Before Disney humanised villains such as Maleficent and Cruella with their own films, long-standing, award-winning and critically acclaimed musical Wicked had been there done that with its tale about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. I’m not exactly sure what it is that made Maleficent a disappointment in terms of re-characterisation by giving her an emotional backstory, but with Wicked it just seemed to work. Perhaps it seemed redundant after a reworked concept like it had already found runaway success?
This review is of the West End production of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, though this is my second time watching it after first seeing it on tour in Manchester in 2019. And I was as equally – perhaps if not even more – blown away by it. The show takes you on a whirlwind broomstick ride filled with a cauldron of emotions that you as the audience feel for the characters or that they exhibit. There’s anger, bewilderment, excitement, frustration, grief, happiness, jealousy, love, pity, pride, sadness and shock – the list is endless.
An adaptation of the revisionist novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West which was in turn based of course on the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned classic film, Wicked pulls focus away from Miss Goody Two Shoes Dorothy Gale and turns towards the polar opposite dynamic of Oz’s two witches. Although of course it explores how and why Elphaba becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, it ultimately explores what it means to be “wicked”. She both intentionally and unintentionally does things that are depicted by others as wicked and is therefore brandished as such, while also at times embraces the moniker she is given with amusement and pride. It also plants the idea that wickedness comes from different places and is pushed by different motives.
Additionally, it asks the rhetorical question, who is the title referring to as wicked? Elphaba? Glinda? The Wizard? Madame Morrible? The mean spirited college students who bully Elphaba or the angry mob of Ozians who are intent on killing her? Or even Elphaba’s younger sister Nessarose? All are possibilities to an extent. As well as obviously friendship and love being two of the dominant themes in the show, Wicked examines themes of political power and unrest, civil and animal rights, victimising and its consequences and also hinges on the old-age adage that first impressions are not always right. It was nice to see them post about Anti-Bullying Week on social media, since the celebration and understanding of each other’s uniqueness is a predominant theme throughout.
Part of what makes Wicked so fantastic is its soundtrack that mixes classical vocal nuances with gritty, soaring pop/rock styles. Many feature comical elements or require culminations of emotions such as anguish and anger or passion and pleasure. The two leads Elphaba (Laura Pick) and Glinda (Charli Baptie) play off each other well in spite of their differences in looks, attitudes, personalities and of course their voices. Glinda’s bright, high and opera-like soprano cuts through the music like a glass bell and floats above the ensemble and band with ease, but blends nicely with Elphaba’s mezzo. However, on songs such as Popular, Glinda exhibits the ability to turn down the operatic tone to inject some contemporary vocal lines.
Meanwhile, Elphaba’s voice has more depth and conviction that suits the songs she sings better. She is given more opportunities to emote on a wider range and of course this is seen and heard no better than on the musical’s biggest and most famous song, Defying Gravity. Like a plane that needs to warm up and take a run before its flight, Defying Gravity allows whoever plays Elphaba to really showcase her scope of singing and acting chops as she swirls, sweeps and soars on what is an extremely difficult song to master – more so than the others which are also vocally demanding.
Very few musicals require two prominent female leads (the most recent like this probably being Frozen) but out of those that do, Wicked stands as the gold standard that many budding theatre stars aspire to appear in. The range in terms of acting and vocal skills make it one of the most demanding in theatre – no wonder there’s up to three or four understudies for each of them, at least double the number for most shows.
A film version is currently in the works with pop star of the moment Ariana Grande and accomplished all-rounder Cynthia Erivo lined up as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively. While Cynthia Erivo (theatre credits include Sister Act and The Color Purple while she has starred in the film Harriet and played Aretha Franklin in Genius), will no doubt smash the role of Elphaba due to being an extremely accomplished actress and vocalist (as proven here), Ariana Grande has some big sparkly shoes to fill. With a thin voice that lacks power, clarity and good enunciation (watch this video to see how she can barely tackle The Wizard and I from Wicked to see for yourself) and acting skills that get lost in a sea of truly great actresses, the film version of Wicked will certainly be an interesting one at least, if not a mismatched disaster at worst.
But back to the bewitching West End musical, there’s a reason why it’s one of the top shows in the world of all time. With a well written and thought out story that does what is one of the hardest and sometimes most controversial things to do – rewrite classic literature, a repertoire of often catchy, often dramatic, often emotional and often funny but always jaw-dropping and hair-tingling songs, plus wonderfully wacky and very green costumes and extravagant sets that make use of quite literally the whole stage, Wicked is by far one of my top 5 favourite musicals.
It’s one I wouldn’t hesitate to watch again – perhaps I would again when they change the cast for the 2022-2023 season, which will be even more ethnically diverse with at least a dozen non-White cast members (however, non-White Glinda and Elphaba in non-Asian productions are still extremely rare). Hopefully Wicked, a deep story about diversity and difference that has already taken a step forward with Broadway’s first ever Black Glinda, Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba in the film and a Black Fiyero in the upcoming West End company lineup, will extend this diversity in more of its casts and productions as Frozen, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe have done.