Wicked (Mostly about the Lyrics)

Dave and I have seen Wicked, South Pacific, and Awake and Sing! in the last couple of weeks.

Wicked and South Pacific are an interesting contrast. [Later: This post got to be very long by the time I got finished with grousing about the lyrics to Wicked, so South Pacific will wait for another post. The short version: Drop everything and order tickets.] They are both terrific experiences in the theater. Wicked is a spectacular production with amazing, witty, eye-filling sets and costumes. It’s larger than life and full of energy and often thrilling. We saw it six years ago when it was on its way to Broadway, and the show is much stronger now. The storytelling is usually sure-handed — I think there are some weaknesses in the second act but the first act seems to me to be just about flawlessly constructed. I had a great time, was never really bored, and yet I left also feeling a little sorry that the show doesn’t touch either my emotions or my intellect much.

I think it’s due to the songs. For the most part the songs tell us what emotions the characters are feeling rather than showing us the characters feeling those emotions. Early on, for example, there’s “Loathing”, in which Glinda and the other students do a peppy upbeat dance number to indicate to us that they all hate Elphaba. But there’s no loathing in the music itself, which could have served just as well for the peppy upbeat Ozdust Ballroom sequence or the peppy upbeat “One Short Day” sequence in the Emerald City.

Nor is there much loathing in the words, which is mostly just everybody describing their loathing over and over again in general terms. It’s an entertaining number, but once you get past the first few lines, nothing new is said, the situation doesn’t develop any further, and you don’t learn anything more about the characters. The idea of taking some popular song cliches and changing “loving” to “loathing” is a fun idea, but doesn’t add anything meaningful to the story or characters. I probably wouldn’t even notice this or care about it if it were just one number that was there to provide some lightweight diversion before getting back to the meat of the story. But most of the score is lightweight is the same way, and yet the story isn’t, or at least doesn’t seem to want to be. The story and situations are very unusual, the dialogue keeps setting up situations just right for somebody to express some unique, intense, heartfelt, human emotion in a song, and then all too often when the song comes it’s a generic pop song with a generic lyric. Many of the songs strike me as being very enjoyable pop songs, but still.

There are exceptions. I really like “The Wizard and I” a lot, and “Wonderful” strikes me as putting a shrewd insight into an enjoyable song (though it also reminds me an awful lot of “Somebody” from Birds of Paradise, which is an off-Broadway show from the late 1980s that I’m very fond of, which happens to have words by the very Winnie Holzman who wrote the book for Wicked, and what is that about). “Popular” is a major, major hoot. But beyond those, there aren’t too many places where I feel like the lyric is revealing new facets of character or creating dramatic tension or moving the story forward or any of that good stuff.

The characters of Glinda and Elphaba don’t have much depth to them. We don’t see them develop much (though we’re told at times that they have developed). All through the first act they’re “types” in the commedia dell’arte sense, “comic archetypes” you might say, boldly but one-dimensionally drawn characters with uncomplicated and easily conveyed traits and motivations. Of course, they’re types in the MGM movie, too, and it’s great fun to see these well-known characters reinterpreted as two high school students, the popular blonde girl and the serious dark-haired girl. It’s a familiar kind of comic situation with a familiar pair of comic archetypes, and it gets us to the laughs very quickly. And many of them are genuinely excellent laughs. But the authors also seem to want the story to say some serious things about how and why we perceive people as being good or bad, and that part never really happens for me. In the second act in particular, where the authors seem to be trying to make some more serious points, the characters just lose their clarity without gaining depth (or at least any that convinced me), and the points don’t go for much. I think there’s some kind of connection being aimed at, for example, between Glinda’s first-act craving for popularity and her second-act career choice as a much-loved spokeswoman for a government whose secret corruption she helps keep covered up, a desire to show how the one has led to the other; but if that’s what is intended, it never really hits the mark.

I’ve been listened to the recording of the score, and Schwartz’s music is growing on me, but his lyrics aren’t — they’re mostly bland and generic and don’t paint the specific characters. Often they just restate the main idea in general terms, with no particulars or surprising insights into why this character in this situation is feeling these things. I’m listening to the final duet, for example, and the characters tell us over and over that they’ve been changed by knowing each other, but they do it in general terms. You could give all of Glinda’s lines to Elphaba and vice versa, or even give the whole duet to some other two characters — make it for Boq and Nessa, say, after the end of the dance at the Ozdust Ballroom — and you wouldn’t notice the song wasn’t written for those characters. It’s a lovely song, I like the sentiment, I particularly love the lyric line about the river that meets the boulder, and yet I feel like once again we’re being told something in general terms, not being shown characters in action.

There are also too many places in the lyrics where I’m reminded of a lyric from some other song (usually by Sondheim), and way too many trick rhymes that don’t work well enough to have bothered with. I mean, sure, “personality dialysis” is a terrific, funny phrase. But then the line before has to be contrived to end with “analysis”, and worse, the following line is twisted all around so that there’s an internal rhyme with “be a pal, a sister”, and before you know it the lyric has spent 25 words or so just to embroider little curlicues around that two-word joke, words that could have been spent on fleshing out Glinda’s character or something. Plus, that “a pal, a sister” line is very oddly worded and thus very hard to catch as it goes zipping by in the theater. I had a lot of “what did she just say?” moments in the theater that, when I listened to the recording afterward, I discovered were lines that had been unnaturally worded in order to force a rhyme.

But as I listen to the recording, I find that I think the music has more character and more inventive twists in the melodies and harmonies than I had realized in the theater. Like I said, it’s growing on me. But I’m a word person and don’t have the chops or the vocabulary to say more about the music than that. Just that I’m getting to like it. But I do kinda wish Schwartz had asked Holzman to write the lyrics.

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