Wicked by Nature

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
Uncovering the dark themes beneath the light-hearted surface of Broadway smash Wicked: The Musical ahead of its New Zealand debut.

In contrast to the drab gray sky threatening to blast watery hell down onto the city, the atrium of the Victoria Apollo Theatre in London was a welcoming prelude of marine motifs in art deco and vibrant hues of emerald green. Patrons crowd the vestibule in excited chatter. In the auditorium itself, there was much to admire whilst waiting for the show to star: faux columns of stylised scallops encircle the audience like graceful frozen fountains, and the set design of the proscenium arch was an intriguing revelation: rickety scaffolding and giant clockwork gears, with a monstrous Tik-Tok dragon at the crown as we took our seat.

At the hour, the dragon suddenly comes to life: it roars and flails, smoke billowing out of its nostrils, and the screen lifts: curtain up. The eccentrically dressed indigenous of Oz gather on the stage and pronounce a morbid exclamation of rejoice from the opening number: “Good news… she’s dead!” The ‘she’ being referred to is, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Debuting in 2003 at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, Wicked is one of the most successful new musicals of the last decade, being a hit on the US awards circuit in its sophomore year and now one of the theatre district’s longest-running musicals. The London production followed in 2005, becoming the resident show at Victoria Apollo Theatre, previously home-ground to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular Starlight Express, and set new sales records for the West End over the years, including being the first show to break the ceiling of one million pounds of sales in a week. Notorious for a packed theatre at performances, the musical won the 2010 Olivier audience’s award for Most Popular Show. Its success on both Broadway and the West End has inspired new productions internationally: a UK and Ireland tour opens in Manchester this month, and the Australian company is set to return to Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane after its Auckland season.

Adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the musical revolves around the events of L. Frank Baum’s children classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz told from the alternative perspective of Oz’s witches: Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphalba, the Wicked Witch of the West (so named after Baum’s initials, LFB). In Maguire’s version of the lore, however, Elphalba is not the warty archetype of evil, but a fiery heroine and civil rights activist, shunned for her unusual appearance; Baum’s gentle Glinda, on the other hand, is transformed into the ditzy, effervescent poster girl of goodness with a generous dollop of vanity and conceit. The show is essentially an origin story of Baum’s Oz in lengthy flashback after news spread of Elphalba’s death, and follows the Wicked Witch and Ga-linda (before she was Glin-da) through college, where they train in sorcery and develop an unlikely friendship. However, the former’s talent with magic leaves Galinda green with envy, and their alliance is put to the test further for reasons both political and romantic. Elphalba is a passionate advocate for the rights of the increasingly-marginalised sentient animals of Oz (including a professorial goat at the college), and tries to appeal to the Wizard at Emerald City for help. Unfortunately, she offends the wrong people, and ends up the victim of a tyrannical government and its propaganda, thus forever demonised by the denizens of Oz.

Although Baum’s real life political aspirations were less kindly to minorities, Ozian literature in stark contrast has always been a lore of outsiders, an inspirational fable of those yearning to earn their place in an anti-plural society: the cowardly lion, the brain-less scarecrow, the unsentimental Tin Woodman, the lost girl from Kansas, the wizard from faraway, and the once-free race of winged monkeys. Wicked not only explores these themes, but its thesis hinges on the very struggles of its cast of outcasts: the green-skinned black sheep of an aristocratic family, speaking animals in a world of inarticulate herd-thinking Proles, the wheelchair-bound heir to mayoralty (originally armless in the novel), and the unrequited love of different cultures. Maguire, and by extension the musical, looks at the consequences of social marginalisation through parables of racism.

Despite the heavy-sounding themes, the musical Wicked itself is a light—and wonderfully so—emerald-coloured night out. The musical markets itself as a spectacular family-friendly extravaganza of glorious, glittery theatrics, and the Drama Desk Award-winning book does not fail to provide sustained entertainment throughout the lengthy performance with its witty lines and timely moments of appropriate horror. The themes of genocidal hysteria and political dystopia are a reflection of the dark novel, more catered to an adult readership with its sex, murder, religion, and sophisticated socio-political undertones; the adaptation remains a true but truncated, and liberally sanitised version that preserves the core exploration of the novel: what is the root of evil? Or, as Galinda thus mused in a Shakespeare-satirising line in the opening number: “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”

Composer Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics are crisp, quality Broadway: ‘Wizard and I’ is a moving anthem for Elphalba, as the Wicked Witch-to-be sings about being recognised for her talent and not the way she looks. ‘Popular’ is one of the show’s most comedic numbers on stage as Galinda resolves to give Elphalba a beauty make-over, whilst ‘Defying gravity’ is loud and uplifting, both figuratively and literally, as the Wicked Witch of the West levitates on stage on her infamous flying broomstick as wind-whipped black fabric provides a dramatic backdrop. In ‘No good deed’, Elphalba mourns that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The London production I attended is smart and sleek: under UK associate director Petra Siniawski’s lead, Louise Dearman is a feisty Elphalba and her vocals soar to dizzying heights, whilst stand-by Lucy van Gasse’s Galinda is sensitive and conceited with impeccable comic timing.

The mythology of Oz has always seemed to me both awkward and fascinating, with dimensions simultaneously simple on first impression yet complex in its undertones. It is a light-hearted children’s moral tale, yet is also undeniably dark and a little twisted beneath the surface in that frightening and frighteningly casual way of Victorian era fiction. After all, as a child, an axe-man made of metal, an animated scarecrow with a patchwork face, an evil witch who melts to death, and a horde of flying monkeys (think sharp-teethed baboons) could not possibly conjure instantaneous images of the warm and fuzzy. The design team for the musical must have had a similar impression of Baum’s novel as they built the set: it is bold, dark, and edgy. Complicated gear-works climb around shadowy scaffolding wrapped by a rampant growth of vines, flanking the stage, and a mechanical Time Dragon writhes and flails and breathes smoke, glaring down at the audience from above. The stage itself is an ever-changing hue of colours (much of it green, of course) of strong dark-light gradients. The props and stage sets are eye-candies of sophisticated contraptions, including Galinda’s transport bubble, and the Wizard of Oz’s monolithic floating head. And the winged monkeys: unforgivingly humanoid with stiff masks that are more like garish caricatures of the animals they try to portray, and the scene where the Wizard’s captive monkeys sprout bat wings snarls with terror and alarm. The individualised costumes for the Emerald City and the Shiz academy ensemble stand out for their impersonal geometry. The make-up technique for Elphalba is meticulous using a special formulation to make the green “look like skin” rather than paint, and it’s a wonder that no streaks of green smears onto her black dresses or other characters.

Wicked adds nuance to Baum’s ever-expanding mythology with its flipside version of events in the original book; Maguire urges us to question if good and evil are ever such an easy dichotomy. That said, the musical remains a light-hearted adaptation and a fun theatre outing deserving of its hype, with the heavy themes hinted at but not impressed. That The Wonderful Wizard of Oz continues to inspire literary, cinematic, and stage adaptations and spin-offs after more than a century since its publication in 1900 (including a separate Webber musical as recently as 2011) suggests that despite the on-slaught of more refined fantasy worlds in the past century as Tolkien’s and Rowling’s, the stories and values of the unique Ozian universe continue to resonate with today’s audience, both children and adult.

As Maguire writes in the London production’s programme, paraphrasing philosopher Roger Scruton: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

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Musical theatre fans around New Zealand had a reason to celebrate when it was announced earlier this year that the award-winning Australian production of the musical would finally come to our shores, after taking the seemingly unnecessarily long route to cross the Tasman via Singapore and South Korea. The season opens at the Civic Theatre in Auckland from September 17; visit wickedthemusical.org.nz. For day tickets to the London production, queue at the box office half an hour before its 10am opening time. The show’s running time is approximately three hours, including intermission.

Mohamad Atif Slim reviewed the London production of ‘Wicked: The Musical’ at the Victoria Apollo Theatre in August.

MAIN IMAGE: Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in the Australian production of Wicked (Photo by Jeff Busby).