To listen first and watch later – or to watch first and listen later – that is the question. At least that is the question if you are in New York or in a city where the National tour of Wicked sets down (as it has for this summer at the Kennedy Center).
Some musicals benefit from familiarity and then a cast album is a good way to prepare to attend a live performance. It can give you a basic acquaintance with the melodic motifs of the piece and a chance to examine the complexities of the lyrics.
Other musicals are better experienced cold. Then the cast album becomes a way to revisit the experience as often as you want.
If you are among the few who don’t know what Wicked is about, you will find the album a fine primer. The absence of a synopsis is unfortunate but not necessarily a fatal flaw because, unlike many musicals, Wicked‘s score communicates most of the points of the main plot. It is only when, principally in the second act, the almost throwaway treatment of the subplots of the way the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion got into their particular predicaments provide a diversion from the principal story. Then the lack of a written synopsis is felt.
The story of the relationship between the green Elphaba, who becomes “The Wicked Witch of the West,” and the pert-pink Galinda, who is her polar opposite, is told in a series of superbly structured songs that provide more pure plot points than are conveyed in the songs of most musicals..
You learn who this Elphaba is and what she wants out of life in the song “The Wizard and I” which is not only information-filled, but so cleverly expressed that the song is worth multiple listens to get it all. Consider this:
And then I meet the Wizard
What I’ve waited for since … since birth!
By my looks, he won’t be blinded
Do you think the wizard is dumb?
Or, like munchkins, so small-minded?
No! He’ll say to me
“I see who you truly are
A girl on whom I can rely!”
And that’s how we’ll begin
The Wizard and I.
The song includes a nifty piece of rhyming (“Since folks here to an absurd degree / seem fixated on your verdigris”) and an equally impressive instance of foreshadowing with double meanings (“Someday there’ll be / a celebration throughout Oz / that’s all to do with me!”)
Elphaba’s moment of maturation comes, as it often does in musical dramas, in the finale of the first act. Here, Stephen Schwartz has pulled out a few extra stops and given her the song “Defying Gravity” with this central thought:
Something has changed within me.
Something is not the same.
I’m through with playing by the rules
of someone else’s game.
Too late for second guessing.
Too late to go back to sleep.
Its time to trust my instincts,
close my eyes and leap.
The story and personality of Elphaba’s counterpart, Galinda, emerges in song as well. But it is in snatches in multiple songs rather than in one or two big arias. It comes in comedy songs like “What is This Feeling?” (what most people remember as the “Loathing” song) and the self-revelatory “Popular.” But touches are hidden in other songs. Notice her manipulation of the munchkin Boq in “Dancing Through Life” which is a song that establishes the nature of a secondary character, the Big Man on Campus type, Fiyero.
The essential nature of the Wizard is also revealed in song:
I am a sentimental Man
Who always longed to be a father
That’s why I do the best I can
To treat each citizen of Oz as son –
But that is a rationalization. In fact, this Wizard is a captive of his own myth, as he reveals in “Wonderful”
I never asked for this
or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here
by the winds of chance.
I never saw myself
As a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was.
One of your dime a dozen
Then suddenly I’m here
Respected – – Worshipped even
Just because the folks in Oz
Needed someone to believe in
Does it surprise you
I got hooked, and all to soon?
What can I say?
I got carried away –
And not just by balloon.
Those are clever lyrics revealing both the weakness of the man and the strengths that filled the needs of the people of Oz. He may seem a simpleton in some hands, but with Schwartz’s lyrics and a fine performance by the likes of Joel Grey (on the Broadway Cast Album) or Mark Jacoby (on tour) he takes on multiple layers of humanity.
Wicked in person offers many visual clues that are absent from the original Broadway cast album, but that album still gets to the bottom of the strength of the show. I still wish they had included a full synopsis so the listener who has not seen the show can fully appreciate the rather complex story and the even more complex sub-plots.
Sonically, the show is a wonder in the theater – either the Gershwin in New York or the Opera House at the Kennedy Center in Washington where the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra supplements the three musicians who travel with the tour. The tour may offer a slightly reduced on-stage spectacle (and, truth to tell, the sometimes excessively complicated show benefits from such simplification) but the sound is as solidly spectacular on the road as it is on Broadway.
So the answer to the question of which should come first? Listen before you go. But if you don’t own the album by the time you see the show, you should pick one up as a souvenir. After all, a box seat at the Kennedy Center can run you as much as $250. On Broadway the “top” is listed at $149, but the entire center orchestra is now “premium seating,” which means a Saturday night seat there is $312.50 plus fees! What’s an additional $18.99 for the CD? And, while that is the list price, you can find it for less.