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'Wicked' hooks you, my pretty

With sweeping themes of friendship, individualism, power and prejudice, 'Wicked,' now in its third run at the Pantages, offers something for everyone.

December 29, 2011|Chris Willman
  • Megan Hilty, center left, portrays the young Glinda, and Eden Espinosa, center right, is Elphaba.
Megan Hilty, center left, portrays the young Glinda, and Eden Espinosa,… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Dear little girls and Gleeks of America: You can't have "Wicked." Give it back, OK?

When I first saw "Wicked" on Broadway in 2003, it seemed clear that the show was a subversive satire designed expressly for disillusioned middle-agers like me.

With metaphorically disturbing scenes of mob rule, and intimations of fascism and genocide, the show sent the audience home thinking about an angry, ignorant, violence-prone populace running roughshod over a benevolent leader too scared for her leadership -- or maybe her life -- to tell her people the truth.

Sure, that bleak view was leavened with laughs and sweetness and charming musical-comedy numbers. But after all was sung and done, its true heroine was on the lam, feigning death to escape with her intended, though their love would probably never be consummated because she had turned him into straw.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, December 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Wicked": An article about the musical "Wicked" in the Dec. 29 Calendar section identified Marc Platt as a movie executive. Platt is a film and theater producer.

Now, that's dark.

But a funny thing happened between Broadway's Gershwin Theatre and the Pantages in Hollywood. When the show started a record-breaking run here in 2007, I attended a matinee and was surprised to hear a strange sound when the house lights went down -- not the buzz of flying monkeys, but a sound I recognized from New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys concerts past: the shrieking of hundreds of girls.

My pet political allegory had found its apparently truest calling as the official girl-power show of the millennium.

Fifty million Elphaba fans can't be wrong. But could my contrary reasons for loving it still have been right? Is it possible for one musical to be a dystopian nightmare and the happiest place on Earth?

Why not? "Wicked" is the rare -- maybe even unprecedented -- show rich enough to effortlessly carry multiple meanings for multiple demographics, all of them valid, even if the messages that endeared it to my cynical heart are different from a 10-year-old's take-away.

Or Oprah Winfrey's or Katie Couric's. Both of those hostesses used the "Wicked" anthem "For Good" to close out their stints on long-running shows ( "Oprah" and "Today"), proving "Wicked" had picked up a rep not just as a girl-empowerment show but a grown-up female weepie.

With the show now into its third run in five years at the Pantages (through Jan. 29), I caught up with its creators to ask how they'd plotted their appeal not just to traditional musicals buffs but seemingly every other demographic in America -- Hello Kitty fans and card-carrying curmudgeons included.

"The way it caught on with teenagers in general but teenaged girls perhaps more specifically came as a bit of a surprise," said Stephen Schwartz, the show's celebrated lyricist and music writer. But in retrospect, he can see it shouldn't have.

"The thing that attracted me to the idea of doing it as a show in the first place is the central character of Elphaba. As our producer David Stone has said, pretty much all of us have a green girl inside of us," Schwartz said. "And I guess it's most explicit or on the surface for girls of that age, who are dealing with issues of trying to fit in and feeling awkward and not quite knowing how to be popular."

Are girls responding to the show in spite of the complicated undertones that finally lead to a less-than-happily-ever-after ending?

"I think they respond because of that fact," Schwartz said. "The nature of childhood and adolescence has changed considerably. There's no place to hide from the real world, and from the realities of adulthood in our current culture. We're a much less innocent culture, and that includes children too.

"So many young people have told me that they were inspired by 'Defying Gravity' and that whole [rebellious] aspect of the story," Schwartz continued. "But I think they also respond to the fact that it isn't a completely happy ending for her -- and that it therefore feels more realistic, even though it's set in a fantasy world."

Winnie Holzman was brought on to write the text for the show in part because of her established reputation for creating young female voices in her '90s television drama "My So-Called Life." Even she was surprised, though, by how "Wicked" turned into a girl phenom.

"There is a real darkness to the show," Holzman said. "But I think part of that darkness comes because the show is really about two young women who end up speaking truth to power, in their own individual ways. It wouldn't surprise me if maybe young people are responding to the show partly because these two young women have to face the reality of what's actually going on in their world."

So don't lump this show in with "Hairspray" or "The Little Mermaid," as others have, as being a similar tale of girls triumphing over the odds.

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