Not all repeat business is the same. Heart-swelling fans have always flocked back to shows they flat-out love, like Peter Pan, Cats or The Fastasticks. An informal intermission survey of your reviewer’s seating neighbors at last week’s Famous Artists opening of Wicked revealed something different. Ticket-holders with broad smiles admitted that they were seeing the show a second (or third) time because they felt they still hadn’t got it all. More than 6.7 million people have seen Wicked on Broadway, and another 11 million have attended road shows. There are more than dragons and flying monkeys who keep going over our heads. That’s a big part of the fun.
Everybody thinks they know what they’re getting in for when they enter the theater. Stephen Schwartz is a user-friendly Broadway composer (Godspell, Studs Terkel’s Working), and Winnie Holzman has adapted Gregory Maguire’s huge but popular prequel to The Wizard of Oz, director Victor Fleming’s 1939 MGM Hollywood musical, not L. Frank Baum’s original novel (1900). There is no other text that every single American resident, regardless of age, gender, race or class, has seen other than the movie. So we immediately get the allusions to similar costumes as well as witty wordplay on dozens of well-remembered bits of dialogue. These are little snaps of the fingers to make sure we’re paying attention, and we never go 15 minutes without getting a wake-up giggle.
Similarly, everyone enters the theater knowing the basic premise of the show because it is spelled out in the subtitle of Maguire’s book: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. This means that the green-faced girl who will become the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (Christine Dwyer), is going to be presented more favorably than the blonde goody-goody, Glinda (Jeanna de Waal), initially called “Galinda.” The unfolding of this story is told in flashback because the action of Wicked begins with the Wicked Witch’s death, same as in the movie, only here it is an ominous portent. No matter how much emotion we pin on Elphaba, she’s headed for trouble.
Novelist Maguire has a Tolkienesque penchant for names so that all the new characters bear monikers that sound as though they signal something about the character. The bullying old broad, Madame Morrible (Gina Ferrall), who forces Elphaba and Glinda to be unwilling roommates at Shiz University, the sorcery school, is pretty easy to figure out. So is Elphaba’s “tragically beautiful” wheelchair-bound younger sister, Nessarose (Zarah Mahler). Similarly, we can expect nothing but abruptness from the Munchkin named Boq (Michael Wartella), who responds to the affections of lonely Nessarose. Fiyero (Billy Harrigan Tighe), a vain Winkie prince, wows all the girls at Shiz, including Glinda and Elphaba with his carefree entrance number, “Dancing Through Life.”
Inevitably, one must wonder if some of these names are in kind of a code, and at least one is. Wicked buffs have determined that “Elphaba” makes wordplay on the initials L-F-B for original author L. Frank Baum. This suggests that Maguire sees the excluded and tormented Elphaba as a projection for novelist Baum, a view not supported by the vast critical literature on Baum and the many Oz books. Still, those names are a tease because just as Elphaba will transmogrify into the Wicked Witch, so too other characters have profound transformations lying ahead (no spoilers, please).
Wicked could certainly be classed as a mega-musical, with 90 wigs, countless animal masks and the vapors from 200 pounds of dry ice. Eugene Lee’s setting of giant movable gears, lighted by Kenneth Posner, along with a pulsating 26-person chorus of monkeys, palace guards, students, denizens of both Oz and the Emerald City mean that there are dozens of moments when your eye simply cannot keep up with all the imagery and well as the wordplays and musical jokes (more about them later).
Despite this, Wicked also contains real-world feelings and disappointments. When Glinda and Elphaba are unhappily thrown together as roomies, they sing a complex, ironic duet, “What is This Feeling?” When, in an unexpected change of heart, Glinda decides to give Elphaba a personality makeover, she belts out the brassy “Popular.” But despite her growing feeling for Fiyero, Elphaba knows that she wasn’t born to be loved in “I’m Not That Girl.”
The action might be set in a world of fantasy, but such a world embraces many cruelties, small and large. Kindly Dr. Dillamond (Jay Russell) in his goat head treats Elphaba with sweet attention but is crushed when insulted by anti-animal graffiti left on his blackboard. A decree comes forth that all animals are to be removed from their positions and are to be deprived of speech. Elphaba and the doc commiserate in the duet, “Something Bad.” Dillamond is then replaced by a small lion kept in a cage, an animal who will not speak.
One doesn’t need Cliff’s Notes to see the episode as a parallel of the fascist suppressions of Jews and leftists during the 1930s. Most observers have noted the allusions to fascism in the 1939 movie—the elaborate uniforms, the marching, to “liquidate” meaning to execute—and Wicked runs farther with them.
The Wizard of Oz (Paul Kreppel) himself is a character in Wicked, but he’s far more complex and makes his appearance earlier. Very early in Act I, Elphaba’s revelation of magical talent prompts Madame Morrible to proclaim that the girl would be useful to the wizard. Upon meeting, he deceitfully misrepresents himself in “A Sentimental Man.” She complies with his request that she show off her powers with the Grimmerie, an ancient book of spells. She levitates the innocent monkey servant Chistery (Dashi’ Mitchell), who soon appears to be in pain and begs to be released. It can’t be done, Morrible and the Wizard allege, causing agonizing reappraisal for Elphaba.
Stephen Schwartz’s allusive score picks up themes and clusters of notes from Harold Arlen’s music for the 1939 movie. Copyright laws will not allow quotation of as many as eight notes in a row, but you can hear the first seven from “Over the Rainbow” a number of times. The sound impression is meant to be fleeting. Music director Valerie Gebert leads the six-player traveling orchestra in this equal-to-Broadway production, and they are joined by nine area musicians.
In the nine-year production history of Wicked, the two female leads are often perceived as performing rivals, and they are evenly matched. Glinda reprises “I’m Not That Girl,” and their duet “For Good” comes strategically near the end of the second act. As the true voice of feeling, Elphaba triumphs in the love duet with Fiyero, “As Long as You’re Mine,” in the second.
The real wizard of Wicked is award-winning director Joe Mantello. His hand is quicker than your eye, and he doesn’t give away secrets.
This production runs through Sunday, Dec. 9. See Times Table for information.