I’ve seen far too many musicals for my own good. If you don’t want your children to grow up thinking that the solution to every problem is just the right song, then don’t ever take them to the theater. Don’t even consider becoming a season ticket holder. In other words, don’t be like me.
Musicals use catchy melodies to tackle hard questions. Are you feeling down? Are you torn between two lovers? Do you just need to dance? There’s a song for that!
The gene that causes people to have an abnormal attraction to musicals was passed down from my mother to me, and now I am passing it to my daughter. When I was growing up, part of my birthday gift every year was a pair of tickets to whatever was playing in Austin, either at the Paramount Theater or Bass Concert Hall. I can’t possibly recall everything I saw, but I do remember “Godspell,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “The Secret Garden.”
I also had an extensive album collection of musicals (and an odd-sounding quasi-British accent to go with them). I had well-known ones, like “My Fair Lady,” and obscure ones, like “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.” After seeing “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., I purchased the album, so about 30 years later when my daughter performed in a community production of “Joseph,” I had to restrain myself from singing along.
This summer she’ll be in her fourth musical production, so it’s a safe bet that the girl likes musicals. For her 12th birthday, I decided to carry on the take-your-daughter-to-a-musical tradition. We saw “Wicked.”
Just in case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a retelling of “The Wizard of Oz,” somewhat (but not too much) based on the book of the same name by Gregory Maguire. The show has been running for seven and a half years, and it won three Tony awards in 2004. Even though we went to an 8 p.m. performance on a Wednesday night, the auditorium was filled with kids.
I wondered how many of them had even seen the original 1939 movie musical. They certainly didn’t have to wait for it to be broadcast on TV only once a year. They probably didn’t own any of the commemorative plates that once graced my bedroom wall. I bet they didn’t even know who Judy Garland was.
For one night I was willing to lay aside my massive Oz-ian experience and take a new look at the 111-year-old story. Through the miracle of YouTube, my daughter had already introduced me to the show’s hit songs, including the one that has become my favorite, “Popular.” It includes the line, “Celebrated heads of state or specially great communicators, did they have brains or knowledge? Don’t make me laugh. They were popular. Please! It’s all about popular.”
“Wicked” takes everything you think you know about the characters — especially the witches — and turns it inside out. Glinda (or Galinda), the Good Witch of the North, is not as good as you think, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, is not as bad. The two girls are thrown together as college roommates. They begin as enemies, have a turn as frenemies and eventually become dear friends.
The best-known song from the musical is “Defying Gravity,” and it was sung at the end of the first act, when Elphaba was coming into her own as the witch who will forever be known as wicked. When she “flew” above the stage with her broomstick in hand, something amazing happened. The audience cheered. Cheered! They whooped and whistled; a few of them stood up to clap. And I started to think that this musical is a more remarkable story than any of the ones I loved as a child.
The original “Wizard of Oz” asserted the familiar line, “There’s no place like home.” End of story. Dorothy learned that she didn’t need to look any further than her own backyard to find her heart’s desire. “Wicked” asks questions: What does it mean to be wicked? To be popular? To be a friend? All good questions for a 12-year-old girl and her mother to ponder.
One of the last songs in the show is called “For Good,” in which Glinda and Elphaba confirm their friendship while saying goodbye. The words include, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
At just that moment in the song, my daughter leaned her head against my shoulder. Maybe she was just tired, but I can’t imagine many more times she will be willing to do that, especially in public.
That moment alone was worth the price of admission.