George Orwell once claimed ‘good novels are written by people who are not frightened’.
Good musicals too, apparently. Wicked, recently opened in London’s West End, from the outset knows no fear. Its a brash, gaudy spectacle, which is suprisingly intelligent and political.
Politics is no stranger to the theatre; hardly shocking given the scandalous lives of our leaders. From the epic story of Peron’s Argentina in Evita, to the tragic French Revolutionary backdrop of Les Miserablès, from the lighthearted take on Nazi Germany in Caberet to the equally satirical Producers, it seems politics is worth making a song and dance about.
Neither is the deceptive use of childlike stories for multi-levelled political messages a new idea: just think of George Orwell’s use of creatures as metaphors for Soviet dictators in Animal Farm for a precedent. Based on Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked retells the Wizard of Oz, examining the rise and fall of the green skinned Wicked Witch of the West, and the triumph of Good Witch Glinda. This time however there are no celebrations when Dorothy melts the Witch: this Witch is misunderstood, a tragic victim of circumstance and ideals. The benevolent Wizard is now a malevolent megalomaniac, intent, not on acting as saviour, but on extending his power base. A dictator with whom Hitler or Stalin could sympathise, he aims to ethnically cleanse Oz of all talking animals. We find Eltheba, the Witch, to be less wicked than we may suppose, and more an idealistic freedom fighter. A dissident struggling against a totalitarian regime, through propaganda she becomes a scapegoat for Oz’s ills.
Wicked belongs with other compelling fictional fables like Shelley’s Frankenstein and More’s Utopia, the only difference being that it’s friendlier for the MTV generation. The story examines understanding of good and evil, truth and fabrication, nature and nurture, even George Bush. The parallels with the past and admonitions for the future are easily discerned. Comedic songs, like Glinda’s homage to her world view ‘Popular’, caution against the modern breed of popularity politics. Through the flawed Wizard, who survives on grand gestures, we are warned that style and smooth talking cannot subsitute real solutions. Take note, Conservative logo makers and Labour spin doctors. But should we need to have such issues presented to us in what is essentially a theatrical ‘chick flick’ to make sense of such things? Perhaps in a time when Pop Idol, not general elections, stirs us to exercise our suffrage, we do.
It’s a fantastic and entertaining show, revitalising a much-loved story with witty dialogue. The snappy songs, lavish sets and awesome performaces ensure sucess, yet the unexpectedly intriguing subtext adds much more. In the fast paced 21st Century, a few hours of sparkly, fun, but ultimately intelligent entertainment have every bit as much value as the works of literature in whose footsteps it follows.
Perhaps we haven’t replaced high art with lowbrow entertainment; instead pop culture is just getting brainier. And in my opinion, that’s wicked…