06 December 2006

If I Wasn't Worried for the 14-Year-Old Girls of America Before...

John called this afternoon with a surprise free last-minute ticket to the matinee of Wicked. I've seen the show before, in 2003. I had a pretty violently hateful reaction then. My mother and sister, who'd read and loved the novel, were mostly offended at the butchering of a beloved book. I just found it to be terrible schlock. I remember my final straw being all the winky references to the Wizard of Oz movie. But before that there was the disastrous storytelling, the hack choreography, and the giant unnecessary dragon looming over the stage. For starters. Happy Hanukkah 2003. But I always felt like the flashy lights and half-the-time indecipherable lyrics might have gotten in the way of my understanding this show that so many people seemed to love. Yes, many of them were middle school girls, but a few of them were rational adults. The hate had kicked in so early, so strong, maybe I hadn't actually seen the musical. (I sure hadn't heard it.) So today was my chance to go back.

And holy shit it is a crap show. (Well - a crap first act. Because once the witch lady has defied gravity and hit her high whatever-it-is, there's not much worth sticking around for. And I probably have work to do.) And yes, "Defying Gravity" is a... stirring number. She flies, and even though John and I could see the crane thing behind the curtain, it was still really cool. (I also discovered I know almost all the words to that song. I'm deeply, deeply ashamed.) Aside from the belting and the flying, there are one or two catchy numbers. But what a mess. A mess! There seems to have been a mass aversion to editing when this show was being put together. No one wondered, "Aren't those costumes a little gaudy?" or asked, "Um, Mr. Lee? Just wondering - what does the fucking dragon have to do with the play?" It was all "Let's add some more gears!" and "Do we have any more rotating gobos? More colors for lights? Some smoke??" and "What if, behind the seventeen actors we've got rigged up in flying monkey costumes, we add a video projection of even more monkeys! You know, for that random backdrop change that happens for twenty seconds in that one scene. Get me the video projectors!" At one point there are five follow-spots on one actress. There is no universe in which that is necessary.

Even when you strip away the massive set and sloppy costumes and ostentatious lighting, it's a mess of a play underneath. When I was trying to figure out if I'd gotten my fill with just one act, I asked John if there's anything worth staying for in act two. He answered, "Well, the plot." And it's true. The first act is some catchy songs and showy set changes and, um, I think there's something going on with animals? And it's a metaphor for black people? Or maybe the green lady's the metaphor for black people. (But, of course, the animals storyline isn't actually addressed in the second act. Yay for great storytelling.) It's an entire act of set-up. And yes, it does set up one of the most thrilling act one finales I've ever seen, but is it worth it? Songs come out of nowhere, with no relation to the scene, the real opening number is twenty minutes into the show (John's point), and then there's the goddamned winking movie references. Blech. (They get worse in act two.)

And yet this show is a hit. A bona fide, motherfucking Broadway runaway hit. Some people here might point out the "inspirational" aspects of the story - outsider girl learns to stand up for what she believes in, being different is just being special, belting really high is awesome - but, call me a snob, that's no excuse. This is a bad show, and the people who love it are wrong. They've been conned. I'm not a snob, though - I'm an idealist. ("I believe that a good product with talented people is the way to go." "Waahh waah waah.") Throngs of eighth graders in loooove with a musical only stirs my heart if it's a good musical. Yes, if this gets them liking theatre, if it's their gateway play, maybe there's some value in that, but it's a thin story, poorly told, and artlessly presented. Except for the fact that they take a chick who belts really high and fly her up with the smoke machine cranking. And the song is completely stuck in my head.


John said...

I understand Les Miz's appeal. I hate Les Miz, but I get why Les Miz is a phenomenon. It enforces the Christian values of middle America - suffer through this life, kids, for your afterlife rewards! - but in such a way that nobody except people smart enough to have abandoned those values realizes that that's what's going on. Thus middle America iis given the opportunity to be further brainwashed, all the while thinking they're interacting with a work of art.

What I don't understand is the national Wicked-palooza that has flipping engulfed America like a weapon of mass destruction. I get why people like it. It's flashy and just a little subversive so as to make people feel exotic and rebellious (yet still safe) in the big fancy New York (or roadhouse) theater. But whereas the pervasiveness of Christian doctrine bullshit explains the worldwide phenomenon of Les Miz, I have no way to understand why Wicked is JUST SO POPULAR. I mean, it's on track to be the most successful Broadway musical EVER. Again, I get why it's big, why it's successful...but why is it THAT successful?

And then it occurs to me. It's the first musical in history (as far as I know) to feature flying monkeys. Clearly, all this time, we were just waiting for flying monkeys.

Jaime said...

People don't love Lez Miz because it reinforces their values. They love it because there are fifty people on stage and loads of cheesy ballads and rousing anthems. It's not like you can actually follow the story outside of 'The sad dirty girl died.'

John said...

Oh I SO disagree! When I took the homeless women, who I've now taken to Bridge and Tunnel, No Child, Sweet Charity, Fiddler, and The Color Purple, ALL the women could talk about after was how much Les Miz reaffirmed their faith in the lord. First time god entered the conversation. People think they love it because of the 50 people and the sad dirty girl dying - but deep down their religions convictions are reaffirmed.