Last evening we went to the performing arts center with Kate and Eric for the final performance of “Wicked,” which has enjoyed a remarkably successful four-week run (essentially selling out all 32 performances, which is well over 60,000 tickets). This kind of “Broadway Blockbuster” production is essential to making the Appleton PAC and many similar centers around the country fiscally viable, so I am grateful for its success.
Was it a good show? That depends upon the criteria used to define “good.” It was a lavish production with a wonderful set and marvelous costuming. The performances were all very good, brushing up against Broadway quality in several cases. The show, in other words, was very well presented and performed. Which leaves the question of whether “Wicked” is a good musical, and here we move quickly into the subjective. My own opinion is that it is a good story (thank the author for that) well told (although the first act is stronger than the second) burdened with a musical score that is mediocre at best. There are no songs one is tempted to hum on the way out (or remember the next day), and many of them reminded me of the overblown top-forty pop songs so beloved by former contestants of “American Idol.” But I freely confess to musical snobbery: I would say pretty much the same thing about “Lion King” and other contemporary musicals. Musicals today are defined not by music, but by elaborate sets, golly gee whiz special effects and non-stop energy – more spectacle than art.
Which, of course, is as American as apple pie and baseball. We have a panoramic photo of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which packed in crowds all around the world with the 19th century version of the “spectacle not to be missed!,” and in my own childhood traveling circuses featured non-stop action in multiple rings to keep our jaws hanging open. Toss in Busby Berkeley musicals and Las Vegas shows with their ostrich feathers, sequins and topless ladies. Cirque De Soleil, in reinventing the circus for our time, got that old formula right: give the audience more than they can absorb in any given moment and just keep it coming. Come to think of it, the Romans used pretty much that same formula in the coliseum (“Now with more lions and Christians!”), so Americans cannot really lay claim to the tradition. We have always loved a really, really big show.
But to wax a little bit cranky, the Broadway musicals of “the golden era” were able to offer a sense of spectacle while also providing memorable tunes, and opera has long offered both over-the-top spectacle (Wagner!) and glorious music. Musical comedy can be witty, intelligent, musically sophisticated and marvelously entertaining – Stephen Sondheim, anyone? – but what most of us want most of the time is the helicopter landing in “Miss Saigon.”
Many of the people seated near us last evening had traveled some distance for the performance (there was a Yooper seated next to us), which means that the PAC is succeeding in its goal of becoming a regional magnet. Certainly the tickets, which were far from inexpensive, constituted a financial stretch for many present (including us!), particularly in this dreadful economy. I loved seeing little girls and teens all dressed up for their “big night out;” for many this was the event of the year, or even of a lifetime. Guys who work in mills surprised their wives with tickets that fulfilled longstanding dreams of seeing a “real Broadway show.” It was touching at the end of the show when the entire audience rose for a standing ovation as soon as the first cast members stepped back onto the stage. I am sure the same thing occurred at every performance, and that the performers were thrilled to receive such an enthusiastic response (a New Yorker, of course, would be appalled by an audience that rose to its feet for random citizens of Oz). The audience was essentially thanking the cast for bringing one night of magic to the upper Midwest, and for giving us a few hours inside a version of Glinda the Good’s magic bubble, where the gloom and doom could not touch us. And that is nothing to be desipised.
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