One musical elicits ‘Ahs,’ the other doesn’t
“Wicked” (Decca Broadway)
“The Boy From Oz”
Broadway’s two current Oz musicals both draw on ‘70s pop sounds. Although the score for “Wicked,” the musical prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” was written recently by Stephen Schwartz, “The Boy From Oz” uses genuine ‘70s ditties composed by its subject, Peter Allen, and others.
Score one for Schwartz.
The “Wicked” CD isn’t especially original, but Schwartz successfully pokes fun at the same pop conventions that he also exploits for dramatic value. This double-edged musical viewpoint is apt for a show that’s about the importance of developing wider perspectives on life.
At least that’s what the show seems to be about. The lack of a synopsis in the CD booklet makes Winnie Holzman’s book, adapted from Gregory Maguire’s novel, unnecessarily hazy for the CD listener who hasn’t seen the show.
But Schwartz’s songs get the main points across. For a flying witch on the verge of change, “Defying Gravity” is an appropriate as well as a rousing first-act finale. The melody for the earlier “Dancing Through Life” glides seductively, but the lyrics are so pointed about the thoughtlessness of the singer’s point of view that they perversely make the listener think. However, there are no double meanings in “I’m Not That Girl”; it could have been a Top 40 hit in 1975.
Elsewhere, Schwartz also uses clanging chords and sweeping strings to suggest the urgent breathlessness of old Hollywood soundtracks -- maybe even the MGM “Wizard of Oz” itself.
Kristin Chenoweth floats her fluttery soprano into the stratosphere while still keeping her tongue in cheek as the good witch, and Idina Menzel brings a rawer, rockier sound to the wicked witch.
The star of “The Boy From Oz” is Hugh Jackman. From most reports, he’s the only reason to see the production. But he isn’t enough reason to listen to the show’s CD. In fact, his voice doesn’t add much to the album -- which may be an appropriate nod to the fact that Peter Allen, whom Jackman plays, wasn’t exactly famous for his voice.
Then again, after listening to the CD, it’s hard to understand what was the basis for any of the Allen acclaim. The songs are 95% pap. And it’s no surprise that they don’t serve the narrative and character-driven needs of musical theater when they were written as commercial bonbons.
Remember when “I Honestly Love You” won the 1974 Grammy as Record of the Year?” Here, it’s back -- and as bad as ever, along with such other Allen hits as “Best That You Can Do” and “I Go to Rio.”
The album has a couple of songs that seek to jerk tears over Allen’s (and Jackman’s) native Australia, a.k.a. Oz, even though the show appears to devote only limited time to Allen’s life in Australia.
“The Boy From Oz” sounds like a lost cause.