Bush is the past -- but this political satire can still cast a magic spell
Four weeks after George W Bush declared "mission accomplished" in the invasion of Iraq, a new musical about the "enemy within" opened in San Francisco.
It portrayed a dystopian world where the leader and his press officer painted enemies as terrorists, using terror to consolidate their power: "The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy."
It received harsh reviews and was criticised for its clumsy politics. Ten years on, it is one of the most successful musicals ever, and is about to become one of the two most successful theatre shows ever in Ireland. And most of its fans would be surprised to hear it described as political.
Wicked hit Dublin with typical (green) brio, selling 100,000 tickets in advance of its opening at the Bord Gáis Theatre. It runs till January 18 (see www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie) and is likely to rival The Lion King as, by my estimation, the biggest-selling theatre show ever here. It's the 11th longest-running show in Broadway history and is still a hit on the West End.
Success breeds success -- it has become its own brand. That brand is based primarily on affinity for its source material, The Wizard of Oz, and its pulling power with female audiences, drawn to its archetypal story of an unlikely girl-friendship. I'm in neither of those demographics and the pre-publicity left me cold. But I manfully agreed to accompany my spouse. And so it was I found myself in the Bord Gáis Theatre recently, grinning at a green witch and her prom queen NBF and scribbling down words like "fugitive" and "regime change" in my notebook. Wicked, I belatedly realised, has a (gently) subversive heart.
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, Wicked takes us into the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West. (It helps to have the original engraved in your brain, but isn't crucial.) Elphaba is born green and promptly rejected. Glinda is born rich, beautiful and condescending.
At wizard school, they become unlikely best friends. (This first act is essentially a high school musical.)
Elphaba suddenly discovers an extraordinary talent for magic and Glinda is swept along on her coat-tails. They meet the Wizard of Oz, but discover he's a fraud. Elphaba vows to fight him and is labelled the Wicked Witch; Glinda decides to play the system and becomes the Good Witch, keeping one eye on her friend and the other on self-advancement.
Most obviously, the musical is a paean to difference. Glinda is a parody of the classic prom queen and therefore a satire on mainstream popularity ("It's not about aptitude -- it's the way you're viewed"). Elphaba is a genuine talent but is ignored or spurned for simply looking different. She learns to delight in her outsider status, and it is this independence of mind that allows her both to see through the sham of the Wizard and to risk her own life and status in order to challenge him.
She is both a great role model for young girls and a retrospective champion for women who find in her retrospective vindication of their uncool younger selves. She's also, of course, a touchstone for the gay community. Add in a transparent but coherent message of scepticism towards political propaganda, and you have a recipe for success, even apart altogether from its quality as a musical. That quality is driven by the performances, particularly that of Nikki Davis-Jones as Elphaba. The music is mostly rather bland, but occasionally soars. The design is delightful and this touring production, unlike the rather tired versions that sometimes end up in Dublin, is both slick and impassioned. It's all great fun.
A decade on from its debut, you might think Wicked's satirical politics would have been blunted as Bush recedes from memory. But instead those politics have become more integral to the show: instead of being a play about a witch with some political parody thrown on, it's a play about trusting yourself and distrusting institutional power, whatever that power may be. That's a universal and timeless message. And it makes Wicked a show I'll be bringing my own girls to, 10 years from now.