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Under the moral's spell

Teen girls are entranced by 'Wicked,' the latest Broadway blockbuster with issues that speak to them.

June 19, 2005|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

AT age 12, Margret Wiggins is a seasoned Broadway theater-goer. Along with her family in New York, she's seen more than a dozen musicals that she can rattle off the top of her head.

"I liked 'Hairspray,' 'Footloose,' and 'Wicked' the best," says Margret, who went to see "Wicked" with her mother, a girlfriend and her friend's mom. " 'Wicked' was so cool. I liked Elphaba the best. At the beginning, I felt bad for her because even her father didn't like her, because of her green skin, but then she found special powers. If I had a special power, I'd like to save animals."

Musicals attracting large mother-daughter audiences have long been a staple on Broadway but have been on the rise in the last decade. Interestingly, the most popular shows have themes that explore some aspect of prejudice -- not exactly light, youth-oriented fare.

"Wicked," winner of three Tony Awards, for example, is the untold story of the witches of Oz. At its heart is the friendship between two very different girls -- Glinda, the pretty, blond, not-so-smart one, and Elphaba, the talented, but ... ghastly looking, green one.

"The character we've always thought of as the Wicked Witch of the West is a green girl who's actually very good, misunderstood, and trying to make her way in the world," says Marc Platt, a producer of the show, which opens at the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday. "She's an outsider looking in, wanting to be loved. That's a universal experience that everyone's felt at some point in their lives. It's also a metaphor for diversity.

"Musicals have long given voice to outsiders and speak of experiences in our culture and environment."

The message that what's inside of us matters more than how we look on the outside is clearly at the center of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aida" and other hit shows, including "Hairspray" and the classic "The Sound of Music."

"My daughters definitely got the message," says Chris Fleming, the mother of Margret as well as Lily, 16, and Alison Wiggins, 18. "In their schools, they talk about these kinds of issues, so right away, the girls empathized with the green one and rooted for her. Glinda's so endearing and funny, you also support her. It's a musical that's happy and fun, with deeper meaning."

Alison and Lily have seen "Wicked" several times, and even performed a duet of the song "What Is This Feeling?" for their high school musical revue.

"I've seen it three times and am taking my dad to see it next," says Alison, who plans to study theater and voice in college. "The story is easy to connect with. The idea that the green witch is ugly and seen as different is something that everyone's felt before."

An audience in sight

CREATING characters that people identify with is the key to good storytelling, and Broadway producers say tales that seem to particularly appeal to mother-daughter audiences usually include romance, misunderstood heroines, outcasts who triumph over adversity, and a happy ending.

Issues of diversity, prejudice and overcoming differences between people are routinely explored in Disney musicals, says Thomas Schumacher, president of Buena Vista Theatrical Group, whose stage productions include "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aida."

" 'Beauty and the Beast' deals with the redemptive power of love and the idea that you have to look beneath the surface of people," he says. "A teapot's not just a teapot.

" 'Aida' is about the power of love transcending two cultures in conflict. Does Aida remain true to her father and her fatherland or to the man she falls in love with? These are very good themes for musicals."

Schumacher notes that prejudice has touched the lives of many baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s with busing and school desegregation, and musicals that somehow touch upon the issues of bias resonate with parents who take their children to the theater. He cites "Wicked" as one example.

"Elphaba is green, so that's the obvious thing. But the audience also has preconceptions that she's bad," says Schumacher. "The layers of the audience learning to understand who Elphaba and Glinda are is brilliant. The 'Wizard of Oz' is in everyone's DNA in America. The most powerful thing in 'Wicked' is coming to understand that everything you were taught is not true, and then coming to terms with that."

Schumacher, formerly president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, oversaw 21 animated films at the studio, including "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and others.

Currently, he's overseeing the development of the Broadway-bound stage production of "Tarzan" and "The Little Mermaid" and is producing the stage adaptation of "Mary Poppins," now playing in London.

"Am I doing these shows to appeal to women?" says Schumacher. "No. The shows that succeed appeal to the most people. But if you asked 500 boys between the age of 11 and 23 how many want to see a Broadway show, they're clearly not our dominant audience."

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