Why I Wouldn't Recommend Wicked
There’s a lot of fuss made about Wicked. It’s been a hit ever since it opened on Broadway in 2003. Just about everyone has heard of “Defying Gravity”, thanks to the TV series Glee. It has won many, many awards. So I definitely had high expectations, but I was also a little wary because it’s SO popular.
I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. Controversial, I know! In fact, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as professional a show to go see, either as an adult or to take your children to. At least not as a first choice! Let me explain why…
This article is my own personal view. I would be happy to discuss it further with you in the comments! Any external links in this article are there to help you, but none are affiliates – I don’t make any money from them.
Things that were 'Good'
Things I Liked About Wicked
1. The Singing
Nikki Bentley was outstanding as Elphaba, and her singing sounded healthy, strong and free. She portrayed the character with heart and depth, and I enjoyed her performance immensely.
Don’t get me wrong, the singing by Nikki Bentley (Elphaba), Helen Woolf (Glinda), Andy Hockley (The Wizard), and Kim Ismay (Madame Morrible) was all excellent. As you’ll see below, my disappointment was not with the performers.
Nikki Bentley in particular exceeded my expectations. With such a demanding role on the voice, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she held back on some notes, or even sounded a bit tired. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that in the West End. This is a big role to perform six times a week and Bentley was outstanding. Her singing sounded healthy, strong and free. She portrayed the character with heart and depth, and I enjoyed her performance immensely. Helen Woolf as Glinda, with an equally demanding role, also performed very well. Her character was suitably vapid, ditsy and annoying, and her rendition of ‘Popular’ was on par with Kristin Chenoweth’s. Wicked really hinges on the performance of these two lead characters, so this was very satisfying.
2. Some of the Story
I enjoyed the second half a lot more than the first, as the story felt a little less tropey. The story has some good overarching themes for young children, such as friendship and equality. I think this is why the show has had such success with amateur theatre (non-professional). These themes are easy to access and particularly important at an adolescent and young adult level.
The happy ending where the Wicked Witch of the West gets to run away with her love, was nice. A big change from the melting green mess we all remember from the film! The character of Fiyero was not as cliché as I first expected. He makes the ‘right’ choice to fall in love with the woman who actually loves him, as opposed to the woman who is in love with the idea of him. I did like that the story broke down the idea of the black and white ‘good vs. wicked’ that was central to the original books.
Something Disappointing This Way Comes
5 Things I Didn’t Like About Wicked
1. The Theatre
Firstly, the theatre wasn’t what I was expecting. The theatre is completely “Wicked”-ified: literally everything is green and art-deco. It felt more like arriving at a theme park than for a show. Now I have nothing against theme parks – I LOVE Disneyland – but that’s not what I thought I was headed to. The large auditorium was rather impersonal in my view, and felt more like a rock concert than a theatre experience. This removed any intimacy in the performance for anyone sitting further back than the top ranked seats.
It was interesting to watch how this affected the generally young audience. There were lots of families and school children, and they were constantly getting up and down and going in and out throughout the show. This is of course somewhat inevitable with small children and long shows. But I realised afterwards that when I’ve been to other shows with lots of children in the audience, this hasn’t been as noticeable. Both Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory generally have very young audiences, but my memory is of children riveted to their seats. I do wonder how easy it is for a small child to stay engaged when they are too far away to see the facial expressions of the actors.
Note: if you’re able and willing to pay to sit closer to this stage, this could be the answer!
2. The Music
Stephen Schwartz’s music isn’t always my favourite. In Wicked I think he asks too much of singers. Several of the solo songs are extremely demanding on the voice. This is a shame because the people who want to sing them the most are young singers. Developing voices aren’t physically up to singing this music, and do so at risk of damaging their voices. Guidance from a singing teacher to adapt the music can help – but it’s simply not that suitable for young voices.
Schwartz’s chorus music in this show didn’t do it for me at all. It would be hard to put my finger on why exactly. The lack of intimacy in the giant theatre didn’t help. I also was not convinced that the cast truly believed in the story – something that often happens in long-running shows. I got the same vibe from the production of Les Misérables I saw in the West End in 2010. It felt rather like going through the motions at some points. Perhaps if I’d been sitting close enough to see their faces, this might have been avoided. But you shouldn’t need to be close to the stage to feel the energy of the ensemble.
Developing voices aren’t physically up to singing this music, and do so at risk of damaging their voices.
3. The Visuals
The costumes were bordering on garish in their colours – such a shame when the Emerald City costumes we know and love from the 1939 film were so beautiful.
The set was somewhat grotesque, with its huge dragon along the top of the stage, its aerial bridges and flying bubbles and such, and the enormous structure framing everything. Compared to the other shows I saw in the same week (read about them here), that had relatively simple sets, this felt completely over the top.
There is something to be said for creating a truly fantastical story for children, the clear target audience of this show. For me, the production was compensating for a pretty light storyline. The lighting went down this road too, with very bright colours, flashes, multiple spotlights, and lots of movement. The costumes were bordering on garish in their colours. This was a shame when the Emerald City costumes we know and love from the 1939 film were so beautiful. Again, it was a bit over the top for me.
4. The Story
(See above for the parts I did like!)
The ‘magic’ in Wicked is almost entirely in the SFX, which leaves nothing to the imagination.
We all know the story of the Wizard of Oz, with its Tin Man, Lion, Scarecrow and sweet Dorothy who just wants to go home. If you’re like me, you also grew up reading the original book(s) by L. Frank Baum. The land of Oz is a magical place. It’s also a place where we can recognise in the characters people we already know. The magic of Oz comes from this fact, and it’s what makes it a fairy-tale – one of America’s first. It delights through its whimsical world, with all its made-up peoples. So, for me, I wanted this magic to be maintained in Wicked, as the prequel. In my view, the ‘magic’ in Wicked is almost entirely in the SFX, which leaves nothing to the imagination.
It was gratifying to have some of the elements of the original story explained: who the Tin Man was, who the Scarecrow was, why the Witch of the West was green, and why she was ‘wicked’. And as I said above, it was good to undo some of the black/white themes of good and bad, because that’s not what the real world looks like. But imagine my surprise to discover the bitter and twisted love story of the beloved, romantic Tin Man! This particular storyline was bizarre and rather dated. The slight attempts at addressing the heavier topic of racism through the prejudice against the animals, and ethnic cleansing (for this is what was going on), was just a toe-dip without really confronting it face-on. In the 21st century, it is rather feeble to poke at these issues without really tackling them.
5. The Lyrics
Finally, there are lots of made-up words in the lyrics such as “rejoicify” and “disgusticified”. I don’t think this fantasy language adds anything valuable to the show. Theatre is chance for children to be exposed to much more varied and sophisticated language than they’ll hear in their everyday lives. This helps with their development, and gives them a much broader language with which to communicate and understand the world.
Made-up words can be great, such as the languages of Tolkien or Dr Seuss, but here it falls short. I found this playing with language to be dumbed down, cutesy, and lacking imagination. My personal view is that the performing arts are a place to broaden horizons and push the boundaries of children’s (and adults’) imaginations. So I was disappointed by this particular quirk of Wicked.
However, it’s hard not to get behind some of the iconic lyrics:
“I’m through accepting limits, cause someone says they’re so.
Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know”
Theatre is chance for children to be exposed to much more varied and sophisticated language than they’ll hear in their everyday lives. This helps with their development, and gives them a much broader language with which to communicate and understand the world.
Dated and Drowning in Special Effects
Some Final Thoughts
It’s all very well to have bangs and flashes and such, but that’s not what makes a show.
Overall I would say that this show felt a little dated, although perhaps that’s because I saw it so close to seeing Hamilton and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, both of which are SO modern and fresh. I see the themes they are trying to bring through, and the morals that the fairytale-like story is trying to teach. But these are swallowed by the theatrics of the bright lights, huge stage, overly loud band, and shrill chorus music.
Having read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child, I felt a little bit like they lost the magic of Oz through exaggerating it, and blowing it out of proportion. It’s all very well to have bangs and flashes and such, but that’s not what makes a show. Relatable characters, the depth of a story, and glorious music come much higher up on my list of priorities! With all the special effects, there is little room for the audience’s imagination. At the end of the day, throwing money into special effects does not create a cohesive, thought-provoking, and memorable show.
So...should you go see it?
My short answer is, it’s probably not my first choice as a recommendation.
If you really want to go see it, make sure you’ve seen the 1939 film or read the book first. Without that context you’ll miss out on a lot of the plot details. If I were taking children with me, I would take the time to discuss the show with them afterwards and compare it with the original story. You can start with questions such as “Was Glinda a good person or a bad person?”, and ask them which bits they recognised from the original stories. I would encourage older children to critique the show, and work out what they did and didn’t like, and why.
My preference would be to see an amateur production. I can see why amateur theatre does so well with this show. I’m sure that when you strip it back – because what amateur theatre company can afford all those SFX – it is a much more relatable story. Without so much distracting noise covering up the important lessons of friendship, loyalty, and doing the right thing, it could be quite lovely. And so much would be left to the imagination!
If your local theatre or school is putting on Wicked, go see it and support them. It will probably be wonderful. But if you want to take your kids to a professional show, I would hesitate before choosing Wicked. Take them to Matilda, The Lion King, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory first!
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