Rye, vermouth and bitters combined beautifully. Outside, the bright lights of Broadway twinkled. It was a cold night and the pitter-patter of rain didn’t make it better. I was grateful to be sitting inside the warmth of a cosy bar in Manhattan. Jason Mraz’s face smiled back at me from across the street–the Grammy Award winner was making his Broadway debut in the hit show Waitress. It was close to 11pm on a Friday evening and the atmosphere inside was buzzing as it was the last working day of the bartender at the establishment. Swirling the excellent Manhattan and people-watching from the window, I tried to comprehend the various emotions running through me. I had just made my Broadway debut as a spectator and there couldn’t have been a better choice than Wicked.
It was Anastasia I had wanted to see. When the animated film came out in 1997, its songs had instantly become dear. Many an afternoon had been spent singing ‘Once upon a December’ and imagining myself dancing with the roguish Dimitri. But I was glad that it was Wicked and not Anastasia that I finally watched. Friendship, feminism and fantastic songs–it was an introductory lesson to Broadway that had me hooked.
As Jackie Burns sang her way into the hearts of the spectators, showing how circumstances led Elphaba or the Wicked Witch of the West to become who she was, my emotions played out like a pendulum–rage to sadness, happiness to sympathy. In retrospect, Kavita Kane’s novels, bringing to the forefront minor or neglected characters (all women, of course) of the epics and telling their side of the story, played on my mind. I was reminded of the various chapters I had read through the years as I sat through the two acts at the Gershwin Theatre.
Let me give some background. Wicked is based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, which gives an alternate ending to the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and the beloved novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. The story is from the viewpoint of the witches of Oz, before and after Dorothy from Kansas arrived thanks to the merciless tornado. The musical was first brought to life on Broadway in 2003 and was an instant hit. The original production won three Tony Awards, and this February became one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. Revenue-wise, it has surpassed the billion-dollar mark; only two other productions have done so. After watching the show, I realised why.
Wicked is the story of an unlikely friendship between Elphaba (a phonetic pronunciation of the initials of L. Frank Baum) and Galinda (Glinda from the middle of the first act, played by Amanda Jane Cooper)–the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch, respectively. The two break convention to emerge as heroes despite having opposing personalities. Whether it is supporting each other, fighting a corrupt government or even in matters of love, they complement each other instead of vying for the top prize–a refreshing change from women being pitted against each other for the main love interest or portraying the end goal to be family oriented. Both witches are strong in their own way, protecting and standing by each other, proving that the bond of friendship goes a long way.
Before the show, when I walked in to collect my ticket, I was surprised by how many women were around–girlfriend gangs, young families, even grandchildren. The excitement was palpable. I was nervous, partly because I had longed to see Broadway for years and now it was finally happening. Would it live up to the hype? Would I leave disappointed? Would it be just about okay? In hindsight, I was glad that I went to see a production I hadn’t encountered in full in a film before, like The Lion King or The Phantom of the Opera. While Wicked’s background is rooted in the film I saw as a child with Judy Garland belting out ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’, which became her signature song, its plot line left me mesmerised. It was so powerful. No wonder Stacy Wolf, a professor of theatre at Princeton and one of the USA’s leading scholars on musical theatre, borrowed her book’s title, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, from the theme of Wicked.
The theatre was dressed in green and gold, in a tribute to Emerald City of course. The doors closed sharp at the designated time and the show began, with spectacular visuals and well-rehearsed choreography.
The audience tapped their feet as the citizens of Oz sang ‘No one mourns the wicked’. Then Glinda, shiny and shimmering as the Good Witch, delved into the past to tell the citizens how she knew Elphaba from school. The story progressed, the green witch’s gift evident at the Shiz University, while Glinda used her charm and popularity to gain recognition. It was Elphaba’s talent that made her realise a career in magic was possible. But the hindrances were many–her ungrateful family, the cruel fellow students, the tricky wizard and the corrupt government–each distancing her from her dreams, their consequences ultimately leading to her literally rising as the Wicked Witch. As Burns was lifted up in air in her black witch’s robes with everyone signing ‘Defying gravity’, the music had me enthralled. I didn’t even realise the first act had ended.
Some acts are difficult to follow, but when the show restarted, the enthusiasm levels remained the same if not heightened. Burns, who has been Broadway’s longest-running Elphaba, left the audience soaked in sadness and, finally, happiness as she and Fiyero left Oz in secret for a better life. The citizens think the witch is dead and rejoice, while Glinda, mourning in private, promises to live up to the title of being ‘good’.
As I walked out of Gershwin, while other audience members took photos of themselves in front of the Wicked poster, I studied it. The colours are stark and the conservative white and black with the ever-so-green face a reminder of how we perceive good and evil. But there is a difference. The red lips on the green face curl in a hint of a smile. It teases, teases to entice people to go in and catch the show. And with the hit musical promising to come to film halls in December next year and the Broadway show showing no signs of closing, there are plenty of chances for you to experience Wicked.
Air India and United fly direct to John F. Kennedy airport from New Delhi. Manhattan is about 30km away and takes, depending upon traffic, about 30 to 60 minutes. The Gershwin Theatre is at 222 West 51st Street in midtown Manhattan in the Paramount Plaza building. Tickets from $109 (taxes extra). The show runs for 2 hours and 45 minutes. No show on Mondays.