by Alan Handelsman
Yes, “Wicked” is among the best musicals of all time in many categories — music, book, lyrics, plot, characters, staging, sets, dancing. Have I left anything out?
But that is not the main reason I have seen “Wicked” 11 times in seven different cities. (So far. I’ll see it once again when it returns to ASU Gammage.)
I am not bragging when I tell you this. I keep going, and listening to the recording, mainly because I see or learn something new or exciting every time. Maybe it is because I’m slow, but I choose to think there is that much to experience, on many levels.
Those who say “Wicked” is simply about the friendship of two girls are missing a lot of original and sophisticated insights into many aspects of our human experience. Not just friendship, but relationships of all types, as well as politics, psychology, celebrity, history, and the nature of good and evil.
Here are some of the things I’ve seen as I’ve experienced this show again and again. If you see “Wicked” more than once, you will have the time to look for these things. Maybe it will take you fewer than 11 times to enjoy all that “Wicked” has to offer.
A major thing for me is the show’s view of the relationship between good and evil. Notice that the “wicked” witch isn’t all that wicked, and the “good” witch isn’t very good at all, especially at the beginning. Most of the characters are a combination of good and evil. The show’s fantasy world has taught me about real life.
Like many people, I can be very judgmental, and “Wicked” has helped me become more accepting and forgiving. I have learned that – while not always best friends – good and evil seem to be inseparable, we all have some of each, and things aren’t always what they seem.
I always enjoy seeing Elphaba show Glinda how to be good as their friendship grows strong. Did you notice that when you first saw the show? As I watched “Wicked” for about the fifth time, it suddenly became clear to me that every time Glinda got what she thought she wanted, she felt worse. It took Glinda a whole show to learn to be careful what she asked for, and it took me five times longer.
Each time through, I change my mind as to what is the turning point of the show. Maybe there are several.
I always enjoy how the political statements are presented with subtlety and humor, which makes them very effective. (An example of a more heavy-handed approach would be “Billy Elliot.”)
As I realized that the last scene is simply a continuation of the first, I was able to experience the beginning of the show in a new way. It was a new perspective that only came from knowing all that was to happen. There are many other examples of statements and behaviors that foreshadow future events, which become fun to identify with the advantage of hindsight.
There were several times when I got caught looking at the wrong part of the stage, and I missed something interesting, funny or important. If you missed it the first time, be sure to focus on Glinda and Elphaba at the end of “What Is This Feeling.” Also, Elphaba’s appearance at her sister’s home was visually stunning. I didn’t see it the first time, but I’ve seen it many times since.
When asked, “Which was the best production?” I cannot give a simple answer. For example, the singing Elphaba in New York was the best, but the best acting Elphaba was at ASU Gammage. The best acting Wizard was in L.A., the best singing Wizard in Chicago and the best dancing Wizard at ASU Gammage.
Watching different casts, I find it fascinating to see how much an actor can bring to a role, and even change a character. Sometimes it is the delivery of one line, or even just a word or gesture. The first Elphaba I saw smiled after the song “Just For This Moment” when she said she felt “wicked.” That quick smile gave a dimension to the character that no other Elphaba has duplicated since. Maybe next time.
In most productions, the performances, both singing and acting, have been excellent. I’ve only seen one bad Glinda, one mediocre Elphaba and one Fiero who may have been dancing through life, but had a little trouble dancing through the show.
You may notice that while all the music sounds like “Wicked,” the style of each song changes to match the characters and the action, and serves the story well. The melodies and harmonies are beautiful and compelling, but for me the best musical aspect is the rhythmic vitality. No matter the speed, the music is always moving forward. The best way I can describe this driving rhythm is that after 30 years of being a pit musician playing woodwinds, “Wicked” is the only show in which I’d want to play the drums.
The show’s lyrics flawlessly and simultaneously advance the plot and establish character. Stephen Schwartz manages to do this in a way that is both poetic and humorous – not an easy task. His use and intentional misuse of the language is masterful.
One fun thing I sometimes look for is how and when they hook up Elphaba for her “ascent” just before the end of the first act. It is not something you would even want to notice the first time.
After all of this, is there another reason to see again? I’ll let you know after I see it the 12th time.
Alan Handelsman and his wife Anita live with their bunny in Scottsdale. Retired after 30 years as a musician, Handelsman is now a perfectly non-wicked hypnotherapist whose prior review gigs include serving in the first class of ASU Gammage Goers.
Coming up: More fun with Stephen Schwartz musicals