Friday, 13 June 2014

Why Wicked Matters

My dad tells a story of one day, when I was about six or seven. He heard the television playing in the living room, despite the house rule forbidding television during the day. He came in to tell  me to turn it off, but paused when he saw me sitting on the floor crying my eyes out as I read the subtitles of an opera. He asked me what was wrong. I didn't look away from the television as I said through sobs, "It's so sad. He really loves her, but she didn't know it and now she's dead."

Moral of the story? I was an early reader. No, kidding, that's not it. You see, there are twin passions in my family. The first is stories, spoken, read, told, written, in any form we can get. The second is music; My mom sings, my dad is a talented percussionist (see him perform live in Dublin this weekend!) and my brother can basically play any instrument he's ever picked up (irritating, I know). None of us is a musical prodigy, or anything, but we can pass ourselves. So when I was six and crying in front of an opera, it was just the confluence of these two passions.

I'm still a sucker for a story told by music. I wail arias and belt out the songs of my teenage years from Rent when I'm alone in the house (poor neighbours) or driving a car. It will come as no surprise that I love living in London, so close to the West End and all the musicals. The taller half and I regularly go to the theatre and we love both straight and musical productions. Some of these, I review on this site, you can read my reviews here, but some I have just enjoyed for me.

One of these is Wicked. It's a glitzy, big budget, power musical now in its eighth year in the West End. It's the kind of musical that attracts fans at the stage door in green face paint and a queue for day-of discount tickets every day of the week, regardless of weather. In short, it's a guilty pleasure.

But I've decided that I no longer accept that guilt. I really enjoy Wicked. I've seen it three times and I'd go to see it again. It's funny, it has catchy songs and incredible costuming, but I think there's something more to it.



The musical is based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, which I hated. I picked it up on a whim at least ten years ago in a bargain book shop in Toronto. I love The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, so I was intrigued to read this alternate version. I don't recall much about the book other than I found the story tedious and so, when the musical debuted in 2003, I was unenthusiastic. In fact, I didn't see it until we were practically living next door to the theatre and one of my oldest and best friends was visiting London and wanted to see it.

We made a girls' night of it sipping margaritas beforehand and reminiscing about our twenty-five years of friendship. And then we saw this production which is a celebration of a friendship between two women. Amidst jukebox musicals and 'will he get the girl?' dramatics, Wicked is about women. Women standing up for what they believe. Women putting each other ahead of getting the guy. Women thinking and acting like women do in the real world. Beyond the flashy costuming, the impressive lighting and wonderful music is a story that holds its own. It's a story that's asking important questions and providing good role models for women and girls.

It seems that audiences want this sort of musical. A musical that is more than just songs and costumes. In the Heights explores minority and immigrant experiences, Billy Elliot asks questions about the class system and sexuality and Wicked challenges audiences to really look at propaganda, disenfranchisement, and women. These productions are successful. They are long-running. They are award-winning. These productions that are not just a reflection of what has traditionally been the perceived audience for art, namely, white, wealthy, educated men are drawing audiences and they deserve to.

The fact that big-budget, family-friendly productions are tackling these issues and representing these marginalised voices is exciting. Hopefully, this represents a cultural shift. Hopefully, we won't always have to look to fringe theatre for the perspectives that represent diversity. Hopefully, producers and theatres will recognise that there is a market for these stories so that these stories can make their way into the world. Maybe even change it.

Being involved in the arts community and in academia, I sometimes - more often than I'd like - encounter people attached to the alleged hierarchy of art. People who believe that some art is inherently better than other art simply because it is more "highbrow". Wicked is not La Traviata or Carmen. It's theatre "for the masses." It's tourist theatre. It's take-the-family theatre. And that is precisely why it matters so much. Accessible art need not dumb down its messages or fail to challenge its audience. Just because Wicked does it with flying monkeys, a glittery sign and power ballads, doesn't mean it isn't asking the tough questions or tackling the big issues.

So I'll go on liking the earnest lyrics, the silly jokes, the beautiful visual production, the talent of the singers and dancers. And if I tear up over this story told through music, it won't be because of the love story, but because of the friendship between the witches. Mostly, I'll be glad that I have had the pleasure to share each one of my three viewings with talented, strong, inspiring women that I'm very lucky to call my friends and my family.

2 comments:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I get frustrated with people who are so caught up in the alleged hierarchy of art, and who appear embarrassed when caught enjoying art that they consider "lowbrow". I loved Wicked, the Harry Potter books, and the Disney movie Frozen, among many other examples. They are entertainment "for the masses", but they are also excellent works of art that tackle real issues and they should not be discounted due to their target audience and general popularity.

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    1. My thoughts, exactly. Like what you like and hold your head high, Heather! Hope you're doing well up North! I enjoy your reviews. :-)

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