This musical has been playing in London for a while now, after being very well received in the USA. This is a slightly belated review, as I saw it on Valentine’s Day – as any cheapskate in a relationship will tell you, nothing says romance like Black Magic. Ahem.
Given that a large number of musicals currently playing in London are based on the work of well-known groups (Abba, Queen, Boney M), or on known plotlines (Mary Poppins, the Lion King, Spamalot), Wicked arguably swims against the current tide, as it’s a new story… albeit one linked to an established franchise; it tells the history of the Witches in L Frank Baum’s Oz series.
The green-skinned Elphaba (hope I’ve spelled that right – it’s meant to be derived from the first syllables of Baum’s name), who eventually becomes the wicked Witch, and her opposite Glinda the Good, are shown as having known each other since an early age. However, instead of Elphaba being evil from the start and Glinda as nice as pie all along, things are shown to be a fair bit more complicated – and it’s hard not to sympathise with the way Elphaba turns… well, yes, to the Dark Side.
And that phrase, and its inevitable associations, fits – there are several very good moments when events slot into place, creating circumstances and characters that are recognisable from the Wizard of Oz film, and the neat way that things come about creates an appropriate sense of sickening inevitability – notable by its absence from the recent Star Wars ‘prequels’, I feel, though both sought to tell the tale of a good person turning bad.
In fact, the ‘prequel’ description is rather inaccurate, as Wicked provides not only the history of various characters in the known Oz story, but it runs alongside it and indeed continues after Dorothy’s departure, showing new takes on known events, so in its way the story is more of an extrapolation or revelation of unseen events (in the same Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ shows us more about the two characters from Hamlet, and the events run alongside the play by that Shaxbard chap).
But, you’re probably asking by now, is it any good? The answer, to my mind, is a definite yes. The music’s strong – particularly when it comes to Elphaba’s songs of upset and annoyance (‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished’ are ones which stick in my mind even a fortnight later), and the staging is very good indeed – as you can see from the photo above, there’s a mechanical dragon which looms over the stage (and occasionally does more than merely loom), Oz the Great and Terrible looks both of those things, and the final part of the first half was so effectively done it sent a tingle down my spine . The cast – of whom I’ll freely admit I only recognised Miriam ‘Caramel Bunny’ Margolyes – all put in sturdy performances, and all showed that they could belt out a tune and hold a note where it was required (what is technically known as ‘singing’. I think), and deliver a sad line or joke as well.
Given that it has plot elements of a phoney war, manufactured scapegoats, and victimised minorities, it’d be all too easy to suggest that Wicked is influenced by the events of 11 September 2001, but as the novel (by Gregory Maguire) upon which the musical was based was written in 1995, I don’t know how much stock I’d put in that sort of claim. Then again, page and stage are very different places, so maybe there’s something to it. Regardless, the way that things in Oz are shown to have a darker side is cleverly done.
You have to bear in mind that I don’t like musicals (simple reason for that: I’m all about the story, and most musicals either ignore story as much as possible [Show Boat*], or seem all too willing to let the tale grind to a halt to shoehorn in another song’n’dance number [Chicago*]), but I found this a lot of fun – it’s good to look at, and the music is solid, and the story’s interesting. Definitely recommended, and in what may be a first for me, a musical that I would happily see again.
*Yes, I’ve seen both of these. A previous employer took me (and various clients) to see them as part of a corporate evening out. So I speak from experience – those are two evenings of my life I won’t be getting back.