In the Tony award-winning musical Wicked we learn a lot of amazing things: why monkeys have wings, how goats can talk, why one man is made of tin, and how what's good is bad and what's bad is actually good. But we also learn that being different means being on the outside--and it hurts. It's a story with which many gay men and lesbians who've known the bitter cold of social rejection can relate.
Playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through July 31, the elaborately staged show by composer Stephen Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman is based on gay author Gregory Maguire's engaging 1995 novel of the same name. It tells the backstory of the iconic film classic The Wizard of Oz, an endearing foundation for any middle-aged gay man like me.
As Elphaba, played by Stephanie J. Block (The Boy from Oz)--who later becomes known to us as the Wicked Witch of the West--comes into the world, she is immediately cast aside by her own father. Who, after all, would want a child with green skin? Later she is stared at in school and mocked by the popular kids.
But the story of Elphaba and her unlikely cohort, Glinda, played by Kendra Kassebaum (Assassins, Rent), is far from being just about rejection, or political and social commentary, of which there is plenty. It's also about making one's mark--in this case, Elphaba's ability to step out of the shadow of a wheelchair-bound younger sister. She does it with quiet charm, some startling magic power, and the help of the self-serving Madame Morrible, played by stage veteran Carol Kane (best known for her Emmy award-winning role in the 1970s television hit Taxi). In becoming a member of "the wicked," Elphaba discovers the reality of an OZ that isn't what it seems. The subjugation of animals that speak gives her reason to fight for something more than her own acceptance.
I didn't see the acclaimed Broadway production of Wicked. But I was captivated by Block's incredible ability to take Schwartz's somewhat predictable melodic ballads and bring them to life with a quality and energy usually found in more high-profile Broadway stars. Block is going places. You'll have no doubt about that after seeing her passionate ownership of this part. And I couldn't help but love Kassebaum's perky Glinda, who, after overcoming her disgust with having to share a dorm room with Elphaba, takes on the gifted green girl as her "new project," helping her to become "popular."
Indeed, "Popular" is one of Schwartz's more lively and memorable numbers in what seems to be a continuing departure from his most notable works, including Broadway's Pippin and Godspell. He is clearly striving for, and somewhat succeeding at, creating the kind of songs one might hear in a gay piano bar: dramatic ballads with tragic themes. Though it all started to sound a little too familiar by the end of the first act. Schwartz does, however, maintain his longstanding love of wordplay, which can be found in the play's more humorous lyrics.
Holzman, a television writer known for creating positive gay characters in My So-called Life and Once and Again, definitely stretches--if not strains--her wings with the book for Wicked. Making a beloved childhood classic into a story about a fantastical world ruled by a fascist dictator is a daunting task, and Holzman was working with some complex material for a stage adaptation. By the time the second act rolls around, a lot has too be explained, and it starts to seem a little forced.
But staying true to her talent for dialogue between teens and strong character development, Holzman manages to capture the magic between Elphaba and Glinda in a way few could. And as usual she gives us as gays something to relate to. At every turn in the story it seemed there was a subtextual reminder of what it was like to grow up gay. Over and over I found myself thinking, That's how I would have felt.