Friday, August 15, 2008

For the Better, or For the Good?

(Warning: Slight spoiler alerts ahead.)

There’s a list of things in my life that I only have come across because I love my wife.

That list has two parts – first, the “yes, I love my wife, see I did this” part.

That list includes things like eating broccoli on occasion, sitting through yet another amateur production of a Tennessee Williams play, and scooping up kitty poop.

The second part – the “wow, my wife is cool ‘cuz I never would have found this if it weren’t for her!”

That list includes SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, whatever-is-in-the-cupboard nachos, and the movie ENCHANTED.

And now add to the list the musical WICKED.

I wasn’t too excited to see WICKED, what I assumed to be a simplistic musical exploiting the popularity of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Sure it would be cute, and probably somewhat humorous, akin to a skit put on by the youth group at a church.

But as a sacrifice for an anniversary present? Hey, there are worse things to suffer, so spending a day getting tickets and sitting through the show was an easy call.

And wow.

I mean, Wow.

Complex story-telling, intricate themes, sweet reversals. Marvelous music, very fine performances, interesting characters.

From the beginning, as the Ozians sing what should be a straight-forward “nobody mourns the wicked,” the audience is treated to a sophisticated subtext. Side-long glances and masked looks of concern show that this celebration has an undercurrent of unease – what if I’m found out to be wicked? ("For all have sinned...")

And as to stage craft, let me just say that when a certain little someone decides to actually defy gravity, my wife grabbed my arm and gasped in delight.

The conceit of the show puts all we know about Oz on its ear – good is maybe not so good, bad (in a spin on Mae West) may be even better. One would think that fans of the movie would be upset by the changes – but not so, as the rabid nine-year old Dorothy fans behind us made clear.

They loved it – maybe even more than casual fans of the Emerald City, because they knew it was written for them.

You see, everything isn’t just altered – all changes and character choices are justified, point by point, with hints from the story.

Think about it: Frank Baum’s Wizard is a humbug, a phony, right?

So run with the idea that a fake is running the government, spinning himself and his actions into something grander than it really is – and you have an idea of what is going on in WICKED.

WICKED nestles itself quite neatly into Oz Lore (we’re talking the Hollywood lore, here, people), allowing for both to exist simultaneously.

It’s all there, with a delicious explanation: the pointed hat, the shoes, the broom, the bucket of water. Even the heartlessness of the Tin Man, the freakiness of the monkeys, and why that Lion is so cowardly.

And for the book lovers, on every page is a throw-away meant for you. The non-readers won’t even know they are there. (At one point a character says “time is running out. Tic-toc!”)

I do wonder what Frank Baum would think of the piece. He wasn’t a fan of big themes, or romance – felt both were too over the heads of children. And I think he may have seen too much of himself in this new Wizard to be comfortable.

But yet again, he may well have seen this re-imagining as personally redemptive.

In one part of the story line, Elphaba makes a stand for the disenfranchised, trying to protect the extermination of the talking animal minority.

Baum wrote an editorial once about the obvious abuses that the US was making against the American Indians during his day. He thought that we had gone so far, in fact, that the only way to be safe from retaliation would be the complete extermination of the Native American race.

It’s a claim he only made once, I think. And I would like to believe a scenario he regretted even contemplating. I would like to think that he would admire Elphaba for her courage and righteousness, and wish to see himself in her shoes (or pointed hat, as the case may be).

I don’t think it is a mistake that WICKED, while sending Oz askew, sets Baum’s world aright.

Just my thoughts,



Janet said...

So glad you liked WICKED, Sean. A beautiful musical. I need to take my WICKED-besotted daughter one more time and go stand in line in a play for those cheap front row seats....

Also glad to hear you're a SYTYCD fan! That show takes my breath away every week...

Isn't it nice that even in the midst of pop culture, we can find such beauty and imagination!

Gaffney said...


I cheat a bit with So You Think You Can Dance -- the same way I do with American Idol. My wife watches it first, and then has me watch the performances that she thinks is worthwhile.

Interestingly, there is always more than one "take my breath away" performance from Dance. Not always from Idol.

Is that because Dance is really looking for folks who are artists from the get-go, and Idol is more about, well, something else? Is it because for Dance you have to start at a higher training level, and Idol one can be pure amateurs?

What do you think?


Omar Poppenlander said...

Interesting question, Sean. Not sure I can answer it though; I gave up on both American Idol and SYTYCD in favor of America's Best Dance Crew! :-)

Janet said...

Weighing in on your question way late...

Yes, I think you have hit it precisely on the head. The training and practice required to be a dancer (of any genre) is so massive compared to what it takes to audition for "Idol" -- even to get into the early stages of the show, where a decent voice and a TV-worthy personality are enough... I think that's exactly the difference.

Also, the SYTYCD folks know they will never make big bucks in their career, know their career will necessarily be short (and probably physically painful), know they'll never really be famous. So they truly can sing "What I Did For Love" in a way the Idol contestants just can't...

And I agree as well about the "take my breath away" performances on SYTYCD vs. Idol. I think that may be because on SYTYCD, there's some real creation going on -- the choreography. On Idol, there's just interpretation going on, so the chance to be blown away is just smaller...

Oh well, both are over till January. (Now when is Amazing Race coming back??)...

Gaffney said...

Well said, Janet.