Monday, October 26, 2009

That Was Pretty Wicked (and Other Musical Thoughts)

Melissa and I went out to Wicked on Saturday, which just opened its short run here in Wichita. What a fabulous, fun event! It's been too long since we've seen a big spectacle like this, and we miss them. Salt Lake City isn't a huge metropolis, but as it and Denver are the only really large and wealthy markets between Kansas City and the West coast, lots of shows would stop there, and we would drive up from BYU and catch a fair number of them as the years went by in the early 90s: Forever Plaid, The Secret Garden, The Will Rogers Follies. And then we were in the DC area while I was in graduate school, and we saw a ton of great stuff while there (it had just exploded into the national consciousness when we saw Riverdance, but it hadn't yet gone global; Colin Dunne was still with the show, and Irish step-dancing had not yet become a punch-line on The Simpsons). But since then, living in college towns in Mississippi, Arkansas, western Illinois and now Kansas, while opportunities for small and local theater productions have been plentiful, there generally just hasn't been sufficient critical mass to attract the big-money, big-stage shows, at least not anywhere within driving distance for us. (The last one we saw was The Lion King, when it came to Memphis.) So the fact that Wichita was able to land Wicked was awesome, and something we weren't going to miss.

How was it, as a show? There are a lot better musicals, to be sure. We're fans of musicals around here, as I wrote about years ago, and things haven't changed: our oldest girls, now 13 and 9, were jealous of and excited for Melissa and I (we bought the way-out-of-our-budget tickets back in August, as an anniversary present to ourselves), and they excitedly watched clips on Youtube, printed off the lyrics to the big songs, and took to singing "Defying Gravity" around the house. But being fans doesn't mean you worship every story that gives an actress the chance to hit a high note while in costume under the lights. For a musical to be really good, in my mind at least, it has to bring its story and its style together. A lot of folks are just kind of turned off by musicals, on stage or on screen, because they don't like the singing; or even if they don't mind the singing, it just strikes them as...well, stupid. People don't break out in song when they're sad or angry or happy or love, they say to themselves, so why should I watch a bunch of dressed-up folks do so? Well, for entertainment, of course. But that complaint has a point to it.

The modern Broadway musical--really, everything since Oklahoma or Show Boat, but nowadays especially monstrous ones which get taken on the road, and price their tickets at $80 or more a pop--generally set themselves up to something more than diversions, a variety revue with little comedy and a little dancing and music. The songs, and the singing of them, have to serve the play, and vice versa--they need to complement each other. Which means there ought to be some discernible, persuasive, dramatic or comedic (or both) arc that carries the story and characters from song to script and back again, all the way to the end. In the case of Wicked, I thought the book--the plotting and staging and spoken words--failed: not a total failure, but not a great success either. The first act was choppy, rushing from point A to point B without allowing us to get to know or emotionally relate to the main characters (Elphaba, who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, who becomes Glinda the Good), while the second act crammed too much into too little time. So I had those complaints. On the upside, both Melissa and our friends who went with us, all who have read the original novel the musical was based on, said that the story the musical told was an improvement on the book, and so there's that. And besides: how was the music? Just stunning. Solid all the way through, with a few real break-out songs that I think will really last. (Everyone loves the show-stopper "Defying Gravity," of course, but I actually thought the smartest, wittiest number was the Wizard's "Sentimental Man.") We applauded until our arms were exhausted, and it was deserved.

What's the best musical I've ever seen? Well, I've seen so many more as movies rather than on stage, that it's hard to compare: movie musicals can do different things, and should do different things, than those on stage, and that calls for different standards of measurement. (I think the greatest movie musical of them all is Singin' in the Rain, and I suspect that would be simply atrocious and stupid on stage.) On stage, I might have to say Man of La Mancha, a play where, when it's done right, the music puts the characters both inside and outside the story they're telling, and that's just remarkable. Into the Woods is also very, very good. Unfortunately, probably the single best musical I've ever seen on stage is also the one about which I have my most embarrassing musical story to tell. When I was seventeen, my parents and older brother and I went on a trip to Israel. On our way back, we stopped in New York City, and spent a couple of days seeing plays, something my dad arranged mostly to please my mother. The highlight was that my dad got tickets--this was in the summer of 1987, remember--to Les Misérables. And I thought it was so boring I fell asleep. In retrospect, I'm simply humiliated. I mean, I saw Les Misérables in New York during its original run with its original New York cast! And I hardly remember any of it. What an idiot I was. (You were a stupid teen-ager, people say to me. That's no excuse, I reply.)

Any choices for favorite musicals out there, or good memories of musicals you've seen? Feel free to share. I have to salve my wounded pride somehow.


Matt said...

I'm not super keen on musicals and never went to a Broadway show when I lived in NY City, though I did go see "Urine Town" in Hoboeken. It was okay, though it helped me remember why I'm not crazy about musicals. Mostly, though, in NY you can get quite good seats at the Metropolitan Opera for less than an average seat to a Broadway show, so I'd rather do that most of the time.

MH said...

I saw Urinetown and it was the only musical I've ever seen without thinking "My wife owes me for this."

Abe Fox said...

One of the greatest Musical-experiences I've ever witnessed was "Guys and Dolls" at the Hale Center Theater in Orem, Utah, sometime in the late `90s.

The HCT Orem is theater-in-the-round and we were close (2nd row close, I think). Well, for whatever reason, everything came together that night - the jokes, the songs, the ad-libbing, and the most Outrageous-Action-Packed-in-your-face (literally) performance of "Don't Rock the Boat". Simply Amazing!!

ME said...

I haven't been to a big musical in a really long time. We'd usually see a play or a musical for family birthdays--saw Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera (once with the original phantom guy and once with Robert Guillaume) in Los Angeles.

Our high school usually staged one big musical every year.

When the two other student directors got dropped (one for ditching a rehearsal to attend a concert and the other for covering the first one's shift at work), I took over as student director for our high school production of Oaklahoma!, thus engendering my great loathing of it. Regardless, I can still remember most of the dialogue and all the songs.

The musical I dearly love is The Fantastiks. I've seen a dozen different productions and performed in our high school's production. (That was a much better experience).

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, MH, ME, and, of course, my brother Abraham: thanks for commenting!

Matt and MH, I've heard really good things over the years about Urinetown; I'll have to try to catch that, if anyone around here ever puts it on.

Abe, Melissa and I saw Guys and Dolls done at the Arena Stage in Washington DC, with Maurice Hines--Gregory Hines's brother--as Nathan Detroit. Fabulous show. You're right, when all pistons are firing, it is a simply brilliant, hilarious musical.

ME, I'm not a fan of Oklahoma! either. I respect, but I don't particularly like it. However, like you, I adore The Fantastiks. I think I've seen it about five times. It is my favorite musical play, period. I don't lump it in with most other musicals, though, because it is such a different, sui generis piece of theater; I've never seen any other play-with-music do anything nearly like it, or nearly so well. It could certainly never work as a "big show," that's for certain.

MH said...

My high school did musicals every year also. I couldn't (can't) sing, so I got to be a nazi in the Sound of Music.

TaylorSwift said...

I've seen the Wicked two times. I really enjoyed the show. Last year I got a cheap ticket and I went, it was really a great show. I will go see it for the third time next weekend.

So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.