Deputy Entertainment Editor Julie Crowley reviews the popular musical Wicked.
I saw the musical Wicked at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin. It ran from 17 July – 1 September 2018. This touring British production is the 14th longest-running show in West End history. The musical is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz that offers a different perspective on L. Frank Baum’s popular story. It also takes elements from the 1939 MGM movie. Music and lyrics were written by Stephen Schwart, and the script was written by Winnie Holzman. Loosely based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, it follows Elphaba (portrayed by Amy Ross), a young, idealistic woman who will eventually be known as the Wicked Witch of the West. Her mother had an affair which resulted in a green-skinned daughter who is sneered at by Ozian society. She is intelligent, outspoken and socially awkward. At the prestigious, magical Shiz University, Elphaba is tasked with helping her younger sister, Nessarose (Emily Shaw), a gentle girl who is wheelchair-bound. Nessarose falls for a Munchkin named Boq (Iddon Jones), but unfortunately he likes Galinda (Helen Woolf) instead. Galinda is a rich, beautiful and popular young woman who will become known as Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba (nicknamed Elphie) and Galinda instantly hate each other, singing a duet of loathing “What is this Feeling?” They become roommates, very reluctantly.
Elphaba and Galinda gradually become friends despite their differences. Galinda decides to give the dowdy Elphaba a makeover so that she can become popular like her. Galinda falls in love with Fiyero (Aaron Sidwell), a carefree hero who proves his depth when he has to make difficult choices. Elphaba also develops feelings for him, which strains her friendship with Galinda. They are both trained in sorcery under the ambitious weather witch Madam Morrible (Kim Ismay), and hope to serve the benevolent, wise Wizard of Oz who rules Emerald City. Elphaba has an amazing natural talent for sorcery, which may allow her to fulfil her dream of working alongside the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But all is not as it seems in the Land of Oz.
An important plot point concerns the gradual erosion of the rights of talking animals, who were once equal citizens in Oz but are now subject to legal discrimination. The general public has turned against the talking animals too. One of the university teachers Doctor Dillamond (Steven Pinder), a talking goat, becomes Elphaba’s friend. She wants to help the talking animals. She finds out about other instances of animal cruelty and decides to fight against it. This causes conflict in the seemingly perfect world of Oz, which conceals hidden corruption emanating from the Emerald City.
Elphaba is labelled “wicked” because she rebels against the oppression in Oz society, while Galinda (who changes her name to Glinda) is known as “the Good” because she conforms to the norms. Elphaba becomes disillusioned when she finds out the truth about the Wizard she had once idolised. Alone, she has to risk everyone she loves in order to help the oppressed. Glinda doesn’t want to harm her best friend, but she comes under orders from the Wizard himself. She has to decide what is more important – her integrity or her public image?
The musical gives an alternative perspective on the familiar characters in The Wizard of Oz. Other characters from the original story, including the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, make appearances with new backstories. Dorothy is alluded to but does not appear onstage. The famous Silver/Ruby Slippers also appear, and are given a poignant origin concerning Nessarose. There’s an undercurrent of racism against the talking animals of Oz. Other intelligent animals are ill-treated in the name of progress. The flying monkeys are given a new origin story. There are other subtle references to the original tales.
The Wicked Witch of the West, originally a one-dimensional cackling villain in Baum’s novel and the movie, here becomes a complex and sympathetic character. Her sister, who became known as the Wicked Witch of the East, becomes a tragic figure who was tormented by unrequited love. Glinda “the Good” is flawed, displaying vanity and selfishness despite her self-conscious attempts to be “good” all the time. We find out more of the Wizard’s backstory as well, and his unusual methods of keeping order over the diverse citizens of Oz.
Production values are high. The sets are excellent, featuring clockwork, a mechanical Wizard, and a metal dragon which overlooks the action. The props and scenery are well-made and create a sense of setting, whether the characters are in Munchkinland, the Emerald City, or magical Shiz University. The costumes are detailed, varied and elaborate. Special effects for the use of magic feature dry ice and people gliding, suspended by wires, through the air. Elphaba’s flying broomstick and the flying monkeys are other practical effects. The crowd scenes featuring dancing are well-choreographed.
The songs in this musical are justifiably famous. They have memorable tunes and lyrics. “Defying Gravity,” a soaring and uplifting number, is the most popular. The singers are excellent and all the songs serve to advance the plot. Other memorable songs include “Popular,” sung by Glinda during Elphaba’s makeover, “The Wizard and I,” sung by Elphaba while she fantasises about her bright future working for the Wizard in the Emerald City, “I’m not that Girl,” sung by Elphaba, and later Galinda, as a lament for lost love, and “No Good Deed” sung by Elphaba as she embraces her new “evil” identity as the Wicked Witch. Songs are reprised in new contexts later on which give them greater significance. The songs are accompanied by an excellent live orchestra.
The musical made significant changes from Maguire’s novel, which was itself a radical retelling of the Wicked Witch’s story. The novel is dark, weird, violent and pessimistic. Only the bare bones of the plot and characters were kept in the musical adaptation. This works better in the context of the musical, which has a lighter and more optimistic tone. The tone is balanced between humour and drama. The musical has some tear-jerking moments towards the end. The story becomes more dramatic as the stakes become higher and Elphaba and Glinda reach an irreconcilable conflict.
I highly recommend Wicked. It’s a memorable experience that encourages you to re-evaluate the familiar character of Oz. You will never look at The Wizard of Oz in the same way again. The musical will be adapted into a movie slated for release in December 2019. It will be directed by Stephen Daldry, but the casting has yet to be announced at the time of writing. No matter how good it is, the movie will have a hard time living up to the legacy of its theatrical predecessor.