Put a spell on you


MUSICAL:Hailed as the best new musical of its time, ‘Wicked’ is finally coming to Dublin. SARA KEATINGgoes backstage to see the magic at work

Backstage at London’s Apollo Theatre Victoria, more than 200 people are scuttling around in the wings. These are the 38 cast members and 170 production crew who work day and night to bring the musical Wicked to the stage. You can hear them chattering among each other – calling out instructions, saying goodnight after another exhilarating show – but somehow, despite the cramped surroundings, they remain invisible throughout my backstage tour. They are clustered in tiny rooms having their microphones and hairpieces unpinned, or disguised beneath a pile of laundry that needs to be dealt with before tomorrow’s matinee.

What you see instead are the individual elements of scenic designer Eugene Lee’s remarkable mechanical vision of Oz stacked up in every available space and hanging from the light fixtures above. Turn your head to the right and there are clockwork bubbles and industrial scaffolds, to the left robotic dragons and engineered thrones. The Victorian silhouettes of Susan Hilferty’s Steampunk costumes, meanwhile, throw spooky shadows on the dim-lit walls: Chistery’s winged monkey suit looks like a bat splayed against the theatre’s bare brick back wall; Madame Morrible’s stiff layered dress looks like it could stand up on its own and walk across the floor. Wigs sit uncannily on faceless mannequins, fake beards are pinned heartlessly to the wall, and masks – dead and waxy without actors to animate them – are lined up like victims of a ritual sacrifice.

If you mention Wicked to anyone under 30, you are likely to get one of two responses. They will either give you a rapturous review of the musical, which has been running continuously on Broadway since it opened almost 10 years ago and in the West End since 2006, or they will tell you that they are dying to see it. Based on Gregory Maguire’s cult fantasy novel, Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz, the memorable minor characters from Frank L Baum’s classic novel. The plot centres on a battle between good and evil. You probably know the bigger picture already, most likely from the 1939 film of Baum’s novel, in which, Oz is under siege by unknown magical forces. Where The Wizard of Oz, draws its moral lines clearly, Wicked asks us to question our assumptions by telling us a different version of the same events.

Baum presents The Wicked Witch of the West as the embodiment of evil. She is ugly, wizened and green; a veritable alien to our human eyes and eminently boo-hissable. Wicked re-imagines her story from a different perspective. Who was the Wicked Witch of the West, it asks. Was she born evil or did the world make her that way?

The appeal of Wicked to a particular generation is more than inter-textual, however. The musical is set for the most part at a university, where two enemies, thrust together for sorcery lessons, manage to overcome their prejudices and become allies and friends. The heroines are polar opposites in everything, especially in looks: popular Glinda has a head of glossy blonde curls; goblinish Elphaba is freakishly green.

Essentially, Wicked is a drama about difference, and the limitations of the labels society puts on us. Elphaba is singled out for her greenness and it is the way the world treats her that determines the person she will become. The Wizard, another character who struggles with a role determined by greater forces, puts it succinctly in his big musical number Wonderful, “They call me Wonderful, So I am wonderful/ In fact – it’s so much who I am, It’s part of my name/ A man’s called a traitor – or liberator/ A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist/ Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?/ It’s all in which label, Is able to persist/ There are precious few at ease, With moral ambiguities/ So we act as though they don’t exist.”

In short, Wicked is a morality tale that teenagers can identify with; the essence of the adolescent struggle with identity. In the near-decade since its premiere, Wicked has become for teenagers of the new millennium what West Side Story was for youths of the 1960s and Grease for 1970s teens.

Its influence on a young generation has transcended its stage origins too, largely due to the production’s outreach programme. There is a vibrant educational programme available to teachers for free, which provides online teaching resources to help translate the production’s messages to the classroom. Producers are also involved in a high-profile anti-bullying lobby in the UK. So it seems especially pertinent to a young Irish audience, as recent high-profile stories about online bullying and suicide will confirm.

If there was ever a cultural medium made for teenagers it is the musical, with its melodramatic excesses of emotion. Wicked holds nothing back. If the emotional and moral stakes are of the highest kind, so Stephen Schwarz’s score offers several highly-charged numbers. It is anchored by Defying Gravity, a belter of a ballad shared by the female leads, which you can easily imagine being transformed into the centre-piece of an X-Factor episode. In 2009, it featured in the television series Glee, another drama of difference, in which high-school students overcome their various identity crises through song.

One of Wicked’s more complex ensemble numbers, meanwhile, What is this Feeling? got an airing on The Simpsons in 2010 when Homer and Moe make an accidental cameo in the Springfield production of the musical. British singer Mika brought the music of Wicked to the charts with his version of Popular, which was released last year.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Wicked as a musical merely for the X-Factor generation. Indeed, Schwarz’s score is more complex than you might expect. There are traces of Stephen Sondheim’s complex operatics in the stunning opening number No One Mourns the Wicked and Jon Kander’s jazzy influence can be felt on the Wizard’s big number Wonderful.

The most surprising thing about Wicked is how funny it is, despite its moral focus. This surely must be the root of its appeal to audiences long out of adolescence – the characters are never too self-absorbed to poke fun at themselves, their situation or each other, or indeed, the musical form. It is the strength of its storytelling, composition and production values, and this knowing awareness of its own place within contemporary culture, that has made Wicked more than a teen-drama, but the best new musical of its time.

Wicked is often mistakenly referred to as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. In fact, it imagines a parallel world, which expands Baum’s story to explore its minor characters, in particular The Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Fairy.

Although audiences unfamiliar with Baum’s novel or the 1939 film will have no problem following the story, those who are will get a particular kick out of the clever visual references and echoes of the original tale. Anyone who has ever wondered exactly why and how the Tin Man lost his heart, the Scarecrow mislaid his brain, and the Cowardly Lion courage’s disappeared will find answers here. Even Dorothy makes a brief appearance. We may be used to seeing her as the heroine, but in Wicked, where animals talk, magic spells are cast around casually, and people are even occasionally green, it is the little girl from Kansas with her familiar gingham dress who is the alien, freakish one.

Wicked will run at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from November 27th until January 18th, 2014. Tickets go on sale on Friday, January 25th

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