a crusader for what is right no matter the personal cost. We need more Elphaba’s in this world.

Though the lack of a readable libretto makes writing about it a challenge, there’s much more to praise in Holzman’s book.

The Theme
It was Ben Brantley who, in Show Business: The Road to Broadway, called Wicked preachy. I guess it is kind of preachy in the same way that Hairspray is, or John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In the good old days, we called a well-developed theme great writing.

As you can imagine, I disagree strongly with Ben Brantley and admire Wicked greatly for presenting issues at a deeper level. On Broadway, we are still enamored by shows that break new ground in content or concept—teens having sex on stage, a lesbian love story, the rock musical. I admire Schwartz and Holzman for actually presenting a show with depth, with attempting to tell a story that communicates ideas in way that a straight play or, particularly, a novel does.

Once again, without having a copy of the libretto, it would be a challenge to write a full analysis of Wicked, but my memory and the CD provide opportunity to present some of it.

To begin with, let’s take “Popular.” Yes, it’s a fun theatrically poppy song, but there’s truth in those lyrics. Life is all about popular. Glinda’s dead-on when she says:

I remind them on their own behalf
To think of
Celebrated heads of state or
‘Specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!

They were popular! Please—
It’s all about popular! It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me!

I don’t mean to belittle brains—I’m very glad I have them myself—but a dynamic personality can make tidal waves where a shy brain can’t even splash. Our potential presidents believe it—Bill Clinton played the sax, Gore got airbrushed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Bush smiled his little boy smile, Hilary Clinton got botoxed, Fred Thompson announced his run on Jay Leno . . . It’s not about aptitude. It’s the way you’re viewed.

More importantly, “Popular” fits into the grand scheme of what Schwartz and Holzman are communicating, for it will be Elphaba with the aptitude who will sink, while Glinda the Good (viewed) who will succeed. Galinda will need Elphaba to show her the way, but in the end, Elphaba will never do all that Galinda can.

The subplot of the animals losing their voices is another brilliant piece of the puzzle, the symbol of those whose voices are silenced by fear and public opinion, the same public opinion that the Wizard can manipulate because of how he’s viewed. This is mass hysteria in action on a daily basis in any society, particularly in America in every decade.

For me, “Wonderful” was always a rich experience. I guess it doesn’t present anything that I haven’t encountered elsewhere in my life, but it presents those ideas in a concise and richer manner, punctuated by Schwartz’s clever rhymes.

The truth is not a thing of fact or reason
The truth is just what ev’ryone agrees on
A man’s called a “traitor”—or liberator
A rich man’s a “thief”—or “philanthropist”
Is one a “crusader”—or “ruthless invader?”
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

There’s a lot of truth to this, a lot of truth that the average American doesn’t address despite that fact that we take part in this every single day. This idea of how we create history by how we label it stretches beyond political parties or current events; it is a reflection on our world, how we view it, and how we choose to ignore the flip side of most coins.

This ties in beautifully with one of the main concepts of Wicked, this idea of looking at the world of The Wizard of Oz through a different perspective. Just as we as Americans now look back with new perspectives on slavery, the Japanese internment during World War II, and segregation, Wicked asks us to look at our lives now and discover for ourselves what the interpretation should be, not with just whatever modern label is able to persist.

While some of this may be old hat for the theatre elite who read regularly and only watch foreign movies, this is pretty deep stuff for musical theatre, which has traditionally sought praise for the breaking of barriers in concept and content, not theme. The poster promises Beauty and the Beast but delivers something so much deeper than that.


Not every show is going to be the cup of tea for everyone, but I celebrate Wicked for what it sets out to do, for its success at reaching so many people. There’s much more I could praise—Susan Hilferty’s costumes, great choreographer Wayne Cilento’s movement for a start—but I think time will do that for me. I have a feeling that in thirty years, people will stand in awe that anyone ever had such harsh words for the original Broadway production of Wicked (which will have since been adapted for the big screen, no doubt, and produced at least twice by every American high school this side of the Atlantic Ocean). Maybe we’ll even get a day where shows with developed themes will not be seen as preachy but important.

As for me, I can’t wait until the day when I get to see Wicked again.

the Broadway Mouth
January 3, 2008

6 comments:

The Director said...

So, I love the story of Wicked, and I loved the production -- particularly the spectacle. I'll have to disagree with you, Mouth. It was a fantastically beautiful set with a fantastically beautiful cast in fantastically beautiful costumes with fantastically beautiful props and a not-so-fantastically done score.

Don't get me wrong, I agreed with most of your post. The lyrics are pretty good, and I love the plays on words, the rhymes, etc. But I'm going to have to agree with a lot of critics out there who think it amounts to a bunch of screaming.

About half the album is good, the other half makes me cringe. I loved Idina Menzel in RENT, and I love her songs in Wicked.. I love "Dancing Through Life", "One Short Day", and "Wonderful"... but most of the other songs just fall short. I can barely tell the difference between Idina and Kristen Chenowith in any of the songs they sing together.

"Defying Gravity" is extremely powerful in its message and tone, but it just doesn't connect to me. Sorry.

Me? I wanna be like Fiyero -- going through life with not a care in the world. Who needs all this deep, dark, stresful crap, when you can pretend nothing matters?

Ah well. A man can dream.

Kira said...

Hi there

-- Do you mind if I make a link to this blog in my blog?

I think it articulates very well the reasons I respect Wicked (and then I will add some) and all it conveys.

I do, however, disagree about the second act comment. To me, the second act is a lot more powerful than the first act - though I think the transition is amazing.

Your Elphaba and Glinda comment about their relationship.. I agree. I can't pinpoint it exactly (because it doesn't seem to be exactly Popular) where they become great friends.. It's a very natural, realistic progression. And then it breaks your heart twice- Defying Gravity and For Good.

Thanks for the great post.

Broadway Blog said...

As always, thank you so much for reading!

When it comes to the music, I just think that it's also a matter of personal taste. Either you like the belting or you don't. Brian, I'd be curious to know if you liked the score any better when you saw it live (or did you see Menzel?). Perhaps its the performer?

Kira, go ahead and link away! I'd love to read your thoughts on the show as well.

Joe said...

I saw Wicked on opening night in NYC - my first opening night ever - and three more times since, once in Chicago. I loved the book when it came out, and feel like I 'discovered' it, as it took some time to make the bestseller lists. When it finally came to Broadway I was just beside myself. As THE fan of the Wizard of Oz movie, I couldn't wait to see what they would do with this ingenious story by Gregory Maguire. I feel as you do but am even more enthusiastic about the score and book. I too wonder about the negativity regarding this show...I think because it has become 'too successful' and was backed/produced by Universal...who knows, I'm just happy that it exists in my lifetime and that it will be around for a long time.

CresceNet said...

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Esther said...

What a great post! I'm a big fan of Wicked. I've only seen it once, on tour, but I love the music. (I'm a sucker for pop-oriented scores, I guess. I love Hairspray, too). And I love the way the story pays homage to The Wizard of Oz. Plus, how great is it that the the most deeply felt love song in the show, "For Good," is about the enduring power of friendship.