It has captured the attention of theatre-goers the world over, and no matter what you think about it or its worth, it is undeniable now: Wicked is one of the most important musicals of the past twenty years.
With a dominating decade-and-counting run on Broadway and productions all over the world, it seems almost inevitable that this green giant would have a return Australian season so quickly, five years after it first opened. Of course, now, when you walk into the Capitol Theatre, you’ll hear strains of “Let it Go” over the sound system, followed by “Defying Gravity”, these Menzel-led, Elphaba-channeling anthems of coming into one’s own almost an industry unto themselves.
This is an important theme of Wicked and one that’s all too quickly dismissed in the rush to scoff at the silliness or frivolity of the story: the plot of female adolescence and discovery of self, that and of female friendship. This is a love story, at the heart of it, between Galinda and Elphaba – the cool girl and the outcast who aren’t so different, no matter how much they protest. There is a very genuine friendship arc built into the core of the show, and if you’ve ever wondered why teenage girls like it so much, I guarantee you that the moment in “Dancing Through Life” they care the most about is Galinda’s touching concession at the Ozdust Ballroom to dance with Elphaba in solidarity, despite those teenage derisive looks from her beloved peers, and not Fiyero’s tight pants sauntering up to hang off a statue.
Yes, it’s easy to laugh at a show that’s not for you. A show that’s for girls and women, who are traditionally taken less seriously. Often too Wicked is dismissed because it has amassed a teenage band of fans who have seen it hundreds of times. It’s easy to dismiss the intensity of girls’ feelings, and how it tends to be channelled into obsessive love of a thing: a boy band, a TV show, a celebrity couple that’s appropriately adorable. But there are reasons for it and the reasons for it are largely that in our current culture there are close to zero outlets for girls and their sexuality – girls are deemed whores at the drop of a hat and the sending of a text; dress provocatively, be intimate with a partner, and you’re immediately seen as less than.
Boys, however, have it much easier: teenage boy masturbation jokes are on sitcoms (boys have sexual feelings!) and teenage boy sex comedies are basically a celebrated if low-brow cinematic genre. ‘Boy interests’, sports and genre films and rock music, and in theatre, shows about complicated men or ensembles (or gay male diva worship, an acceptable way for men to consume texts about women), are totally, completely, more acceptable and rewarded interests to have in the world.
Girls don’t have that freedom of validation and acceptance; girls have to channel that feeling into objectification and imagination, into the intangible. Into One Direction and fan communities around Teen Wolf and if you’re a girl who likes Broadway, yeah, you’re probably going to identify with Wicked – with Galinda and Elphaba and their gaze on Fiyero (they both, at some point, are not “that girl”).
Or then there are the queer girls in the audience, who understand the desire and frustration of friendship and more-than-friendship, who are putting, quietly, entirely valid queer readings right into the heart of the text, who are feeling the queer allegory of Elphaba’s defiant, confident ownership of her own difference.
And then there’s Galinda and Elphaba and their frenemy-dom, with the trying out of adult interaction and human relationships. It doesn’t end neatly but it does end on a grace note; when the witches are never going to see each other again their denouement is a poorly-written but emotive song (“For Good”); a declaration of the positive influence all the hard times and their clashing has, eventually, had on each of them: it’s a lesson. Things fall apart but that doesn’t make them value-less. Reaching out and connecting is worth it. Friends are important and you can mourn their loss. Friends are important and you can celebrate them, even if the bond breaks.
Wicked should not be so quickly dismissed as a worthy show just because it is not the cultural and emotional touchstone of the loudest voices in the critical room.
Wicked does what musical theatre, at its best, is supposed to do: take a story as director Lonny Price said to Avenue Q producer Robyn Goodman, “’North of the floor’… Musicals have to raise you up, there’s an emotional lift they have to bring you. You have to say, yes, this sings.”
Having said that, of course, Wicked has its flaws. It has a slight, average book (by Winnie Holzman) that, if not executed with the right timing and with clarity of performance, falls completely flat – making the transition into the soaring score quite jarring. The lyric work is a little tired, the structure isn’t perfect. The choreography felt a little old five years ago, and it’s dated since – but the show has a beating heart and as long as it still beats, it’s going to be slightly thrilling (not thrillifying; even I have my limits).
Five years on, the Australian production is careworn, but there are some spots that still burn brightly with intensity. Jemma Rix’s Elphaba is the heart of the show, the gifted, idealistic, funny-dry outcast girl who was born green but had greatness (or at least notoriety) thrust upon her. Rix’s vocal ability is staggering – a relentless power with an impressive sense of control: her money-note in “The Wizard and I” is more hopeful than it is commanding, but when it comes the time for “Defying Gravity” when Elphaba is declaring herself (with a long and literal “IT’S ME”) as a force to be reckoned with, her voice is the only damn thing that matters in the entire theatre, which is pretty impressive considering it comes when she’s mid-flight, in a still-impressive piece of stage magic.
The musical cues and sound design are a little sloppy and the reduced orchestra at the Capitol, of course, loses some of the richness of sound that usually helps elevate the trickier emotional moments. Lucy Durack’s Galinda (and worse, her Glinda) was vocally reserved; she spoke-sung through the bulk of her parts, which distanced her from the story. Luckily, Durack is a charming old-school Broadway-style actress, and she makes up some for her lacking vocals there, in the hair toss and glee and broad physical comedy.
Wonderful is Edward Grey as Boq, the Munchkin who is helplessly in love with Galinda but has a life path doomed to intertwine with Elphaba’s sister Nessarose (a sincere-turned-steely and excellent Emily Cascarino), a strong actor and captivating stage presence and vocalist. Also wonderful is the Wizard himself, Reg Livermore, who even gets the song “Wonderful” as part of his role. Livermore captures the folksy charm of the Wizard well, and marries it nicely to the idea that all his charm is just an illusion for cowardice. He’s so much more enjoyable than the Australian Wizards in recent memory and is a welcome addition to the cast.
This is not a perfect production of Wicked. It is tired, maybe a little bit phoned-in. The show doesn’t feel, perhaps, like it has to try anymore: it’s an easy sell, an easy win. Everyone can put their own feelings into the show and the performers can let the audience make those emotional beats for them. Still, it’s pretty hard to do a bad production of this show. Go, if you love it. Go, if you haven’t seen it before (it is essential viewing, now). Let it happen to you: the dragon, the lights, the green, the flying monkey. Go: it sings.