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23 June 2010

Wicked: the West End’s jolly green giant

The blockbusting populist prequel to the Wizard of Oz thunders on.

By Gina Allum

The People have spoken: the same People who brought us Jedward, and the “Cleggeron”, this year awarded Wicked the audience’s Olivier for Most Popular Show, having already pronounced it Best West End Show at the gongs. The People have also had a strong hand in the current casting of said musical: the male lead (Lee Mead) was the mop-headed winner of TV’s Saturday night ordure I Could Be A Joseph, and the female lead (Rachel Tucker) was a semi-finalist in I Could Be A Nancy.

Wicked is a blockbusting behemoth of a musical. It is global in span, and partly funded by Universal Studios. The set is expensive gorgeousness itself, the costumes sumptuous and Steven Schwartz’s music populist and strenuously amplified. So far so bankable — to the tune of $1.2bn worldwide. But do the People really know exactly what they have voted for? Could it be that a sly and magnificent wooden horse — this time from Lesbos — has been let loose on the West End, full of the love that dare belt out its name, to a series of show tunes?

The tale is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and tells the back-story of the so-called Wicked Witch of the West, after the novel by Gregory Maguire. Where it parts company with your classic musical is in its centre-staging and championing of the relationship between two women. Elphaba and Glinda, the two “witches” have easily the most engaging connection in the show, and are given the most tender scenes and songs. By contrast Mead’s Fiyero is pretty hopeless. I fear not all the hopelessness was completely deliberate. Fiyero’s chat-up line in the duet with Elphaba begins “I may be brainless…” which could just as easily have been “I may be tuneless…” as Mead had not a hope in hell of hitting that top G.

But really the posturing hero is as much of an irrelevance as the PR-savvy Wizard himself. The real drama is between Rachel Tucker and Louise Dearman. As the “good witch” Dearman is a blonde and pink confection, a raspberry ripple of a woman, like a young June Whitfield. In truth some of the humour is also a little too Terry and June for my taste, with its “innuendo and outuendo”. I was clearly in a minority in the audience, however, who responded with delighted enthusiasm to every little joke. To be fair, they also went wild at the curtain-up announcement about switching off mobile phones.

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Glinda scampers round the stage like a frolicsome infant, her singing heady, untethered. It’s only when she allies with Elphaba that she is grounded, her treacliness is lent dark mineral tones, and their joint sound fills out richly. The pair even have a classic lovers’ trajectory, like Benedick and Beatrice’s “merry war”, as they loathe each other at the outset with the passion of attracting opposites. Glinda is popular, pretty, affected; Elphaba is, not to put too fine a point on it, verdigris.

Like the frog-muppet before her, she could well lament that “it ain’t easy being green”. It’s interesting that, for all the covert Sapphic challenges the storyline poses, the People are clearly not deemed ready for a less than beautiful heroine: the specs and the woolly beanie must go; the raven locks must be unleashed to tumble about her shoulders. Green or not, she has to have a makeover.

Nonetheless she stands in the story as a quirky representative of the outsider, of the “colour” that Oz is attempting to eradicate, along with the talking animals. We actually care what happens to her. (The animals, not so much). Dammit, there is even a choke in the throat and a tear in the eye as Tucker hits us with “Defying Gravity”. And as the witch is demonised, in Oz’s own war on terror, the writer Winnie Holzman makes some wry and timely political points about the truth being whatever the People agree on.

It’s the politic death of Elphaba’s relationship with Glinda that we mourn at the show’s end: a pragmatic severing that enables the good witch to distance herself from the wicked and to keep a grasp on the status quo ante. Elphaba’s tacky and tacked-on walk into the pasteboard sunset with the brainless Fiyero is scant consolation, leaves Glinda bereft, and fools no one.

So The People have spoken. It could be nicely illustrative of the wisdom of crowds. Or maybe there’s nowt so queer as folk.