23 May 2007

Not quite gnarly, but totally Wicked

I want to call your attention to a pop music oddity you may have missed.

Idina Menzel, Tony-winning star of several Broadway musicals, had a record deal in the late nineties that produced an album called "Still I Can't Be Still." My friend Stephanie once bought it at a used CD store, and it's... well, it's weird. Totally unfocused, from what I remember, bouncing between imitations of alt-rock and pop without ever sounding comfortable with any of them.

Well, now Menzel has another record deal, and she's apparently releasing a new album soon. And the first single from that album?

"Defying Gravity," the anthemic centerpiece of "Wicked." (follow that link to hear the song)

For those who don't know, "Wicked" is currently the most popular thing on Broadway. It's about what happened in Oz before Dorothy showed up, and Menzel became a theatrical superstar by playing the role of the green-skinned "wicked" witch Elphaba. But in this show, Elphaba's not a villain. She's a misunderstood hero whose difference (read: skin color) makes her an outcast. The song "Defying Gravity" accompanies her end-of-act-one discovery that she can fly (and love herself). There's a lot of other complicated plot stuff going on that involves Glinda the Good Witch and a talking goat, but it's not worth going into.

And seriously, y'all, people flip out for "Wicked." It's kind of impossible to overstate how successful it is. Every Saturday morning, there's a "Behind the Emerald Curtain" tour that attracts hundreds of people, including those who haven't even seen the show but still want a taste of it.

Has this phenomenon translated to the rest of the country? I know the tour has been a hit, but I'm guessing that if you don't live in New York and care about the theater, it can be easy to miss the huddled throngs of teenagers who sing the show's songs while they wait to see it for the hundredth time.

As for me, I've tried to understand what's going on with "Wicked," but I can't.

I just don't like it.

I find it incredibly phony, bloated by self-empowerment cliches, obvious jokes, and tacky special effects. Worst of all--for me, at least--I find most of the lyrics inane. For example, in "The Wizard and I," sung when Elphaba is about to meet the Wizard of Oz for the first time, she croons:

And with all his wizard wisdom
By my looks, he won't be blinded.

Do you think the Wizard is dumb?

Or, like Munchkins, so small-minded?

Later in the song, she imagines him not being freaked out by her green skin:

And one day, he'll say to me,
A girl who is so superior,
Shouldn't a girl who's so good inside

Have a matching exterior?

And since folks here to an absurd degree

Seem fixated on your verdigris,

Would it be all right by you

If I de-greenify you?"

This is supposed to be a big, emotional song, yet it features lame puns about Munchkins being small-minded. And I'd call it more than awkward to use words like "verdigris" and fake words like "de-greenify." Sure, it's "clever" that the lyric can reference Elphaba's skin in so many ways, but that verse in no way resembles how people actually speak. And it's true that people speak this way throughout the show--both in the book and in the lyrics--but the entire conceit of "fake words" draws attention to the artifice of the writing, which weakens the show's affect on me.

All that said, though, I really love "Defying Gravity." I even listen to the cast recording of the song on my iPod. The bombastic instrumentation is stirring, particularly when matched by Elphaba's big notes. And the lyrics are solid. The soaring declaration of the crescendo--"So if you care to find me/Look to the western sky/As someone told me lately/Everyone deserves a chance to fly"--uses witch-appropriate imagery to make a clear point about overcoming other people's negative opinions.

And now "Defying Gravity" is a pop song. Well, it always was a poppish song, but the new version drops the show-specific lyrics and replaces the original orchestra with the gentle percussion and electric guitars of adult-alternative rock. Menzel's voice is a strong as ever, but it's been filtered and echoed in a manner you don't hear on original cast recordings. This version of the song would make sense on a Vanessa Carlton album or as the finale anthem for next year's "American Idol."

Without the orchestra of the stage version, I find this version of the song less arresting, but I'm still enjoying it.

And while it probably won't be a massive hit, it's nice to hear that the days when Broadway numbers were routinely turned into pop songs aren't completely behind us.



At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And you saw the show when...?

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

I saw the show last year, so I only know Idina Menzel's performance through the cast recording. But I really like it.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous katy said...

Have you ever seen the musical Jekyll and Hyde?
It opened on Broadway in 1997, and it is simply awful. Bland music, insipid book, an obvious attempt to ride the success of other adaptations of gothic 19th century novels (i.e. Phantom.) It's like the worst thing ever.

And yet. There are these people out there who refer to themselves as Jekkies. Yeah, that's what I said, Jekkies. That would be fans who have made this show the object of their intense devotion.

When I reviewed a regional production of Jekyll and Hyde in Concord, California in 2001, there were people who showed up to the show who claimed to be Jekkies from out of state. I'm totally serious.

I think there's a similar Rent-related phenomena. It's probably a good dissertation topic.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

That would be a great dissertation topic. There are definitely "Rent-heads," and the Off Broadway musical "Altar Boyz" has inspired "Altarholics." I think that's what they're called. (That show, at least, is pretty fabulous.)

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

I liked the book, what can I say? I even bought and read its sequel.

But I generally don't like musicals (Oklahoma and The Sound of Music are the only two I like and I can't abide anything by Webber) so I don't think I'd care for the musical version of Wicked.

Did I have a point? Um...

At 11:42 PM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

I probably should have clarified that when I referred to the "book" for "Wicked," I meant the spoken part of the musical.

The book writer of a musical is usually a different person than the lyricist. In the case of "Wicked," the book is by Winnie Holzman (who also created "My So-Called Life") and the lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz.

As for the book that Gregory Maguire wrote--which in the "Wicked" program is referred to as a novel, for clarity's sake--I haven't read it. I've heard it's pretty good and much more complex than the show.

Was that too "Theater 101?" No offense meant if it was. I just forget that not everyone spends every professional minute using theater lingo, and I don't want to be confusing.

At 8:12 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

LOL! Where's my stalk of grass to chew? How surprising to hear that the book of a musical isn't the book that it's based on, but something else entirely.

Just paint me yellow and call me a cab.


Thanks for the clarification, seriously. I wouldn't have known you didn't mean the novel if you hadn't said anything.

I think NYC may just be beyond me. I did go to college close to it but apparently the few times I was in Port Authority weren't enough to citify me. I'll tell you what, I sure don't understand the NYC restaurant reservation system as explained by the Amateur Gourmet. Here, yes, we can make restaurant reservations, but they're generally not required on weeknights.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger M said...

The "fake words" are not signs of poor writing. It's a tradition of in the OZ books to have made up words here and there. It's just a little nop to the books and OZ tradition. There a tons of "inside jokes" like that through out the musical. of course if you had read any of the books you would have known that. The musical itself is closer to the tone and spirit of the original OZ books by Baum or Thompson.

Personally i would love to hear a version of "As Lonf As Your Mine" from the show. If ANY song is screaming for a "single" version it is that one.


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