Monday, August 10, 2009

Life Upon the “Wicked” Stage

As a companion post commemorating this weekend. And yes, it is political.


Life Upon the “Wicked” Stage

by Stage Right

Wicked, the smash international stage hit, is a phenomenon and triumph of luck, pluck and virtue for it’s primary creator: composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Schwartz made a revolutionary cultural impact on American Theatre with his 1971 Off-Broadway hit Godspell. He followed quickly with his Broadway debut Pippin which was known primarily for the over-powering staging and choreography of Bob Fosse, but over the years, his score has gained new-found respect. A revival of Pippin debuts this week at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. Then came his next musical The Magic Show with 70’s magician Doug Henning and with those three hits running simultaneously it seemed Stephen Schwartz was on track to be the next great American Composer.

But, even though he continued to write quality work, including scores for animated features like Prince of Egypt and lyrics for Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame, his Broadway bona fides faded away in memory as a relic of the 70’s. Those inside the industry know that Schwartz continued to be active and involved in the industry and tirelessly encouraged the development of new writers and new musicals through his work with ASCAP. He traveled the country and selflessly helped young composers with their dreams. He is a true hero of the American Theatre and you have to really search far and wide to find anyone who would say anything bad about him. Stephen Schwartz is a “mensch” and he deserves the success he is now enjoying with the mega-hit that is Wicked.

As a piece of theatrical entertainment and as an introduction to the world of musical theatre for a pre-teen girl Wicked is fantastic. But, make no mistake, Wicked is a political story and carries strong political messages and it is frustrating for a lover of musical theatre to have to sit through morality tales that take me out of the fantasy world on stage and force me to reflexively defend my own beliefs in my head while watching the play. But, that’s what I found myself doing.

My previous posts on Rent and Andrew Lloyd Webber have elicited debates about the artistic worth of the plays in question and although I never intended “Stage Right” to be any kind of critical or artistic analyst, I now feel compelled to give my professional opinions on pieces that I’m discussing as well as their political and cultural ramifications.

I think it’s instructive to look at some of the reasons why Wicked is so successful musically. In any musical, the music is what drives the success of a piece and this is certainly true in the case of Wicked. Ironically, this show is probably the most derivative of an Andrew Lloyd Webber or “London Spectacle Musical” like Les Mis or Miss Saigon, than anything Schwartz had written to date. Do you ever wonder why, when you see a show like Evita, all of the songs seem so “hummable” and melodic… like you’ve already heard them? Well, you have! You hear “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” about five times during the 1st act before you hear the actual song at the top of the second act. Wicked is Schwartz’ first show to use motifs in such a broad way, and it seems to have worked out well! For further explanation of Stephen Schwartz’ use of motifs, read this.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to loosely describe the plot in this way: Wicked takes a different look at the inhabitants of Oz directly before and during Dorothy’s famous arrival and exodus journey. The plot focuses on the relationship between Galinda (later called Glinda, the Good) and Elphaba, the green skinned girl with amazing sorcery powers. Although the two girls loathe each other in the beginning of the play, they eventually become best friends despite their differences. Throw in a love triangle and a struggle for power in the Emerald City and you’ve got a nice short outline of the show. But, make no mistake, the audience must root for the “Wicked Witch of the West” or the show will not work on any emotional level.

Because of the heavy-handed political message, Wicked tends to fall apart in the second act. The first act is primarily about the development of the two characters, Glinda and Elphaba and how they develop and grow as individuals and how their friendship grows despite the peer-pressure and stereotypes people are trying to hold them to. But, the second act is all about Elphaba’s political fight against the establishment and Glinda’s conformity with the status quo. They go to great pains to twist the “Wicked Witch’s” actions into justifiable reactions to her being grossly mis-understood. Because it’s not a very easy feat, it’s no surprise that the second act comes across as contrived and emotionally lacking.

One other major criticism: This show has no strong, likable or believable male characters. All of the men are rather despicable or shallow, and the one man who actually grows as a human being only does so as a result of siding with Elphaba. Apparently in the world of Wicked, you’re either with Elphaba or against her.

To take L. Frank Baum’s classic tale of good and evil and turn it sideways and beg the audience to take a different perspective on the characters and see that the green chick was only acting out as a result of those who had wronged her is one thing. But the additional levels of political commentary on the Wizard’s regime and his totalitarian tendencies is something else. The Gregory Maguire novel which the musical is based on is actually much more strident and political and, frankly, disturbing, and the creators of the show have done a great job in hacking a lot of the ugliness of the novel out. But, in Schwartz’ own words:

I would argue that the show is still basically political in its content.

Among the specifics that changed: Oz in the book is essentially a totalitarian state, and the Wizard rules by fear, aided by his secret police force. In the show, the Wizard is more manipulative, pretending to be doing things for the good of Oz and to be subjugating the Animals for the greater good, but it becomes clear through the course of the evening that he is doing these things only to remain in power, and that his scapegoating of the Animals (pun intended) is because “one sure way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy”. In fact, it may be argued that the Wizard in Gregory’s book is somewhat like Hitler, whereas the Wizard in the show has resemblances to George W. Bush and other American politicians. This doesn’t make the show less political; it merely makes it different in its political targets.

Oh, well that makes me feel better… instead of going after a Hitler character like they do in the novel, we’ve made the villain look more like George W. Bush and other American politicians. Enjoy the show, America, that’ll be $100 please!!!!

An element of the show is the oppression of Animals as second class citizens in Oz. Animals spelled with a capital “A” can speak and dress like humans distinguishing them from animals with a lower case “a”. The Wizard has set up various laws restricting the rights of the Animals so as to better consolidate his power because, (from the show): “one sure way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy”. And, as Schwartz says:

Oz in the show is still a place where one “race”, the Animals, is being systematically deprived of its rights; the Animal story in the show still has strong elements of Jews in Nazi Germany or minority races in the United States.

Yeah, same difference.

In reading about the adaptation of the book to the musical you will find that one very challenging aspect was how to incorporate the sub-plot of the Animal opression which is very strong in the novel. It seems that they couldn’t escape this aspect of the story because it acts as the main motivation for Elphaba to do the things she does which then get characterized as “Wicked”. And, there-in lies the trouble with today’s musical theatre story-telling. A witch can’t just be a witch. Bad can’t just be bad. The enemy can’t just be the enemy. We MUST take a walk a mile in their shoes to understand their feelings… we have to understand the rage of the rioters in Los Angeles, we have to realize that Osama Bin Laden built daycare facilities and hospitals in Afghanistan. In other words, we have to be a leftist!

Unlike Les Miserables, where authority is questioned but true justice and compassion is measured by actions and loyalty and adherence to a universal code of ethics, Wicked is drawn in the gray shades of moral ambiguity and relativism. I long for the shows where good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys and we get to root for the right side. And, the biggest problem with Wicked is that the forced political references to George W. Bush’s America are so clumsy and jarring that they completely undo the fantasy world that the actors and designers have worked so hard to create. Any subtle allegory that was intended by the writers is completely undermined when they throw around terms like “regime change” in a show so rooted in fantasy and imagination. It is jarring to the audience, a majority of whom will reflexively be annoyed and defensive upon hearing the show’s villains equated with a man they voted for.

I like Wicked. I enjoyed it. I took my girls to see it. I’d see it again, but only because I can check my politics at the door and just appreciate it on a very surface level. But please, oh please… What would Godspell have been like if we had to understand Judas’ point of view?

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1 comment:

TaylorSwift said...

The Wicked is one of my favourite musicals. I know all the words by heart so it was nice to remember again in your post. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories about the Wicked . This weekend I’m going to visit my sister and we get pretty good tickets to attend it again so I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying that show. Here: