Mr. Schwartz sabotages himself before he gets started. “The wickedest witch there ever was / The enemy of all of us here in Oz,” they sing in the very first minute. “Was” and “Oz,” don’t rhyme, for me at least, “evil” and “believe’ll” make me queasy, and “surface” and “turf is” put me in mind of a visit to the finest four star restaurant with the bus boy continually replenishing your roll plate with another slice of Wonder Bread. No matter how tasty the tastings, the lyricist keeps distracting my ear.
There are places in this score where Schwartz purposely engages in Harburgian wordplay, as in one number where he rhymes “officially” with “surreptitially.” But Harburg he ain’t; just compare “The wickedest witch there ever was / The enemy of all of us here in Oz” with “We hear he is a Whiz of a Wiz / If ever a Wiz there was / If ever oh ever a Wiz there was / The Wizard of Oz is one be-coz / Be-coz of the wonderful things he does.” There are also places where the composer appears to lust after Sondheim’s Baker’s Wife in the woods. Sondheim wins hands down, naturally. But, then, Magic Show outran A Little Night Music. Hell, Magic Show outran Company, Follies and Night Music — combined! Who was it that said “Art isn’t easy?”
It is fruitless but inevitable to compare Schwartz’s Wicked with Harburg’s “Wizard of Oz.” (And let us not even mention the music of Harold Arlen). Even so, the Wicked CD will no doubt be rapturously received by the show’s fans, and that’s all to the good. If the score disappoints, the show sounds very good indeed, with Stephen Oremus leading William David Brohn’s expert orchestrations. Kristin Chenoweth and a very impressive Idina Menzel head the cast, with the likes of Norbert Leo Butz, Christopher Fitzgerald and Carole Shelley — each of whom have given ingratiating performances in the past — doing well despite their material. Joel Grey gives an especially enjoyable performance; he also has a “hidden” passage, which is not necessarily apparent at the Gershwin but clearly identifiable (though uncredited) on disc. (Theatre fans have grown so touchy about revealing surprises that I hesitate to even mention that the Wicked Witch gets killed; they pour water on her, and she melts!)
While I will dutifully refrain from giving Grey’s secret away, it illustrates a certain clumsiness in Wicked. A similar situation occurs in Into the Woods, where the narrator is revealed to be a character in the story. This can work effectively when the narrator, whom we have already met, comes on disguised in another costume. Or it can work when a clearly identifiable actor appears as a series of different characters, as Frank Morgan did in the film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” But how are we supposed to identify a character in disguise when we haven’t already met the character out of disguise? How can we know that the Wiz was who he wuz, or who he wuzn’t, when we’ve not yet met the man or seen the actor? [story] [Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked; photo by Joan Marcus]