Friday, September 14, 2007
Last night we saw the national tour production of Wicked at Boston's beautiful Opera House. What an incredible show! I was riveted from the moment the red eyes in the dragon's head above the curtain (with its map of Oz) began to glow, and a "monkey" climbed down onto the stage hand-over-hand on a vine, to the moment all secrets were revealed and that same curtain came down on the magical world that had told us its story in song and dance. Composed by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote Godspell, Pippin, and the songs from The Prince of Egypt, with a witty book by Winnie Holzman, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked is everything a Broadway / West End musical is expected to be: a stunning visual spectacle with sumptous sets and special effects; interesting characters; a gripping story; a complex, compelling, imperfect but heroic protagonist (here perfectly portrayed by Victoria Matlock); high dramatic stakes; and clever treatment of themes near and dear to all our hearts...
...or at least, to my heart. I was surprised at what Wicked reminded me of. It reminded me of my residency.
Ordinarily that would be a strong case of wound-picking and I would want to avoid such a reminder, but I loved the show, and I think it was because Elphaba was able (literally!) to rise above the external forces she felt were bringing her down, cast off their hold on her, and find within herself a power that couldn't be assailed - not even by the stubborn prejudices and judgments of those around her, or by their need to cling to the false idol of their perception of her. She learned the truth about herself, and it outshone their misperceptions and lies.
Someone asks in the beginning where wickedness comes from - are people born with it, or do they become wicked because their experiences apply layers of negativity, arrogance, self-interest, and bitterness to them that seep in so deeply that their very natures are changed? As the story unfolds one suggested answer seems to be that evil comes from people's judgment of each other - especially when judgments are made based on appearances, incomplete perceptions, and unswerving but poorly founded beliefs.
The friend who came with me (we both brought our daughters) pointed out that Gregory Maguire's backstory for the characters in the Wizard of Oz (and how they got to where they got to - the cowardly lion, the tin man, the monkeys, all of them) achieved the same effect created when the curtain was pulled back in Baum's original story, and the truth about the wizard was revealed. The musical, which is so much about correcting perceptions and learning new perspectives, gives us, the audience, a whole new way of seeing a familiar story, and does it with more multi-dimensional characters, who themselves learn new ways of seeing their own story, each other, and themselves. They also learn about the true nature of power - where it comes from, its ability to corrupt, how the misuse of it can rob people of their freedom and ability to express themselves and communicate with each other, and how clawing for it with wicked means, like spying and tyranny, is ultimately a demonstration of humanity at its weakest.
In the end Elphaba doesn't need the truths or untruths others have constructed in order to embrace her own. I saw Wicked as ultimately a morality play in which the heroine dies to her old self and rises again, escapes her encumbrances, and perfects her faith. With that learned faith and its components - courage, freedom, and peace - Elphaba comes to know who she is and is able to know real love. Great, great show.