Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Something Wicked

Throughout my days in high school and undergraduate school, my mother was a freelance arts critic, covering theatre, dance, and music in the Houston area (mostly theatre; she even wrote a book on local theatre history). I tagged along with her to more than a few performances, and one I recall in particular was Houston Ballet's Caliban, created in collaboration with local rock group St. Elmo's Fire (which evolved from the earlier Wheatfield and featured one half of the future Trout Fishing in America). The notion that the monstrous slave from The Tempest was a misunderstood character was common in literary criticism, but this work reimagined Shakespeare's story from Caliban's point of view. The actual details of the show (which I remember enjoying) didn't really stay with me, but the concept did.

I thought of this last Sunday as I was watching the touring Broadway musical Wicked. The musical is based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, who has recently made something of a career out of this trick of reimagining beloved stories. In case you've been too busy hiding from the NSA to notice, this award-winning show and the best selling novel that inspired it recasts The Wizard of Oz, telling the story not of Dorothy and her traveling companions, but of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

OK, so I'm sitting in Hartford's Bushnell Performing Arts Center, expecting a big theatrical spectacle based on a clever twist; a sort of literary joke. Well, spectacular it was, and clever as well... but I was surprised -- pleasantly astounded, in fact -- by the literary depth of the piece. Beginning with Elphaba and Glinda as schoolmates, reluctant roommates, and neophyte sorcerers, Wicked is in turns a multigenerational family tragedy, a rumination on the nature of friendship, a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of good intentions, and an exploration of the sometimes blurry boundaries between good and... well, wickedness.

But wait; there's more! This confection of light and sound is also intensely political, examining the uses of propaganda and exposing its power to obliterate criticism, demonize opponents, and unite an unsuspecting people behind a leader who, as Elphaba immediately perceives, has no real powers of his own except for the art of flim flam.

The New York Times review of the original Broadway show (excerpted on the show's website) comments that "[t]he contrast between the young women, who wind up as reluctant roommates at sorcery school, is used to examine a society that values surface over substance, the illusion of doing good over the genuinely noble act. It goes without saying that you don't have to squint to find parallels with a certain contemporary Western nation in which artful presidential photo ops win more votes than legislative change." And Time cuts to the more chilling political center of the piece: "As the Wizard ... puts it, 'The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy.'"

The Wizard does give his people enemies, in the form of the anthropomorphic Animals who live among them. Hounded out of teaching jobs and other professions in which they use human speech, the Animals systematically lose their ability to speak. Elphaba comes to the Wizard believing he is noble, kind, and wise, and that he will help her defend Animal rights. When she discovers the truth and turns against him, the Wizard has an even more compelling "enemy" through which to frighten his subjects into compliance. Using faulty intelligence, exaggerated claims, overzealous police forces, and domestic spying (the flying monkeys are, it turns out, unfortunate slaves whom the Wizard has tricked Elphaba into giving wings specifically so he can use them as "scouts" within the Land of Oz) to brand Elphaba as the Wicked Witch and mobilize the people of Oz to track her down.

Hmmm... anything sounding the teensiest bit familiar?

Time calls Wicked "a family musical that might make the Bush Administration squirm." Indeed. And that's (to borrow a phrase) a Very Good Thing.

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