Prequal of Wizard of Oz targets racism and repression
by Lucy Komisar
This behind the scenes revisionist view of The Wizard of Oz is a political allegory about racism and discrimination. It’s fascinating as a literary work and stunning as theater. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, it’s an updated Animal Farm. It’s a play that exists on two levels, one for the kids and another for adults, who will find it intellectually stimulating. It’s Oz before Dorothy got there.
You might think this was a typical high-tech Broadway extravaganza. After all, a dragon belches smoke from the top of the proscenium and a huge witch’s hat flies around. (The set wizardry is by Eugene Lee.) Susan Hilferty’s costumes are great gobs of color and feathers.
|Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Wicked, photo Joan Marcus
But then there’s the subversive ironic story of the self-absorbed good-girl (good witch) Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth) who is so full of herself she declares, It’s good to see me isn’t it? Then, No need to respond, that was rhetorical. Glinda is utterly self-involved, has 24 pairs of shoes, and is popular and empty-headed – though good-natured.
Her princely boyfriend, by the way, is appropriately shallow and pretentious.
Expect a lot of tongue-in-cheek references.
There’s the bedraggled 19th-century mob, for example.
So, getting down to the racism: Elphaba (Idina Menzel) the wicked witch is green! That’s a bad thing. Think colored. And there is privilege and discrimination aplenty. The girls go to a private school for the upper classes, where Elphaba is a charity case.
The rich kids don’t like to be reminded of how these class divisions happened: I don’t see why you can’t just teach history, instead of always harping on the past.
The professor (William Youmans) is a goat who, like many other animals, forgets how to speak. Someone has written on the blackboard that animals should be seen and not heard. By the way, animals are also forbidden to work. Well, what can they do? The professor declared, There is so much pressure not to. Elphaba is indignant: It can’t happen here.
This is the lightest, frothiest political treatise you ever saw, with a bubbly Chenoweth holding forth in a lilting soprano, and stomping about with cute, quirky gestures. Idina Menzel is a passionate, intelligent Elphaba.
The vividly green Elphaba sets out for the Emerald City where wizard Joel Grey is out to stop subversive animal activity. His tactic? Inventing an enemy for people to coalesce against; he even puts wings on monkeys and makes them spies. Storm troopers chase around and arouse shivers. The wizard’s contraption of cogs and wheels makes us wonder about the evils of industrial society. His snooty press secretary spins lies.
It appears that people are willing to grovel and submit to feed their ambition, that they are not comfortable with moral ambiguities. A message for our times, for all times. And a superb Broadway show!
Wicked. Book by Gregory Maguire. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Joe Mantello. Choreographed by Wayne Cilento. New York: Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st St., New York City. Running Time: 2:45. Opened Oct 30th, 2003.