Touring Production of Schwartz’s Wicked has Operatic Potential

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stephen Schwartz, Wicked: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra/Dan Jackson (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 13.3.2014 (PCG)


Wicked  photo credit Matt Crockett
photo credit Matt Crockett

Nikki Davis-Jones: Elphaba
Emily Tierney: Glinda
Carina Gillespie: Nessarose
Liam Doyle: Fiyero
Dale Rapley: Wizard, Doctor Dillamond
George Ure: Boq
Marilyn Cutts: Madam Morrible
Harrison Clark: Chistery
Howard Ellis: Witch’s father
Chrissy Brooke: Witch’s mother
Wendy-Lee Purdy: Midwife

In American children’s literature, the Oz books of L Frank Baum hold a hallowed position as a cornerstone of the genre, as testified by the phenomenal success of the 1939 MGM movie, The Wizard of Oz,  itself the culmination of a number of earlier screen versions. However elsewhere in the English-speaking world they are less highly regarded, and the books certainly lack the coherent rigour of the sub-created fantasy worlds of authors such as J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis or Philip Pullman. In his preface to Wicked, Gregory Maguire summed up the problem in these words: “The history of Oz is thin, the many dozens of provinces seem peculiarly unaware of each other, the whole set-up seems, well, a set-up, a means to an end, not an endlessness unto itself, like other magic lands.”

And yet it is this very vagueness that has lent itself in recent years to new layers of interpretation. Quite apart from the raft of Oz films, there have been two major television series in the past decade (The Witches of Oz and Tin Man) which have brought an adult perspective to the imaginary world of Baum with the various characters re-imagined in terms of modern American archetypes. And there is of course Wicked itself, a novel published in 1995 which takes leave of the world of childhood altogether in a dark psychological fantasy which is intended solely for an adult readership.

In the novel it might seem initially that Maguire simply turns the story familiar from the 1939 movie on its head, re-envisioning the Wicked Witch of the West as the heroine opposed to the machinations of the Wizard of Oz himself. But it is very much more than that. The dictatorship which the Wizard is slowly imposing on the world of Oz (assisted by his hedonistic accomplice –  the appropriately named Madam Morrible) has clear overtones of the rise of Hitler in Germany, with its singling out for persecution of the talking Animals (with a capital A) and their gradual victimisation as animals (without the capital) of which the tragic fate of Doctor Dillimond, a scapegoat indeed, is a prime example. And the contrasted careers of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, with that of Glinda, the Good Witch, is presented as a slowly evolving relationship in which both girls (as we originally encounter them) slowly recognise their moral kinship with each other. The gradual evolution of Elphaba, through opposition to her slow recognition of the machinations of Wizard into hostility and finally into fanaticism, has a subtlety that goes well beyond Baum, and her final death at the hands of Dorothy becomes a tragic climax to the tale with Dorothy seeking to put the Witch out of her misery rather than simply killing her almost by accident.

In turning Maguire’s complex and convoluted story into a musical, Stephen Schwartz has had perforce to drastically condense and simplify the plot, but he has gone much further than that.

The ending of the book is completely changed: the Witch is not killed by Dorothy, but is secretly saved by the Scarecrow, who is revealed to be her former lover Fiyero. (In the book he is killed by the Wizard’s secret police at quite an early stage in the proceedings, although not before presenting Elphaba with a child). And the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda is more sympathetically handled, with the descent into madness of the former contrasted with the development of the latter from a thoughtless bimbo into a character who can tell Elphaba that their relationship has changed her “for the better.” This might initially seem like a toning-down of Maguire’s dark vision, but Schwartz’s musical treatment suggests something even deeper.

Schwartz himself has developed remarkably since his initial success with Godspell in 1971. His work in that same year as the principal writer on Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical Mass (with some minor contributions from Paul Simon) showed an ability to treat serious matters very seriously indeed, and the music of Wicked shows the influence of Bernstein in many places. There are also overtones of other classical composers. As in many modern musicals, Schwarz reduces the use of spoken dialogue to a bare minimum, and much of the score consists of slowly evolving thematic development in which the model of Mussorgsky is often prominent and which goes well beyond the succession of individual ‘numbers’ presented on the cast album. And Schwartz, as one would expect from his work on Mass, shows a real ability to write expressive and meaningful lyrics.

The score clearly perplexed its original American critics in 2003. One excoriating review stated baldly that “Schwartz has composed the most negligible and forgettable score of his career, unable to creatively illuminate the slightest bit of personality or drive in the show’s characters, let alone write one memorable song.” This is so far wide of the truth – the musical bristles with songs of high quality – that one suspects malice, but even the New York Times could state that “as a parable of fascism and freedom, Wicked so overplays its hand that it seriously dilutes its power to disturb.” But, as in the similar example of Schönberg’s similarly elaborately symphonic Les Misérables, critical brickbats did not halt the inexorable triumph of the work onstage in New York and in London, and its continuing popularity cannot be explained away as sheer escapism by adults seeking to recapture the lost and lamented innocence of their youth. And the work explores many other issues, not just fascism but the tyranny of judging a person purely on the basis of appearances, as epitomised in the song Popular, and the importance of honesty in relationships. Glinda empathises with Elphaba precisely because she is the only one who does not fall for her personal charms.

It has to be said that in the opening stages, Schwartz’s condensation of Maguire’s plot leaves some elements unclear or unexplained – the presence of the omni-present Time Dragon, for example – but as he gets the bit between his teeth, his exploration of the central theme of the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda takes on real depth. The two villains – the Wizard and Madam Morrible – become figures of comic satire rather than sheer evil, but their amoral pursuit of power by any means remains palpable nonetheless. The figure of Dorothy, present as a background throughout Maguire’s book, becomes almost incidental to the main thrust of the plot in the musical; and this too becomes an advantage, because the music bears no resemblance at all in mood or purpose to the music of the 1939 film.

The original London production was spectacular indeed, one of the most elaborate and theatrically vibrant experiences to be seen on the musical stage for many years (and streets ahead of the more extravagant and realistic scenic presentations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals). One wondered how it might survive its transformation into a production intended for touring, with the inevitable compromises that might entail.

In the event, the answer is: “very well”. The production is closely, although not slavishly, modelled on the London staging, and works superbly. The lighting effects in No good deed goes unpunished, spectacular indeed in London, are toned down somewhat for this presentation, and the handling of the episodes including the cub that will grow up to be the Cowardly Lion are rather obscure; but otherwise we have a remarkably faithful presentation of the score. Indeed there are some ways in which this touring production actually improves on the London version.

These centre principally around the relationship between the two girls Elphaba and Glinda, here handled with great sensitivity and real empathy by Nikki Davis-Jones and Emily Tierney. These two dominated the evening, but there were no weak voices among the rest of the cast among whom Dale Rapley (doubling the roles of the Wizard and Doctor Dillamond) stood out for the clarity of his diction, and Liam Doyle for his personably confused Fiyero. One might find fault with the amplification of the voices, necessary in Schwartz’s wind and percussion-dominated score; there seemed to be too few speakers to identify in places precisely who was singing what, and the pronouncements of the Wizard when assuming the role of a disembodied skull were boosted to an extent that comprehensibility was compromised. But this was not a serious problem once the initial confusion was resolved.

It is slightly unexpected to find that this is a very British-sounding Wicked, with no attempt being made as in the original London production to simulate mid-Atlantic accents except in the case of the Wizard who clearly hails from Kansas. That is fine. There is no reason at all why the inhabitants of Oz should be American at all, once the Baum framework of Dorothy’s dream from the 1939 film has been discarded. And the variety of regional accents – the munchkin Boq in the hands of George Ure hailing from Scotland, for example – works well as a means of differentiation between the characters. The orchestral playing under Dan Jackson was simply magnificent in all departments – some of the more modern passages in the score cannot be easy to play. And the grinding discords at the final curtain had all the sense of menace that one could wish.

Let me conclude by putting in a plea on behalf of the score itself. Wicked, like other modern musicals such as Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd, contains music that really benefits from interpretation by fully fledged opera singers (in this cast only Marilyn Cutts seemed to have had any operatic stage experience), and one might hope that a recording of the full score (not just the excerpts currently available) might be made with such a cast – given the same treatment as many classical musical scores. At the very least, may one hope that when the time comes to produce a film of the piece, it will be cast with the best singers available? All three of the musicals aforementioned have been filmed with casts of actors rather than singers, on the grounds that it is preferable in the music to have actors who can’t sing rather than singers who can’t act (which does a gross injustice to the many excellent operatic singers out there). The results in all three films have been patchy, to put it politely. Wicked deserves better than that.

Which leaves the question: what precisely is Wicked? It describes itself as a ‘musical’ but in terms of musical definition – a through-composed score, with dialogue restricted to short bites and spoken passages underscored with orchestral accompaniment – it fits all the descriptions of an opera. Many years ago in a television broadcast Leonard Bernstein identified the main problem with musicals as being the manner in which they move from spoken to sung words – with the immediate question arising, “why are they now singing rather than speaking”? Gershwin in Porgy and Bess, undeniably an opera, restricted the spoken dialogue to the white characters in the story – a distinction ignored by later producers who rendered his recitatives back into speech – but the ‘musicals’ mentioned in the previous paragraph have adopted the notion that the action should proceed almost entirely through music. Bernstein, whose West Side Story was clearly a musical in the traditional sense, only wrote one full-length opera; but it is hard to draw a distinction between his A quiet place and the methods Schwartz employs in Wicked, except that Bernstein’s work was a commercial failure and Wicked isn’t. And to use that one criterion as a yardstick smacks of sheer snobbery. The 1993 Penguin Guide to Opera on CD, remarkably broad-minded about such matters, included Phantom of the Opera but not Les Misérables or Sweeney Todd, but of course Wicked hadn’t been thought of then. One would like to think that in any future edition room would be found for all four of these scores.

Paul Corfield Godfrey