According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word wicked means both ‘evil’ and ‘excellent’. To describe the musical Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz as simply wicked has become something of a cliché, but cliches develop because something is so obvious that it is repeated over and over.
Wicked is truly quite brilliant, with colourful and inventive stage arrangements (the big red-eyed dragon installed on top of the scenery still haunts my dreams) and bold performances, especially from Louise Dearman as Elphaba and Gina Beck as Glinda (that’s Ga-linda, with an ‘a’). Personally, my favourite parts of the show were the ones that were ‘wicked’ in the other sense; not exactly evil perhaps, but definitely creepy. These included scenes such as the Wizard’s flying monkeys climbing over a tall cage-like structure, with the whole stage soaked in red light. The Wizard (Keith Bartlett) was an uncanny character who stood out throughout the show yet, so much so that I would pick his rendition of ‘Wonderful’ as my favourite song of the musical, with the masses-pleasing ‘Defying Gravity’ by Elphaba and Glinda a strong second. ‘Defying Gravity’ is by far the most visually stunning number too, with Elphaba lifting into the air with broom amidst plumes of white smoke.
The musical, which is an adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, first opened on Broadway in 2003 and then in London three years later. It has been played continuously ever since, winning 90 international awards and attracting millions of theatre-goers in both locations. Some British critics, notably from The Independent and The Guardian, found the show’s success in the UK somewhat unexpected and described the show as ‘melodramatic, incoherent and superficial.’ Perhaps they had unrealistic expectations, since superficial and melodramatic is exactly what many people want and expect when going to see a musical, especially one with its genesis on Broadway. My enjoyment seemed to be reflected in the rest of the audience, since I don’t think there was a single person who left the theatre without a smile.
The plot tells the story of a young girl who just happened to be born green, and was for that reason ridiculed and judged throughout her life. Perhaps a little moralistic at that point, Wicked does try to hammer home the message that we should respect difference. There also seems to be some political rhetoric applied to the Land of Oz, which is being governed through skilful manipulation by the Wizard. However, what seems to hold the greatest appeal is the concept of Wicked being a prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz story, since it encourages you to question your previous assumptions about the latter. It is revealed that Elphaba was in fact originally a kind-hearted person who became evil after many difficult life experiences and after suffering from appalling prejudice. The Good Witch of the North is portrayed as actually a bit of a fraud, with something of a ‘dumb blonde’ persona. Many girls and young women will find the show easy to relate to, as it explores the unlikely female friendship between Glenda and Elphaba and the typical issues that arise, such as the preoccupation with physical appearance and conflicting love interests; in addition the two witches get to know each other in a school setting and then set out to find Oz together in the face of adversity. Anyone familiar with the Wizard of Oz story of Dorothy from Kansas will find Wicked especially irresistible, as the new angle it suggests makes it impossible not to re-examine the original tale.
By Kat Wagner.
Kat Wagner holds a degree in International Journalism from LJMU and currently works as a learning and development office for Peterborough City Council. She enjoys West End musicals, reading horror novels and walking.