Tuesday, 22 February 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green

Every once in a while, I decide to entertain myself in other ways than sitting in a dark room watching the works of people I'd like to emulate. When I was younger, I went to youth theatre for a good... oh, 6 years? I LOVED drama in school. In fact, my first application to the Academy when I was 17 was for the BA Acting course. I'd never dreamed that you could study acting, and it was all I'd ever wanted to do. Sadly, at the time (or so I remember), part of the audition involved singing and playing a piece froma musical. Singing and musical ability have never been strong points of mine, in as much as I always wanted to be good at them. I hugely admire the art of musical theatre, and before I was out of primary school I'd already seen Grease and Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Theatre going is an expensive habit though, and it fell by the wayside in recent years. When my mum suggested going to see a show in London for our birthdays, I couldn't think of any better way to spend it. The last time we were in London- also, the last time I was at the theatre, shamefully- we saw Chicago and Blood Brothers, and my mum was gunning for We Will Rock You. I love Queen, but I fancied something a bit different, and opted for Wicked. A few friends of mine who study musical theatre had said it was brilliant. In fact, even people who hadn't studied it said it was brilliant. I vaguely knew it was to do with The Wizard of Oz (my feelings on which I'd already made clear), but without that pesky Dorothy character. Like an older, risque version, a sort of superhero origin about the film's arch-villain- the Wicked Witch of the West.

I went into the theatre having decided to read nothing of the show, without even listening to any of the songs. I wanted to hear it for the first time when I was there. With Grease, I'd watched the film well over 50 times before I went anywhere near the Edinburgh Playhouse. When I saw Joseph, it was because we'd been practising the songs for our school Christmas show. I wanted to see and hear everything with this show completely unbiased, knowing nothing of what to expect. And boy, am I glad I didn't.

The first thing I noticed was the fabulous stage set-up. I'm fascinated by set design, whether it be for film, television or stage. Everywhere you looked on stage, there was some intricate little detail, tiny cogs setting up the huge overall effect. There were things to look at everywhere. The huge mechanical clockwork-type features gave me absolutely no idea of what to expect, but I was sure intrigued. Then the curtain rose and the show began...
It begins with the death of Elphaha, the Wicked Witch, and the appearance of Glinda the Good Witch to reassure the townspeople. When she is asked if she and Elphaba were friends, the story goes into flashback. We learn how a baby girl was born with green skin after her mother had a dalliance with a mysterious stranger. She is detested by her father, who sends her off to sorcery school when she's olde, along with his favourite child- the wheelchair-bound Nessa Rose. Their mother has long since passed away and Elphaha is made none more aware that she's only there to look after her sister. It's a time of great turmoil in Oz, a sort of magical holocaust, and the socially conscious Elphie is forced to bunk with social climber Galinda (or 'Glinda', as she's later known).

As it is revealed that Elphie is in posession of some pretty awesome powers, she realises that there's more to life than being a freakish outcast, beaten down for being different. Unfotunately, the world she lives in doesn't see it the same way. She and Galinda quickly become friends, however, and they go off in search of the Wizard himself- struggling with conspiracies, cover-ups and stifling social conditions at the same time.
The show is on for almost three hours, but honestly I never noticed the time drag at all. It flies by on the strength of the story alone. Given how I tried to avoid reading anything about it beforehand, I didn't even have a flip through the novel it's based on. It goes to show though, that even without the songs the story itself is enough to carry it- something which I wouldn't have imagined alot of shows like this could do.
The costumes are wonderful, and rightly so- considering the lavish production values of the film, and the fact that it's set in the magical land of Oz, they have to be something pretty special. They have to reflect the setting, and they share the same magically mechanical feel of the sets. The whole show had a very 'steampunk' feel to it, almost like the Shane Acker film '9' (not the singing, dancing Daniel Day-Lewis film Nine, ironically enough...)

And then there are the songs themselves... wow. Sometimes with musicals there can be alot of 'filler', little throwaway numbers and no real big show-stoppers. I felt this about Blood Brothers- the show was funny but there weren't any big, memorable songs. Not so with Wicked. The concluding song of the first act, Defying Gravity, made the hairs on my neck stand on end and I was mesmerised. The vocals are HUGE, but not in a 'showy' way. The cast were fantastic and never once hit a bum note. Not being up on my musical theatre, I wasn't familiar with any of the names, but I was blown away by all of them.
The songs actually served to further the story, rather than just be there because... y'know... it's a musical. There wasn't a single one which I felt dragged or hindered in any way, and as soon as I got home I liteally could not wait to listen to them again. Defying Gravity- what appears to be the signature sone from the show- is one that has had particular resonance with me the last few weeks and if it weren't for my seriously chronic vocal 'ability' I'd have been belting out the words along with it.

It's no surprise this show has won as many awards as it has, both in its run in New York and in London. It's been seen by over 2 million people, and in London alone there have been over 1,000 sold out matinees. That's not even including evening shows. A show doesn't have that kind of impact without there being something more than a little bit special about it. Even for those who don't have a particular interest in musical theatre, it HAS to be seen. I out aside my feelings about The Wizard of Oz and to be honest, completely forgot about the film. At the same time, it sets the groundwork for the film's story and skims over alot of it before tying it up neatly at the end. The problem with prequels is often the lack of suspense- if you've seen the original film, you know how a prequel will play out. You know where the characters will be at the start, and where they will end up. The genius of Wicked is that it's not only a prequel, but it goes further than that. It also runs parallel to the story of the film, and its conclusion is the same as the end of the film- but explains it further. It's alot to pack in, but like I said the time flies in. I was really disappointed when I realised it was getting near the end- I didn't want it to at all! While it's a difficult one to say "go and see", in the same way as you would a film, it's definitely a show I'd not only recommend, but insist upon other people seeing. It's huge, dazzling, unforgettable and soars above anything else I've ever seen.

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