Wicked The Musical: A Jarring Story Of Everyday Politics

London’s West End manages to be entertaining and educational all in one night.

It’s a busy Friday night in West End. Semi-drunk Londoners stream into the theaters in time for the rush of rising curtains. We happen to be among them tonight, stepping inside the Apollo Victoria Theater for the first time, unsure if musicals are our cup of tea.

Wicked (2003) is on for the season. The lobby is framed in fluorescent green, the refreshment stands and ticket counters squatting like candy floss booths at the holiday fair. The walls are lit green by green lamps. Show-goers mill about, brandishing their green cocktails in greeting as they spot their friends and colleagues in the crowd. I assume the green to represent the main character of the show (the Wicked Witch of the West,) but later, I turn out to be only partly right.

The seats in the theater themselves are enough to form a small hill. The Apollo Victoria opened in 1930 at the height of the cinema construction craze. From of its prime location in between two busy roads, you would’t believe the scale and surreality of the atmosphere. When we spot out seats, we’re eye to eye with the monstrous half-bat half-dragon that looms above the stage. “Imagine a fairy cavern under the sea, or a mermaid’s dream of Heaven,” wrote the British News, “huge submarine flowers against the walls that branch up and out and throw mysterious light towards the realms above.” Of course, on this occasion, the lights were green.

Apollo Victoria Theater
Our vantage point in the Apollo Victoria Theater. PHOTO Lyon Nishizawa

The story begins in horror. The winged monster bats its wings and crows; the first blast of the music transports us into the world of Oz. We are quickly introduced to the central heroine, Elphaba. The story follows her story as she becomes the hated evil figure in Oz, the Wicked Witch. Neglected by her family and bullied at school for her mysterious green skin, the only friend she manages to make is also, surprisingly, the most popular girl in school, Glinda.

Elphaba and Glinda represent two dominant female stereotypes in Western storytelling. Elphaba, the unrecognized, “ugly,” but spirited girl in the peak of puberty, and Glinda, the dumb, popular blonde. The introduction of a “cute” male figure completes a rather overused love triangle. In fact, the first few numbers of the musical follow such a seemingly conventional plot that I feel ready to relax and enjoy a harmless evening.

The themes become darker once we enter the classroom on the girls’ first day of school. The subject is history, and the professor is a goat — yes, a literal goat — beginning the class by explaining how the animals in Oz are in increasing danger of exploitation and scapegoating. His passionate lecture is met by disinterestedness and mockery on the part of the students —  all except Elphaba, who first-handedly knows the feeling of social exclusion.

In a further plot twist, Elphaba and Glinda each find the space in themselves to accept one another and slowly build a close friendship. Glinda is Elphaba’s first friend, and Glinda, too, being popular, has never had a proper friend who only liked her for who she was and not as a result of her social standing. The details of their friendship, of course, form the central thread of the story and are left out from this review.

Wicked
Oz celebrates Glinda’s promotion into her public figure role, Glinda the Good. Spelling and pronunciation errors are abound in the musical; a testament to a dysfunctional education system. FACEBOOK @WickedUK

As Elphaba and Glinda’s adventure unfolds, the audience participates in the joyous process of getting to know someone deeply. While Elphaba, on the surface, is altruistic and determined, she turns out to be just as lonely as anyone in her daunting activist role. Glinda, although mean and uncaring on the surface, increasingly suffers from guilt and shame as she watches Elphaba suffer the consequences of her selfish choices. The layers of clichés peel away and we’re surprised to find a little bit of both Elphaba and Glinda frolicking in our hearts.

The musical rejects the classic binary between good and evil altogether. When the two girls reach Emerald City — the political hub of Oz — we find that the very Wizard of Oz himself is shrouded in moral ambiguity. He’s evil for exploiting animals and, as a political leader, of fostering a culture of neglect, like the one we saw in the classroom. But he is strangely endearing in his storytelling. His song, “Wonderful,” is one of my favorites: the melody hops and twirls as the Wizard taps his feet in good humor. He seems just like your harmless, suburban middle-aged man. But the lyrics are deeply painful in what they remind us of our real-life history.

“Wonderful

They called me ‘Wonderful’

So I said “Wonderful, if you insist”

I will be “Wonderful”

And they said “Wonderful”

Believe me, it’s hard to resist

‘Cause it feels wonderful

They think I’m wonderful”

Wonderful, Joel Grey

I come away surprised at how much I genuinely enjoyed the show. As someone who had been clueless coming in (I didn’t even know of its relation to the Wizard of Oz!) I leave the world of Oz in tears and a newfound appreciation for the very few but very strong friendships I have in my life. The political undertones were less reminiscent of radicalism, which have become an easy dramatic tool in the entertainment industry, but rather closer to the everyday tension between the private and public faces of the modern democratic institution and even of ourselves.

The only bitter taste in my mouth was from the love triangle. Only when the boy was removed from the picture did the girls rediscover their affection and trust in each other, which was a little bit of a shame for a feminist narrative like this one. As we approach the exits, we finally realize that the green overlay of the entire theater was indeed a replica of Emerald City. It no longer looks cute or childish. We shiver from the thought that Emerald City is everywhere — it is still there when we step out into the chilly London night full of happiness and cheer. We live in Emerald City, and the Wizard of Oz is no mysterious or cunning authoritarian ruler; he is us.

Wicked UK
FACEBOOK Wicked UK

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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