Defying expectations

In 2005, a musical-saavy friend at university handed me a copy of the 'Wicked' Broadway cast soundtrack and said, "You must listen to this."

I have wanted to see show ever since.

And last night, five years later, I finally saw 'Wicked' for the first time at the Canon Theatre. I did not leave disappointed.

'Wicked' (based loosely on Gregory McGuire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West) reframes L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and the popular film The Wizard of Oz (1939), redirecting our attention from the protagonist Dorothy to the untold story of Elpheba, more infamously known as the "Wicked Witch of the West". Born out-of-wedlock, with green skin and strange magical powers, she is stigmatized and ostracized from childhood, until she attends Shiz University and meets Galinda, the most popular girl in school (who later becomes Glinda, the Good Witch of the North). The two form a unexpected bond (oscillating somewhere between admiration and absolute repulsion) and Glinda helps Elpheba gain the respect of her peers. While visiting the Wizard in Oz, the girls discover an Oz-wide conspiracy - the silent annihilation of a entire race that are deemed 'inferior' - being orchestrated by the Wizard of Oz himself. Fueled by a desire to 'make good', Elpheba decides to rebel and fight against the Wizard's eugenics project. While Elpheba's intentions are rooted in good, she is immediately labelled a witch and targeted by the people of Oz. She also discovers that her magical powers have unexpected and tragic consequences for those involved (including the tin man and scarecrow). This fuels the propaganda, rumor and speculation that she is evil. After leaving a path of destruction through Oz, and losing friends, her sister and her lover, she ultimately succumbs to her fate and is extinguished by Dorothy. (Little do we know, Elpheba has found temporary refuge in under a trap door. Her lover re-emerges from the shadows, releases her from the floorboards, and they make off as exiles into the distance, never to return to Oz again.)

This expertly crafted musical by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman deftly embraces some mature and timeless themes (the nature of good and evil, truth, racism, ambition, fame, corruption, love, et al.) while simultaneously tapping into our collective nostalgia of a childhood favourite. There is something truly gratifying about the way this classic story is [re]told. As an audience member, you recognize key facts, quotes and visual tokens (almost instinctively), but you are presented with "a new way of seeing" them. This theme is amplified throughout the play - that difference is not bad, just different. Also, unlike some adaptations that are based on lofty (and often outrageous) speculations, Schwartz and Holzman's postmodern plot extrapolations just make sense, and fit together perfectly.

Elpheba and Glinda are nuanced characters, and their complex relationship is intriguing to watch unfold. Just like other characters and thematic concerns of the show, they represent shades of grey that cannot be easily categorized. Nothing is ever black and white. Just as Constance puts forward in Ann-Marie McDonald's Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet (another contemporary mash-up play that embraces pastiche):
"...Life is ... a harmony of polar opposites,
with gorgeous mixed-up places in between
where inspiration steams from a rich
Sargasso stew that's odd and flawed and fill
of gems and worn-out boots and sunken ships..."
Eugene Lee's Tony-award winning sets evoke turn-of-the-century Europe - ornate metal arches, wrought iron and Art Nouveau-inspired embellishments (reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower or M├ętropolitain in Paris). The predominant stage element is a circular proscenium and backdrop that doubles as a giant antique timepiece (complete with moving gears and cogs), a visual reminder of how the musical itself has turned back time to revisit the past. It also fits perfectly with the Wizards discussion of revisionist nature of history:
"...We believe all sorts of things that aren't true. We call it 'history'
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..."
The costumes were also spectacular - a unique style that could only be from somewhere over the rainbow. And the lighting effects were stunning: superb effects for "The Great and Powerful Oz", a simulated rainstorm like I'd never seen before, and sunsets so believable, you'd swear they had ripped out the upstage wall and rotated the theatre towards an actual sunset.

'Wicked' has received mixed reviews from critics since its inception in 2004, which can be attributed to its rich, complex content. (Even one of my fellow ticket holders and I last night disagreed that the ending was, in fact, a true "happy ending".) I think that every viewer inevitably draws their own conclusions, and it is this multiplicity of interpretations that earns 'Wicked' a place in the canon of great musicals. More importantly, 'Wicked' offers an important message of tolerance in an intolerant world; things are the way they are because we make them so, and that each of us have the potential for greatness (and, wickedness). It is up to you to create the ending.