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Wicked: Not in Kansas Anymore …

by Karen Tortora-Lee on August 25, 2008

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Years ago I got the Gregory McGuire book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and it immediately became one of my top favorites of all time. I’m a big fan of stories that tell the other side of the story (see: Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead). Moral of Wicked: Don’t always believe the first story you hear, even if that story is coming from a poor little Kansas farm girl who got picked up off her fence post by a tornado and was deposited, worlds away, into a strange place where 1) citizens are diminutive and members of something called the Lollipop Guild, 2) the welcome committee is comprised of one women who arrives onto the scene via Floating Giant Bubble, 3) there’s only one road you can follow to get out of the place, and 4) everything that’s gone wrong is the fault of some wicked green witch who likes to transform people into tin and straw for kicks when she’s not commanding a fleet of flying monkeys.

Fast forward to around 2003 when Wicked made its way to Broadway. I was working just blocks away, and couldn’t help but notice the throngs of people who congregated nightly to take in this new musical. Unfortunately, by the time I thought to buy tickets there was a 3 – 4 month wait. I figured I’d hold off till the hype died down.

Fast forward again, to 2005 (hype has done the opposite of “died down”) and I got tickets to Wicked as a birthday present.  The show was spectacular, breathtaking … everything I didn’t think a show NOT written by Stephen Sondheim could be. When I realized that the composer, Stephen Schwartz, was the same man who did Godspell and Pippin well, then it all made sense. Has there ever been a better song of existentialism (And don’t you see I want my life to be something more than “long” … I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free) than Corner of the Sky? Well … yes. Defying Gravity. But more on that later.

Fast forward and now it’s 2008, and I thought it was time I see the show again.

I love Wicked. I will always love Wicked. I love that it’s not about good vs. evil, but rather about degrees of good versus different degrees of good. I love that it’s all about subtle (and some not-so-subtle) shades of interpretation. And specifically, I love how everything you thought was evil in the Wizard of Oz is turned on it’s ear because you never got the full story the first time around. I love how two girls can start off on opposite ends of the spectrum, come together, and yet eventually part because neither is built to follow the other’s path.

I love Stephen Schwartz’s elegant internal rhymes throughout (Take Popular: When I see depressing creatures / with un-prepossessing features / I remind them on their own behalf / To think of celebrated heads of state / Or specially great communicators / Did they have brains or knowledge? / Don’t make me laugh! / They were popular! Please / It’s all about popular!) I love his humor in What Is This Feeling — A love song about hate: What is this feeling / So sudden and new? / I felt the moment I laid eyes on you / My pulse is rushing / My head is reeling / My face is flushing / What is this feeling? / Fervid as a flame / Does it have a name? / Yes! / Loathing, unadulterated loathing.

I love how No Good Deed takes Elphaba’s character so perfectly from someone who always strives to be better (and to help others) to someone who just can’t take it anymore and just can’t continue to be misunderstood: No good deed goes unpunished / No act of charity goes unresented / No good deed goes unpunished / That’s my new creed / My road of good intentions / Led where such roads always lead / No good deed / Goes unpunished! / Sure I meant well –/ Well look at what well-meant did: / All right, enough – so be it / So be it, then: / Let all Oz be agreed / I’m wicked through and through / Since I can not succeed / Fiyero, saving you / I promise no good deed / Will I attempt to do ever again

I love Glinda’s self-reflection in Thank Goodness – the message of happiness at all costs, even if you’re not sure what that happiness is:

That’s why I couldn’t be happier / No I couldn’t be happier / Though it is, I admit / The tiniest bit / Unlike I anticipated / But I couldn’t be happier / Simply couldn’t be happier / Well – not “simply” / Cause getting your dreams / Is strange, but it seems / A little – well – complicated. / There’s a kind of a sort of … cost / There’s a couple of things get … lost / There are bridges you cross / You didn’t know you crossed / Until you’ve crossed / And if that joy, that thrill / Doesn’t thrill like you think it will / Still … / With this perfect finale / The cheers and the ballyhoo / Who … / Wouldn’t be happier / Because happy is what happens / When all your dreams come true. / … Well, isn’t it?

I’m also fascinated by how it’s become this teen cult thing. While our seats were good (middle mezzanine) it was ruined by the fact that we were somehow smack in the middle of some bus load of teens from, I don’t know, Idaho or something who couldn’t refrain from calling over to each other and tossing cameras to each other (yes, before the show started, but still — it’s a little disconcerting to have things flying over your head when the show you’re seeing is NOT Phantom of the Opera) and climbing all over each other during the show (I guess they couldn’t see? And wanted to trade seats?) and then passing bottles of water to each other and doing that simultaneous translation thing that — please listen to me — DOESN’T PROVE HOW SMART YOU ARE!!! (Look! It’s the wizard! He was that guy! … Um, yeah … we ALL got it! Now please be quiet!) I’m sure all these angsty teens can

identify with the whole “no one accepts me” thing, and have taken on Defying Gravity as their personal anthem but the whole second act only makes sense when life has knocked you around a bit and you’ve had to make choices a bit more difficult than whether or not to go to the college your boyfriend got accepted to just to make sure he’s not cheating on you while he’s away. But then again, you know, when I was 20 there was a lot going on that I figured was pretty important, and only hindsight tells me that it was … well … child’s play. Still, it takes a more mature eye to understand the true feeling of casting off the shackles and jumping into your new life …

Something has changed within me / Something is not the same / I’m through with playing by the rules / Of someone else’s game / Too late for second-guessing / Too late to go back to sleep / It’s time to trust my instincts / Close my eyes and leap … / It’s time to try Defying Gravity / I think I’ll try Defying Gravity / And you can’t pull me down!

All in all, the story is very satisfying, the show is spectacular, and the songs are dramatic, thoughtful, and emotional. Without a doubt, however, the watershed moment for me in the play is when Glinda and Elphaba decide that life has taken them in two different directions and they need to part in order to do the things they need to do in their own lives. The first time I heard it, in the wake of a breakup, it meant one thing, but over the years as I’ve listened to the soundtrack I’ve applied it to various people in my life who’ve come and gone, who’s passing I regret but who’s mark was deep and essential to who I am today. It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written about parting, and one I sing every time I lose someone in my life.

I’ve head it said that people come into our lives
For a reason bringing something we must learn
And we are lead to those who help us most to grow
If we let them, and we help them in return
Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you

Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you I have been changed for good.

It well may be that we will never meet again
In this life time … so let me say before we part
So much of me is made of what I learned from you
And you’ll be with me, like a hand print on my heart

Now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine by being my friend
Like a ship blown from it’s mooring by a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a sky bird in a distant wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

And just to clear the air I ask forgiveness
For the things I’ve done you blame me for
But then I guess we know there’s blame to share
And none of it seems to matter anymore

Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
Because I knew you … I have been changed.
For Good.
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