Thursday, December 2, 2010

Best of Broadway: Wicked

There’s no other way to say it. Wicked is, simply, a phenomenon. A world-wide smash hit, after more than 7 years on Broadway, it’s currently the 25th longest-running show in musical theatre history and the 17th longest-running Broadway show. 
A few facts to get us started:
  • Wicked has broken box office records around the world, holding weekly records in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and London, and the record for biggest opening in the West End.
  • Both the West End production and the North American tour have been seen by over two million theatre-goers.
  • The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning for Best Actress (Idina Menzel), Scenic Design and Costume Design.
  • Broadway success led to productions of Wicked in Chicago, Los Angeles, London's West End, San Francisco, international productions in Japan, Germany and Australia, and two North American tours.
 Wicked is based (loosely) on Gregory Maguire’s very adult and subversive novel: “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, a political, social, and ethical commentary on the nature of good and evil, featuring the famous characters of L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Maguire’s Oz, however, is a different place altogether. In the years leading to Dorothy's arrival, the novel centres on Elphaba, the misunderstood green-skinned girl who grows up to become the Wicked Witch of the West.

The musical focuses on Elphaba’s relationship with Galinda, later Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Their friendship begins at Shiz University, where they struggle with opposing views on everything from politics, friendship, education, and even a rivalry for the same love interest, ultimately leading to Elphaba’s (unfair) public fall from grace. With plenty of clever and knowing references to Baum’s world (particularly 1939’s classic The Wizard of Oz), Wicked has become the envy of musical producers worldwide- a bone-fide family theatre smash hit. Think Phantom of the Opera, but with even more family appeal. If you listen closely, you can hear the cash registers chiming.

Wicked is one of those productions that inspires a certain level of obsession in its most ardent fans. It’s most ardent fans tend to be teenagers, and teenagers can be loud and very passionate (speaking as someone who, as a teenager, was loud and very passionate). But the truth is that Wicked inspires this passion because it deserves it. It’s so much fun. The musical’s book may be sometimes confusing to those unfamiliar with the source material (especially the subplot about Animal rights), but Stephen Schwartz’s songs are accessible and memorable, the costumes and staging are divine, and every cent is up on that stage. Performed by incomparable original cast members Idina Menzel (as Elphaba, the green girl), and Kristin Chenoweth (as Galinda/Glinda, the popular girl), songs like the epic Defying Gravity, impossibly catchy Popular, the sweet I’m Not That Girl, the heartbreaking For Good, and the haunting No Good Deed showcase the power, terrific acting, perfect timing, and range of Wicked’s leads. The wholly original Elphaba, in particular, is not a role to be taken on by a lightweight.

The divine Idina Menzel
I’ve seen Wicked in New York, Brisbane, and in Melbourne, and the electricity in the audience is something that strikes me each time. Wicked may be a musical powerhouse, but its themes of friendship and independence strike chords with theatre-goers worldwide. And when Elphaba "Defies Gravity", well, that's Broadway at its most magnificent.