Friday, April 14, 2017

Wonderfully Wicked

Wicked offers many lessons for reinventing the "classics." 


Photo by Joan Marcus

I've been thinking a lot lately about art in terms of modernity versus the "canon." I truly believe that nothing is sacred and that taking a fresh eye to things is not only fun but often necessary in order to have our stories keep up with a changing world. Evolution is a vital component of any successful endeavor; why should art be any different?

Photo by Joan Marcus

There has been so much (rightful) furor lately over the revival of musicals that have not aged well. This powerful piece on the troubling legacy of Miss Saigon is one such example, but it extends to local productions of South Pacific and West Side Story, as well as national tours such as the recent The King and I and Book of Mormon runs. I can understand both sides of an argument about these shows - that they possess a musical and choreographical legacy of deep importance, but that they are also fatally flawed in depictions of diverse communities - and at the end of the day, I can't help but think that the latter view is the correct one.

Photo by Joan Marcus

So with all of this on the mind, it was surprisingly refreshing to watch Wicked last night, the smash-hit reinvention of the Wizard of Oz as told from the perspective of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. I think the totally new approach taken by Gregory Maguire, the original author of the novel Wicked that the musical is based on, is one we should encourage for more and more of the "canonical" stories that we can't seem to let go. Why not rewrite them? Why not flip the perspective completely? What do we have to lose by looking at these stories with completely fresh eyes? Or why not write something that's wholly new and has never before been created?

Photo by Joan Marcus

If you're only familiar with the original Wizard of Oz story, tune in: Wicked follows Elphaba from birth to melt, filling in an astonishingly rich amount of detail of her story in between. The bulk of the tale focuses on Elphaba's time as a student at Shiz University, where she learns about the mistreatment of the Animal race, taps into her political potential, and most importantly learns to harness her incredible magical powers. Elphaba's presence at Shiz only occurs due to the expectation that she will help her sister Nessarose (the witch of the infamous red sparkling shoes), who is unable to walk. Like all best-laid plans, however, Elphaba makes Shiz her own once she's there.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Elphaba's ostracization due to her green appearance is also her saving grace; the strength she develops from being an outcast is carried into her political activities and helps her buck the system, living in hiding and trying to expose Oz to the Wizard's shortcomings. Before opposing the Wizard Elphaba befriends the diametrically opposite Galinda (later known as Glinda the Good Witch), from whom she learns softness, friendship and people skills. Glinda also introduces Elphaba to Fiyero, the swashbuckling prince who later becomes Elphaba's lover and only true supporter. Glinda and Elphaba's inherent tension is at the heart of the show, and their deep, complex friendship is what drives the story and is the most memorable element of the story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

This is the kind of show that only succeeds with a powerful cast, and this production delivers. Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda is the perfectly plush foil to Jessica Vosk's dynamic Elphaba. These women have terrific chemistry and it's clear to see they relish their roles. Their voices are equally lush and sharp, and they handle the nuanced conflict between the characters beautifully, particularly on "The Wizard and I," "I'm Not That Girl," and my eternal favorite "For Good." Jeremy Woodart fits neatly into their pairing as the dashing Fiyero. Woodart was a clear audience favorite and gave a surprisingly nuanced look into life as a socially responsible prince. As Elphaba's sister Nessarose Kristen Martin isn't quite as strong as the other leads, but she does lend a dangerous sweetness and excellent physicality to her part. Isabel Keating is deliciously grotesque as the vile Madame Morrible, lending a Hunger Games quality to her character's lust for power. And Fred Applegate hits some lovely high notes as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The sets and costumes are fabulous as always, blending the original magic of the 1939 film with a steampunk and Hunger Games inspired harshness. Glinda's creamsicle colored gowns float in and out on an iron-reinforced "bubble;" a red eyed dragon sneers above the stage; and the Emerald City gleams with the harsh, cold beauty of a city without a soul. Elphaba's grassy skin sears through the entire spectacle, focusing your full attention; her comparatively plain wardrobe and simple appearance demonstrate why oftentimes, less is truly more.

Photo by Joan Marcus

While Wicked does include a love story, and politics, and magic, at the end of the day it's one of the few great masterpieces exploring female friendship; the rich, complicated relationship Glinda and Elphaba share is a wonder, and I hope it continues to inspire more stories like it to be written (Frozen being an excellent example of another successful story in the same vein). Can we please stop pretending that stories about women aren't interesting or successful? To give a little perspective on the success of Wicked itself: over 9 million people have seen Wicked at it's Broadway home in the Gershwin Theater alone; 18 million more have seen the show on tour in other cities across the United States, and 50 million have seen it worldwide. The show has grossed a combined total of nearly $3 billion in North America alone and has even more success abroad.

Photo by Joan Marcus

So Broadway, are you listening? Instead of reviving troubled, outdated and often racist and sexist shows, can we focus on creating more new, inventive and inclusive stories? The limits of the imagination are endless, and there are so many ways we can sing and dance and inspire that have nothing to do with opening old wounds. Let's take a lesson from this brilliant musical's success and rewrite our art. After all, as Glinda says:

I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return. 

Let's take a lesson from that lovely lyric, and apply that philosophy to our art. It has only good things to offer. Wicked is playing at the Orpheum Theater through May 14. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.