Wicked

It has been more than four years since Wicked began to wow audiences and win awards. I saw it for the second time two weeks ago in Rochester, New York, taking the kids this time. On the way out, I told them the bad news: They may have to wait forty years to see another show this good.

People who live in the New York City area have already had plenty of opportunity to see the show, which is nice: there should be some compensating benefits for people who live in the New York City area. But after four years, I know many non-New Yorkers who would love this show but have barely heard of it. It is for those people that I offer the following thoughts on what makes this musical so great.

First, a spoiler alert: I’m not going to give anything away in this post, but I can’t vouch for the comments. If you’re planning to see the show, consider yourself warned.

Now then, for anyone unfamiliar with the story, it is a Grendel-like retelling of the story we know from the 1939 Oscar-winning “Wizard of Oz.” But this new version opens where the 1939 film ended — with a huge public celebration of the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. But then, as Glinda the Good Witch converses with the adoring crowd, some questions emerge: Is it true that Glinda and the Wicked Witch were friends? Are people born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? What is wickedness anyway? And the story is then told from the beginning; from the birth of Elpheba (for that is the Wicked Witch’s given name), through her college days, when she was thrown together with Glinda and they became (accidentally) roommates and (improbably) friends. (There are obvious parallels here to my relationship with Tim Peach.)

Some may think they detect the odor of relativism in this meditation on the nature of wickedness. That is an impression that receives some support in the way the lyrics repeatedly play on common English phrases that include the word “good,” such as “for good,” “thank goodness,” and “goodness knows.” And some characters embrace that relativism. Others embrace ignorance or apathy. But in the end, there can be no doubt of the moral judgments we are invited to make about these characters. Thus, the point seems to be not that goodness and wickedness are “all in which label / is able to persist” (as the Wizard sings), but rather that we face three recurrent practical limitations in making our moral judgments:

  1. The fallibility of popular opinion. People are frequently wrong not just about their evaluations of good and evil but even about basic facts. Indeed, people are often actively deceived, particularly by those who govern or those who wish to inspire good opinion of themselves. A few years ago I read the rather unwieldy novel on which the show is based, and it seems to me that this theme of popular fallibility and government deception is almost entirely new in the musical version. It is brilliantly executed, informing virtually every song and every scene in which the chorus appears. I would have to watch the whole show again to check this, but I would not be surprised if the chorus is wrong about absolutely everything in the entire show.
  2. The gap between intention and execution. Burns said it long ago: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” Even when we mean well, the consequences may fall well short of our intentions. And conversely, even acts undertaken from spite (or lust, or pride, or . . . ) may bring about consequences that make our actions appear kind to the outside observer. The show’s plot offers numerous examples, quite skillfully woven together. There is also a subtheme here, namely that the corrupting influence of power — whether political or magical– makes it particularly likely that we will fail to “make good” on our good intentions when we are attempting to change the course of other people’s lives.
  3. The opacity of other people’s motives. We typically judge others by evaluating their objective conduct from the outside. But even if we are correctly apprised of the objective facts and circumstances, we typically ignore the intention gap — that is we assume that others must have intended exactly what result they brought about when in fact the result is rarely fully foreseen and the intention is rarely perfectly executed. C.S. Lewis makes brilliant use of this in The Screwtape Letters as well. The difference here is that we get to watch some of the characters learn this for themselves, looking self-critically at the way they have judged others.

Lest anyone think the show is a philosophy lecture, I should add that its philosophical depth does not in any way interfere with its musical quality. The lyrics are really very smart, and in particular the rhymes are unbelievable. Here is the Wizard in “Wonderful”:

There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities

And here is Glinda in “Popular”:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis;
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sis-
ter and adviser,
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to
Popular . . .

Thanks to commercial success of all this artistry, Wicked now runs continuously in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There is also a touring show that is certain to be somewhere near you soon. Please go. You owe it to yourself.

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12 Responses to “Wicked”

  1. Steve Mohyla Says:

    Mark:

    Steven Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell) tells a great story about writing the song “Loathing.” He was having trouble coming up with a way to decribe the initial relationship between Elpheba and Glinda in a duet between the two. Then he came up with the idea of a song about two people falling in hate. It allowed him to use the passion of a love song as a hate song. Notice I didn’t use the word “opposite” when referring to love and hate. The opposite to both of those feelings is apathy.

    Saw it on Broadway 14 months ago. In planning the family vacation this year to see 4 shows in 3 days, (you can do it by going Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday with the Wednesday matinee and evening performances) I discovered Wicked is still not among the shows for which you can buy discounted tickets. (This is a comment on its commercial success, not its quality.) Having said that, I agree, Mark, great lyrics, clever dialog, many-layered, well staged, and highly recommended.

  2. Timothy Peach Says:

    I hate musicals. Hate them. I’ve seen several, including a bunch of Andrew Lloyd Webbers. With no exceptions, they were all stupid beyond belief. I wanted to kill myself almost the entire time I was in there.

    But I’m sure if I saw “Wicked”, I would say to myself afterwards, “That was easily the least stupid musical I ever saw. The urge to take my own life was really manageable.”

  3. Mark Esswein Says:

    I don’t want to pile on, but I have to agree with Tim – count me in the group that hates musicals. I like many different kinds of music (including some opera.) I also like theater, but musicals make me squirmier than my kids in church.

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    There’s no need to equivocate here, Mark. All rational people hate musicals. Generally I agree with “De gustibus non est disputandum”, but this is one of the few matters of taste for which there actually IS proper accounting.

    While we’re on the topic of categorical matters of taste, let me list a few for discussion, as few people are likely to want to run their fingers through the delightful subtleties of an onstage bastardization of one of the greatest childrens’ stories of all time. I postulate that the following things are NOT disputable:

    - Liking the Beatles. People who “don’t like the Beatles” (and frankly I have no idea what that means, it’s like “I don’t like breathing” or “I don’t like having a private place to go to the bathroom”) aren’t expressing a preference, they’re expressing a dysfunction. They need help.

    - Disliking NASCAR. Driving cars can be fun, being obsessed with their engineer/style, ok, not my cup of tea, but fine. Cars going round and round for hours? How stupid is that? How brain dead do you have to be to find that interesting? People give me crap for loving horse racing — “it’s just horses running around a track”. The Kentucky Derby is one lap and lasts two minutes! Can you imagine watching horses run around the Churchill Downs oval 300 times in one race?

    - Flipping the bird to Europe. Anybody who says we should be more like Europe must have brain damage. Smug, jaded, cowardly, soulless, terrorist-appeasing, America-dissing, believing-in-nothing, fey, pseudointellectual, latte-drinking, casual-adulterating losers. Except Britain. I love the UK. I can’t help myself. I would move there if they’d let me work. They won’t. Never mind I have no useful skills. It’s total BS. Somebody write them a letter or something. A mean one, with lots of expletives in it.

  5. Charley Kimmett Says:

    I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy reading Timothy Peach’s comments. He’s clearly the Oscar to Grannis’s (or, as Mr. Peach would say, Granulous’s) Felix.

  6. Charley Kimmett Says:

    Oops! Forgot to add one that Peach neglected to mention:

    - recognizing that Ron Paul is a crackpot.

    (true or not, it needs to be added to Peach’s list so as to draw Grannis’s ire more fully.)

  7. Timothy Peach Says:

    Yeah, I am still seething about now having to read that dumb book now. Books by current or former political candidates always suck. These perfunctory, self-serving, often ghost-written messes are about as interesting and enlightening as the New York Times Op-Ed page.

    Thanks for pointing that lacuna out.

  8. Andrew Peach Says:

    I would like to hate musicals as categorically as my neurologically-challenged brother does. I would rather have oral surgery in Chile or read scripts for “Will and Grace” than watch “Cats.” But can you really hate “The Sound of Music,” “Grease,” and “Beauty and the Beast”? I still have dreams about Olivia Newton John in the Shaker booth.

  9. David Fitzgerald Says:

    No one has done more to kill musical theatre than Andrew Llyod Webber. Please, never forget he is English and therefore quite misses the point. His work is infused with a self importance and lack of playfulness, hence the squirming.

    The “song-form”, as we have it, would not exist without Broadway. Sammy Cahn, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, et al, created the American songbook in the competitive crucible of getting a show up and running and appealing to a mass audience. It is an essentially American art form and I can’t imagine the American cultural landscape without that “soundtrack”.

    Lennon and MacCartney owe as much to that influence as they do to Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Elvis. Compare:

    Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,
    Now it looks as though there here to stay
    Oh I believe in yesterday…with

    If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way, round in circles I go.
    Longing to tell you but afraid and shy, I’d let me golden chances pass me by
    Soon you’d leave me, off you would go in the mists of day, never, never to know, how I loved you, If I loved you.

    Note the similar inclusio, as well as the narrative imbedded in the lyric. Its using a song to tell a story and it can be powerful without being overly self indulgent…

    “You’ve got to be taught, before its too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate…”

    or, my favorite,

    “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his, if that’s not love, what is?”

    The true art of song writing is delivering meaning in an easily digestible packet. That’s musical theatre, no matter how silly it sometimes gets.

  10. Sean Collins Says:

    My first post here (I hope not my last).
    Fitz is almost completely right.
    Paul owed a lot to the American Popular Song tradition and to the British Music Hall. John couldn’t care less about that stuff.
    John was all about the lyrics. Melody came second. Paul was all about the music. John’s songs are mainly single-note melodies. Paul’s are more step-wise. cf Yesterday.

  11. Timothy Peach Says:

    I have to agree that all that older stuff is pretty awesome.

    I love the movie “Oklahoma”, never had the privilege to see the show. And although pasty unrequited libido explains a good chunk of my love of “Grease” (as it does for my little brother, whose life reminds even the most casual observer of Burgess Meredith’s trajectory through the famous Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” — except that it is the will to live, and not his glasses, that has been broken), the singing is hardly something you suffer through to enjoy the silly story.

    All the stuff I’ve seen in New York as an adult suffered horribly from pedestrian self-indulgence and an incredible lack of imagination. Show after show that was really only about itself, with critics still eager to characterize this artless, dull tripe as clever or ironic or somehow usefully “experimental”.

    There is actually a new show out now called [title of show] which is absolutely literally about itself. Look at this summary:

    http://www.titleofshow.com/about.html

    People are STILL stepping up to call this sort of thing clever. Wow, putting on a show about putting on a show. We move further and further along, asymptotically, to zero imagination on Broadway. Art folds in on itself, and the chance to say anything at all or entertain any normal person vanishes like a fart in the wind.

  12. Mark Esswein Says:

    While I love Sgt. Pepper’s as a musical whole, I think Help, Rubber Soul and Revolver are better evidence of Lennon and McCartney as songwriters in the Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter lineage. IMHO Rubber Soul and Revolver have some of the most tightly crafted songs of all time.

    I think the thing that gripes me most about musicals is the combination of grand orchestra with singers of no voice. This has long been a problem (Camelot?, My Fair Lady?) but the phenomenon is much worse today.

    I’m an unabashed Dead Head, but the idea of Garcia singing with a symphony behind him is ludicrous. (Yeah, yeah I know, Terrapin – but he’s not singing over the strings and it is one side of what is DEFINITELY NOT the definitive Grateful Dead album.)


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