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‘Wicked’ hooks you, my pretty

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.

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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?

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

There’s a slightly similar musical moment in “Wicked” and “The Little Mermaid” where female leads pause in the middle of a line to try to think of a word they’re only beginning to grasp -- but tellingly, the messages are very different. In “Mermaid,” it’s: “Walking around on those ... what do you call ‘em? ... oh, feet!” But in “Wicked,” Glinda -- the good but severely compromised witch -- struggles with a very different concept as she grapples with post-dreams-coming-true disillusionment: “There’s a kind of a ... sort of ... cost.”

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The number in which Glinda sings that line, “Thank Goodness,” is arguably the saddest in the show. It gets some chuckles out of slightly parodying “Evita,” with the newly crowned head of state waving from a balcony even as she realizes that her fiancee can’t stand her and her government is built on lies.

By necessity, “Wicked” isn’t a tenth as bleak or cynical as Gregory Maguire’s definitely-not-for-kids source novel. But even with some of Maguire’s themes lightened and leavened, the messages about spin and scapegoating have particular relevance in an election year.

“It’s like, here we go again, right?” Schwartz said. “When Winnie and I actually began writing it, Clinton was president, and there were aspects and lines of the Wizard that sort of referred to Clinton. And then by the time the show opened, Bush was president, and some of the lines then were allusions to him.” That’s not even counting the Reagan allusion Schwartz worked into “Popular,” where then-shallow Glinda sings admiringly of “great communicators.” “Now I feel it does seem to be prescient about the way politics in general continues to go in our age of spin and sound bites.”

Said movie executive Marc Platt, who produced the show along with David Stone, “There’s a line in the show where the wizard says, ‘Everybody knows the best way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy.’ We can look at our own recent history and see examples of that.... Everyone in our Oz lives with the yarn the ‘press secretary’ spun. That’s hurtful, painful and adult and sophisticated. But if you’re younger and only get that these two women who love each other can’t be together, and the sadness comes from that, that’s fine, too.”

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It’s part of the genius of the show that it ends on a literally ominous note and still sends patrons out of the theater feeling ebullient. “Wicked” might be the most feel-good tragedy of all time.

Meanwhile, it’s permeated pop culture like no Broadway show without an attendant movie ever has -- with entire episodes of “Glee,” “Ugly Betty,” and (in October) “South Park” written about it.

Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for ASCAP, the songwriters’ organization, thinks it harks back to the last time Broadway musicals really were a part of the public parlance -- the 1950s. “In the last year, I’ve seen at least three references on sitcoms or dramas where some character will say, ‘I just got a ticket for “Wicked.’ ” You never hear that. I remember that famous ‘I Love Lucy’ [episode] where they go see ‘The Most Happy Fella’ and you actually see a number from that. But that goes back more than 50 years.”

Lucy and Ethel would love “Wicked,” we might reasonably reckon, since as female bonding stories go, “Wicked” proved to be the cultural touchstone bridging the long gap between “Thelma & Louise” and “Bridesmaids.”

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“Women don’t get to see the real complexity and importance that friendship has in their lives depicted in a plot that often, and that take the friendship seriously on some level,” Holzman said, “even though you’re having all kinds of fun with it, like we do and like ‘Bridesmaids’ did. People are starved for that.”

To recap: Women are hungry to be told that their friendships matter. Kids are hungry to be told that individualism is worth it, even at the cost of being bullied. Seniors relate to the show’s wistful look back on relationships that had to pass. Sexual and racial minorities relish the themes of pride and prejudice. With all that cross-demographic appeal in one popular entertainment, is there anything left for the middle-aged straight malcontent?

Yes: Oddly enough, we’re starved for stories that tell us no one in power can be trusted, life is full of persecution and politics and compromises, and ambiguous fates befall even the empowered and enlightened ... in a show that’s got a good Reagan joke and you can dance to it.

Looking for some support in my contention that “Wicked” is really for us hard-boiled types and not a girls’ show or older women’s tear-jerker, I talked with a fellow 50-year-old aficionado, screenwriter Larry Karaszewski of “Ed Wood” and “People vs. Larry Flynt” fame. He too spoke of the show’s cynical message about “how history can be changed and how you can spin things.”

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But Karaszewski started to get off-track in talking about how, “although it’s almost ‘Heathers'-esque at times, it’s really a love story between these two friends. ‘For Good’ is such a beautiful lyric, with both of them acknowledging that they’ve been changed through... " He paused. “I’m going to cry just thinking about it.”

--

calendar@latimes.com


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