by Byron Woods
By now, they’re the kind of marketing metaphors we’ve all probably become numb to:
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator.
Christian Bale is Batman.
Reese Witherspoon is Legally Blonde.
But having seen the professional touring version of the Broadway musical, WICKED (actually, Professional Touring Company #2) at Durham Performing Arts Center, I’ve got a new one to shake things up a little:
Dick Cheney IS the Wizard of Oz.
Here’s a photo of actor Don Amendola, who plays the famous sorcerer (and humbug) in this imaginative prequel to the filmed version of The Wizard of Oz. For reasons we’ll get into, Amendola’s character frequently doesn’t smile during his scenes. But since our press photo doesn’t show that, you’ll have to use your imagination to picture this. Please do so.
Now add a small (and possibly cerebral-event-related?) growl in the left corner of his mouth.
If you’re hyperventilating at this point, try breathing into a paper bag; it should pass in a few moments.
That is what I saw from my orchestra seat.
Look, I know. And for what it’s worth, I hate them too: those terminally oversensitized commentators who insist on dragging endless political controversies into every cultural or artistic conversation, no matter how tangential. A discussion board about the TV show Lost this week provides an easy case in point:
pmaron_2000: There is no way on earth John Locke who was about to be operated on would not have been intubated and being monitored by an Anesthesiologist.BUT WITH THAT—sorry, but with that said, Wicked is a stunning, big-stage musical: a must-see pageant for the eyes and ears, given Eugene Lee’s steampunk set design, Susan Hilferty and Tom Watson’s outlandish costumes and wigs, Kenneth Posner’s dramatic lighting and Adam Souza’s orchestral direction. And Winnie Holzman’s book, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, is also a fairy tale jaded just enough to speak directly to our time.
TBAGG1776: YOU KEEP FORGETTING. OBAMA’S BILL PASSED. WELCOME OT SOCIALIST HEALTH CARE REFORM, LOSERS!
But, mainly, Wicked is a fairly large-writ metaphor for the political exploitation of terror over the past decade—with a generous side of governmental anti-environmentalism for good measure. Still, if the results suggest what might have happened had Howard Zinn taken up writing children’s fables (with a really good composer and lyricist in tow), given this tale's particular history, perhaps that’s not entirely inappropriate.
Scholars have long differed over the possible political and socioeconomic allegories in L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel. (And please, let’s not get started on those Pink Floyd fans.)
But over the past decade, scholars Mark Swartz and Quentin Taylor have finally contrasted murky conjectures about the gold standard, labor unions and Standard Oil with concrete evidence. They found that the Wizard's first stage adaptation, Baum’s own 1901 musical theater script, contained explicit references to political events of the time, and mentioned prominent statesmen and business leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller by name. Apparently from the start, Baum’s Oz never was a land truly all that far away.
Neither is Holzman’s. “Something bad is happening in Oz,” an avuncular David De Vries confides early on as Dr. Dillamond, college history professor—and goat—to Vicki Noon’s verdant honor student (and wicked-witch-to-be), Elphaba.
The kingdom’s animals, which had once been welcome as teachers, students and clergy, are losing the power—and the freedom—of speech. Elphaba’s sung response, “It couldn’t happen here,” none too subtly paraphrases Sinclair Lewis, before Dillamond finds himself banished from campus. His sinister replacement introduces a new invention, a cage, with the chilling words, “You’re going to be seeing more and more of them in the future.”
These events take place against Elphaba’s rise as a sorcery student, despite social ostracism based on—of all things—the color of her skin, until she’s deemed good enough to be introduced to the Wizard himself.
In that climactic meeting, he reveals needs her magic to help spy on what he calls “subversive animal activities.” Having witnessed their needless suffering and subjugation, Elphaba refuses, whereupon Dick—I mean, the Wiz—says, “When I first got here, there was discord and discontent. Where I come from, everyone knows the best way to bring folks together, is to give them a really good enemy!”
From that point, the fight for the soul of Oz is on. Elphaba flees, while the Wiz’s second-in-command—a press secretary—launches a massive PR campaign. Its objectives are to defame Elphaba, convince everyone that the saccharine spoiled brat Glinda (an amusingly vapid Natalie Daradich) is actually the good witch—and maintain the proper level of fear among the populace.
By now it should be obvious: Any similarities between this fictive land and the climate in America in the early years after September 11 is entirely intentional. Created within two years of those attacks, Wicked remains a potent allegory for a time when distrust in government and journalism remains at historically high levels.
Though it occasionally indulges in bathos (in the relatively boilerplate sisters-in-arms-bonding-song “For Good” and the sappy romantic nonsense of “As Long As You’re Mine”), Stephen Schwartz’ libretto is spangled elsewhere with sharp, political satire. In the act two soft shoe, “Wonderful,” the canny Wizard says, “Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it—history.” Then he sings, “There are precious few at ease | With moral ambiguities | So we act as though they don’t exist.”
Intelligently written and scored, and replete with coups de theatre in both acts, Wicked takes the audience on quite a journey, filling in the backstory on Oz in largely unpredicted ways.
Now, if only modern children—and adults—weren’t so in need of a fairy tale whose morals are these: Authority cannot be trusted. The powerful are most concerned with keeping that power. And the popular truth is the one that’s been spun, while the real one’s the hardest—and most dangerous—to know.