Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Road Show: Wicked in Vancouver & Western Canada

Update: ticket information for Wicked in Calgary and Edmonton is now available. The show stops in Calgary from June 29 to July 17, and in Edmonton from July 20 to August 7.

The Blogger never fell in love with The Wizard of Oz. I’m not certain if it was the product of my immigrant upbringing, a complete lack of interest in the film as a child, or a total unawareness of what it means to so many others that allowed it to pass me by. I didn’t even see the actual film until after I turned 30, although by the time I saw it, so many people had told me what happens in it years before that I knew the entire story before viewing it and felt that I had already seen it.

Strangely enough, my trip to Oz was presaged by a reading of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a revisionist novel from the same source material. Turning the story on its head, the novel charts the Wicked Witch of the West’s history, including her tortured birth and her time at Shiz University, where she meets Glinda the Good Witch (then named Galinda) and they become unlikely friends. Also, Maguire gives her the name Elphaba. It turns out that the Wizard was not so wonderful. Enchanted, anthropomorphized animals integrated into society and, like humans, held down jobs and were highly educated.

The Wizard, in a form of ethnic cleansing, instigates a systemic eradication of these magical creatures and gives them lobotomies, thus robbing them of their faculties and higher functions. Elphaba, as a fierce defender of these creatures, watched helplessly as her favourite professor, an enchanted creature, was reduced to a shadow of his former self under the Wizard’s rule of law. Elphaba declared war on the Wizard and was thus named the Wicked Witch of the West, since she was only wicked to the Wizard and the citizens of Oz who fall under his rule. (Her sister was the Wicked Witch of the East, hardly a fair assessment given that she was herself confined to a wheelchair and seemed to be “wicked” purely by political affiliation and genealogy. Named Nessarose, she is a powerful politician in the novel and the musical.)

If The Wizard of Oz were a historical chronicle of the wars in that place and time, then it was a history written by the winners: the Wizard, the Munchkins, and the unwitting Dorothy, an opportunist who only used the Wizard to return to a barren hinterland. Wicked is a witty, sinister novel that tweaks with our notions of good and evil by asking critically, what is “good”? Does “evil” exist? Is either of these simply a moral or a philosophical concept signifying social values, or is there anything intrinsic in either? Do they only have value in relation to one another and, when you remove that contrast, is there nothing left but a series of categorical imperatives? How do you assign value to a life?  Maguire’s text gives dignity to Elphaba’s story.

While on holiday in 1995, lyricist Stephen Schwartz read the novel and thought it might make a great musical. He negotiated the rights to be released in 1998 and wrote the film’s famed score. Since opening on Broadway in 2003, Wicked: the Musical has consistently ranked amongst the top-grossing shows on Broadway. Its original cast included Tony Award winners Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, both of whom have since recorded albums, starred in other shows and cultivated loyal followings. Their public reputations have since increased due to their respective recurring roles on Glee, and Chenoweth won an Emmy for her outstanding comic work on the underrated fantasy comedy series Pushing Daisies (a favourite of the Blogger’s and subject of a future blog post). 

The musical initially received some mixed reviews, but most critics praised the play’s production values and the performances of its two stars (Menzel won a Tony for playing Elphaba). The musical has since broken box office records not only in New York, but also in London and in the touring company productions. Wicked comes to Vancouver this month and the Blogger will at long last have an opportunity to see the play of one of his favourite novels.

It’s no surprise that the musical would prove popular, given that The Wizard of Oz has cross-generational appeal. Children who are new to Oz are by extension intrigued by Wicked, and their parents and grandparents likely passed on their love of the film and books. But the Blogger has read Wicked twice now, knows most of the score and is excited about seeing it, but he still has no love for The Wizard of Oz. This perplexing circumstance leads him to recognize that Wicked’s appeal lies beyond being a nifty riff on Oz. This then raises the question: what makes Wicked so compelling, as a stand-alone work of art?
Ultimately, the heart of Wicked is not the flying monkey, its subversion of an accepted literary source material, the debate on good and bad, or even Dorothy. Its appeal is rooted in the friendship between popular, pretty and glamourous Galinda and the academic, buttoned-down but politically charged Elphaba. 

Two of the most beloved numbers from the show solidify this unlikely friendship. One of them is “Popular”, where Galinda promises to help socialize the otherwise combative and awkward Elphaba. It’s done in a deliciously comic tone, but the number is more than just a vehicle in which Galinda lords her popularity over her roommate, as it is the early catalyst that binds them personally. 

The production’s pre-intermission number “Defying Gravity” is the musical’s big show-stopper. Here, Galinda and Elphaba separate politically, as they divert from the centre of the philosophical and moral spectrum (I won’t give away what causes this diversion) and posits them at either end. It’s a number where they stand by their ideologies but also show their respect for each other, no matter what fate befall them both. It’s also the number where Elphaba “comes out” as an enemy of the state, and truly embraces her “wicked” moniker, consequence be damned. In the tradition of the most enduring of musical oeuvre, Elphaba’s audacious declaration of independence as a misunderstood outsider, who speaks the truth and sees through the Wizard’s smoke and mirrors, is about transcendence. Elphaba has an iron will, steely political convictions and unshakeable moral fibre. It is not surprising that Wicked has a massive gay following (insert obvious pun on “friend of Dorothy” here), as the lyrics may be taken as an allegory for those coming out in a hostile or unsupportive environment. If nothing else, “Defying Gravity” forms and informs Wicked’s heart and is its legacy to the world. 

Wicked is presented in Vancouver from June 1 to June 26, 2011, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with performances running Tuesdays through Sundays. Ticket information is available here. In an economy where theatre is considered a luxury, the theatre will release a select number of deeply discounted orchestra seats via lottery two hours before each performance, with the discount price set at $25.00. This discount is available only in person at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. (No word yet as to whether this discount will be available at the Calgary or Edmonton shows.)