The death of the Broadway Musical can't be blamed on "Wicked". The score isn't bad enough to matter and the book five times better than the usual dross. But "Wicked", as a not atrocious emblem of Broadway 2012 (compared to say Bono and the Edges terrible music for Spiderman), is absolute proof that music on Broadway is irrelevant as music.
Blame composer Stephen Schwartz who began his career with two masterpieces, "Godspell" and "Pippin" and then fell into the Disney machine, where he churned out the sort of songs that litter "Wicked" , sort of vanilla bland middle of the road pop orchestrated for big voices and filled with big moments, but seldom a memorable one in all of them. There is a sense of proportion, an unwillingness to go for the Andrew Lloyd Webber histrionic overbite, but with nothing much to replace it.
"Wicked" is being staged at the Gershwin, and the Gershwin is not simply the largest theater on Broadway, with nearly 2000 seats, it is one of the most recent, dating from 1972, with seats at a slope, and, I went to the show with two children, and even they could see everything. Finally, it is named for a composer who, like Schwartz, had his roots on Broadway before leaving to Hollywood though there the comparison ends. Between them, George and Ira write so much better than ANYBODY on Broadway. The hacks on Broadway, guys like Schwartz are a blight on the art form. For every Adam Guettel there is a dozen Stephens.
It is almost amazing how a nearly three hour score can have not one memorable song. Nothing. "Defying Gravity"? "Popular"? "Wonderful? are all terrible exercises They are written in a modern middlebrow pop sound. It doesn't echo to the past, instead they exist in a Broadway stasis that has inflicted both Disney and Broadway musicals for decades. No American Cabaret singer would touch this crap (except for Kristin Chenoweth for obvious reasons). This is written for the Celine Dion's to sing. Two themes, both lousy, "No One Mourns The Wicked" and "For Good", appear periodically. One positive note, there is some resistance to oversell on the songs. At least the orchestra, filled with guitars and piccolos, don't blast you out of your chair.
And, both Glinda, The Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked one are very well written roles. "Wicked" is the backstory to L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard Of Oz" -or, more like it, the Hollywood Musical version of the same. It is based upon Gregory Maguire's well received novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. And it is the best thing about the show. It certainly isn't the set, which has a shoddy on the cheap look to it, perfect for road companies because so easily assembled. The flying monkeys are a joke: I bet Julie Taymor laughs herself sick every time she sees it. Indeed, for the astonishing $250 price of a ticket, it is simply impossible to see where the money went.
The show doesn't have, and doesn't need, stars either. I saw the original cast, and had just seen Kristen Chenoweth as Sally Brown in You're A Good Man Charlie Brown and was in awe of her and I went explicitly to see Kristen as Glinda. Also my friend Michael's college roommate was dating Idina Menzel and so I was quite pleased to see the Rent star on stage again. They both brought a lot to their roles, and really, once they had the template down. any competent musical actress of a certain age could play the roles. They are so exact in their characters. Walking to the subway after the show, my friend Jerry Hauck's 10 year old daughter already had figured out Glinda's signature moment. A fan described the hair move as follows:
She swept half of her blonde locks over one shoulder.
And then swept the other half with the opposite hand over the other. She struck a pose, an innocent look on her face.
"Simple as that!" Glinda told her, dropping her stance. "Now, you try!"
The kid did a spot on impersonation moments after the show was over! My point is, the characters are so firmly in place it could be imitated at first sight! Also, Jerry had seen a road show production and wanted to see Jackie Burns as Elphaba again. But the role for this night was played by Donna Vivino and, really, I can't see it making any difference. In the best set piece, "Popular", it didn't matter who was singing Glinda either, if they were half way competent they could sell the role.
The Book, by Winnie Holzman, has a major flaw, the first act is an interminable 90 minutes and takes a long, long time getting to Elphaba's transformations, while the second act is half that length and is all pay off and a complete blast. Emotionally satisfying? Sure. But they had lost me (for one -this is a minority opinion) way way before it got there. Essentially it is a gay allegory put on top of Oz, Elphaba essentially a confused boy (skin color the metaphor) in love with another boy, and steals him from Glinda. That works pretty well as psychology and as theater. Also, since what we know of "The Wizard Of Oz" occurs off stage, it works as an extended wink at the audience. It echoes Tom Stoppard's Rosencranztz And Guildenstern Are Dead, where Stoppard allows two minor characters from Hamlet to take center stage. Best of all, the payoffs are extremely satisfying and tie neatly and completely including, with immense cleverness (yes, it is Maguire but Holzman had to write it and keep it in the book), two huge secrets, one hidden from each witch, but given like a bouquet to the audience. It gives us the omniscience at the heart of drama.
I mentioned Wicked is a gay fantasy and it is, but it is also a tween fantasy, by subverting the expectations of beauty and ordinariness, it awakes the pre-teen girl, it asks for her to embrace her own and other peoples differences. The wicked ugly girl got the guy and the beautiful Glinda is not the hero of the story. No wonder it is so popular. It's the right fantasy for a whole lotta people.
And Schwartz's score is soooooo bad. It is awful. Oh well, the kids and the adults who were with me all enjoyed it. I guess, I am the wicked one here!