Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wicked - the musical

Last night I accompanied a group of students to the theatre to see Wicked. I didn't know anything about it beforehand, but hey, it's a free theatre ticket, I'm not going to say no. I knew it was a musical and so expected singing, dancing and superficialness. Yes, there was the singing and dancing but I was surprised by some of the challenging themes it addressed. 

The show is basically the backstory to The Wizard of Oz and begins with the Good Witch Glinda announcing the death of Wicked Witch of the West to the people of Oz. They are hesitant to believe the good news at first but once convinced celebrate gladly. One asks Glinda 'But weren't you friends with her once?' Shocked silence. Glinda at first deflects the question, then decides to answer honestly. The show switches to flashback mode and we get the story of the Wicked Witch's life from her birth to her death.

Born green, her father, the governor, had no time for her and more or less abandoned her. When her wheelchair-bound sister was born she was given the role of looking after her. As teenagers they went off to boarding school together, though Alphaba had been allowed to go only because her sister needed her. She is shunned because of the colour of her skin. Her sister isn't treated much better due to her disability despite them both being in a supposed position of influence being that they are the governor's daughters after all. The theme of racism and prejudice continues and develops into a paradigm of how a society, particularly one in hard times, creates its own scapegoats and how easily people buy into the idea. 

The scapegoats in Oz are the animals. All animals can talk and hold down regular jobs such as teaching. One by one, species by species, the animals are silenced and in some cases caged. They are dismissed from their jobs and lose all 'human' rights. As people's minds are poisoned against them, there are few to stand up for them and those that do are seen as subversive. That the scapegoats of choice are so readily turned from upstanding citizens into public enemy number one is reminiscent of 17th century witch hunts, 1930's and 40's Nazi Germany, the US's Reds under the Beds anti-communist frenzy of the 1950s and the present day scaremongering and paranoia about 'illegal immigrants' and 'bogus asylum seekers' as propagated by the likes of the Daily Mail.

Despite the ill-treatment and disdain, Alphaba is good. Good and righteous she is one of the few to stand up for the animals. When she first arrives at the school she looses her cool and demonstrates her ability at magic. The headmistress, impressed by this ability, takes her under her wing and gives her special lessons in sorcery. Alphaba works hard at these lessons as she wants to attain a standard high enough to warrant an invitation to meet with the Wizard himself. Finally she is able to realise her dream of meeting the Wizard and we find out that her reason for wanting this so badly is because she wants to ask him to do something for the animals. To her dismay, she discovers that the Wizard is not all he seems and his power is due more to clever PR than any real talent for magic. To consolidate his position it is he who is behind the scapegoating of the animals.

Alphaba ends up on the run with her name blackened. She continues to fight for justice in Oz, but the Wizard's media savvy PR is far more powerful and effective than her magic. 

Other characters from The Wizard of Oz, such as the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are woven into the story and we find out their backstories too. Glinda, the Good Witch, starts out as a spoilt and self-centred airhead whose only interests in life are her looks and getting her own way. For her and Alphaba it is a case of loathe at first sight. Thrown together as roommates they come first to tolerate each other and then to become friends. Through her friendship with Alphaba, Glinda becomes the good person she later becomes renowned for being. 

I really enjoyed the exploration of so many different issues reflective of contemporary life (there are more than I've touched on here), and also enjoyed the way the story was so cleverly linked to the original to become a 'believable' prequel. I can now understand why it is so popular and why so many people rave about it.

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