The theatrical phenomenon Wicked has taken up residence at the Orpheum for the next five weeks, where it will play to sellout crowds and receive a stamp of ecstatic approval from its adoring fans, many of whom are seeing it for the second, third, or fourth time. People love this show the way they love the Beatles, pizza, puppies, and Levi's: unabashedly, unapologetically, and universally. And I think I know why.
Wicked 's popularity has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz or lovable witches, be they green or good. The idea that Wicked tells the back story of The Wizard of Oz 's famous witches is just the hook that gets people through the door. The great acting and singing, spectacular production values, brilliant score, boffo choreography, smart script, and romantic plot--these are what keep the masses in their seats and make them think they like the show.
But that's all brain candy. The real reason people love it is that, among its many other charms, Wicked is a slyly subversive indictment of corruption in government, public-relations politics, and the Bush administration in general. That much is obvious. The language of Oz's citizens is peppered with Bush-like word mutations--"braverism," "goodlier," "discoverate," "festivate," "congratulotion,"--and the Wizard's dictate that the animals of Oz should not be allowed to speak, and should be caged, is a direct reference to those who use their power to squelch free speech and build prisons for those who disagree with them. And the flying monkeys? Well, they all look strikingly similar to Karl Rove. Coincidence? I think not.
Seen through the gleeful lens of political mockery, Wicked is more fun than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert put together. Wicked also ingeniously takes what people think they know--that the Wicked Witch of the West is "bad," and Glenda the Good Witch is "good"--and turns those assumptions upside down. In comedy, we call that the ol' switcheroo; the joke. Fortunately, any confusion this may cause is soothed by the reassuring message that good triumphs over evil, even if you can't tell which is which, and even if everyone's good intentions are quickly paving a yellow-brick expressway to hell.
Seen in the aftermath of Barack Obama's unlikely rise to the presidency, and his swift anointing as "The One" who shall save us from the evils of the Bush administration, Wicked can also be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when people inflate the power and charisma of their leaders out of all reasonable proportion. The Wizard of Oz himself explains to Elphiba, the emerald witch, that "I only told them what they wanted to hear," and in return the people dubbed him "wonderful," a cycle of self-delusion that The Wizard admits is intoxicating. That's one of the reasons Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago's Grant Park was so somber compared to his rousing campaign speeches; Obama doesn't want to be undone by the specter of impossibly high expectations. He could have easily whipped his 100,000 munchkins into a delirious frenzy, but Obama clearly doesn't want his presidency to float away in a balloon of insanity. He's seen where that leads and has wisely chosen to take another road--what looks like the high road, for now.
L. Frank Baum, the inventor of Oz, famously denied that his story contained any specific political allegories, but Gregory Maguire, author of the novel upon which the musical is based, makes no such pretense. In 2007, reflecting on Wicked 's success since its debut just weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, Maguire marveled at how "the public, observable face of evil keeps changing; that's how it survives." Maquire wrote the novel upon which Wicked is based in 1995, partly in response to the Reagan/Bush adminstrations, and the cruelty of such rulers as Idi Amin and Chile's Augusto Pinochet. The names have changed--Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--but the dangers of too much centralized power remain essentially the same.
At its heart, ironically, Wicked is fairly Republican--or at least Republican as the word used to be understood before it got co-opted by evangelistic ignoramuses. Not so subtly hidden in the show's humor and song is a general distrust of government, particularly government that pretends to be all-knowing and all-seeing. The uber-irony, of course, is that George Bush Jr. came to embody the very ideals he purported to despise. Our federal government has never been larger, more expensive, or more intrusive into citizens' lives than it is now, and we have the party of "small government" to thank for it.
That Wicked has all but sold out its run at the Orpheum is a reinforcing testament to its power not only as a vehicle of entertainment, but as the embodiment of a uniquely American paradox: the show that's as deep as it is shallow.
Sure, you could go see Wicked for the songs and laughter and special effects--but that would take all the fun out of it.
Wicked continues at the Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 7.