Days before the Wicked tour docked at the Academy of Music for a month-long stop, the show celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Broadway premiere. This momentous event was grandly feted in New York, including curtain call appearances by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel at the Gershwin Theatre.
Here in Philly, the general mood was no less joyful—a capacity crowd, many of whom were likely not even born when the show first opened, but who clearly knew Wicked as well as any Rabbi knows their Talmud—stomped and cheered. I won’t be surprised if the 40th and 50th anniversaries are every bit as vibrant.
For me, though, the lesson here is different: No show should last 20 years.
I’ll explain, but first a brief history lesson. The notion of a Broadway hit musical running for years or decades is relatively recent. In the 1930s, Ethel Merman could legitimately claim all her shows as hits, though most ran fewer than 500 performances, which made sense: when Merman left, usually the shows would close. By the very different economics of the time, that was also long enough to turn a profit. Both star and producers were happy.
That was a very different world of course—economically as well as artistically. Long runs incrementally crept up over the decades, but not till the 1980s did we start looking at runs of a decade or more. The ‘80s of course, brought Phantom of the Opera… and a model that would have been beyond comprehension not long before: a show that ran 35 years.
That’s a record I fervently hope is never broken. By comparison, the 20 years of Wicked seems almost short, but it is of course long-standing mega-hit. And for me, it shares the problems that inevitably accompany those shows.
Specifically, that to keep it a precision product that delivers what the audience wants becomes less a matter of individual performing than a feat of engineering. Seen in Philadelphia, Wicked felt to me less a story than a consistently rendered series of stage pictures and special effects. Glinda descends in her bubble; Elphaba levitates; the Monkeys fly.
There is of course also the musical side of this, which has been particularly canonized in Elphaba’s songs… and more specifically, in the addition of high notes and riffs that are now scrutinized, categorized, catalogued and preserved by Wickedites with a fervor that’s almost indescribable. Ironically, now even those variants are canonical, as new cast members want to show that they too have everything Idina, Eden, Shoshana and others brought to the party.
Okay, I’ll admit it—there’s some fun in all this. And even a laudable goal, which is to ensure that the Wicked greatly beloved by audiences in 2003 is still the same beloved show two decades later.
But the work that’s required to pull this off is antithetical to my sense of theater. What’s involved here is largely duplication and repetition—the gestures, motivations, and vocal pyrotechnics that were built on an original company are now decades removed from the original people who are performing in it, and who had the benefit of being able to interpret and imprint their roles for the first time. Since then, it’s mostly a matter of following the map.
Or so it seemed. Glinda (Celia Hottenstein) warbled and Elphaba (Olivia Valli) belted. They certainly delivered what was expected of them, though Hottenstein milked the coy schtick well beyond charm. And the show was certainly high-energy. Too much so—the sweetness and humanity that I remember admiring in the original Wicked was hard to find here. I couldn’t get beyond the sense that this was more like some huge, extraordinary installation.
But a crowd-pleaser the show was… and is. Even as I write this, I recognize in my attitude undertones of both a grumpy old man, and highly privileged theater goer. Yes, I saw Wicked in its first week in New York, and was certainly bowled over by Chenowith and Menzel, who fit those roles as one might have expected from the creators.
But they are gone from Oz now, and have been for years. Shouldn’t a younger generation have a chance to enjoy the show? At least three of my current students studying musical theater saw Wicked for the first time here, and were almost tearfully joyful at the experience. Who am I to rain on their parade?
So… I’ve said my piece. To all now and future Wicked audiences, I wish you a wonderful, exuberant evening of theater. Just don’t expect me to be there next year for 21st birthday toast.
Photos: Joan Marcus