Sunday, October 17, 2004

Nightmare on Broadway

The strange politics of the musical after 9/11

With fantasy dressed as truth in the news media; Johann Hari draws attention to a genre that is providing the mirror image. The most successful Broadway shows of the moment provide truths wrapped in allegory.



"Who needs Marx and Engels when we have Rodgers and Hammerstein?" asks the American performance artist Tim Miller in his new show, Us. He's not kidding. "If you want to understand my country and the way we view ourselves, don't look at the novels of Norman Mailer or Edward Hopper's paintings or Ralph Nader's speeches. Go see a musical. The Broadway musical is America's most truly political art-form."

At first this sounds ridiculous - the Communist Manifesto vs The Sound of Music? Chomsky vs Sondheim? "But look at the political figures Broadway has to offer," Miller replies. "That little anarchist Oliver. Jesus as a sweet queer hippie who hangs out with prostitutes. And you know, South Pacific was banned across most of the Deep South because it showed an inter-racial love story way ahead of its time. And, yes, look at The Sound of Music. It shows we should quit organised religion and fight fascism through song and dance."

It's a strangely infectious way of looking at the United States. I decided to check out the politics of Broadway's current box-office breakers - and I learnt more about post-September 11 America than in a thousand yellowing copies of The New York Times.

First stop Wicked, the bizarre political fable that has sold out the massive Gershwin Theatre until the summer of 2005. It's a prequel to The Wizard of Oz - a reinterpretation for everybody who instinctively despised that self-righteous little bitch Dorothy, a retelling for all those kids who sided with the lonely, bitter, brilliant Wicked Witch of the West.

Wicked begins where Wizard ends. The Wicked Witch Elphaba has been melted into a pool of green gunk by the Kansas crusader; Dorothy has returned to the black-and-white banality of home. "Isn't it nice to know that good really does conquer evil?" witters Glinda - the Good Witch of the North - with a dim-witted twinkle. The Ozian masses dance around their new queen, congratulating themselves on living in "the most wonderful place on earth".

But something is wrong. "Is it true you knew the Witch when you were young?" somebody yells from the crowd. Glinda's beaming smile droops - and in flashback we begin to learn how these women became polarised witches pining for each others' deaths. It turns out that it's not easy to be a girl with luminescent green skin in Oz. Elphaba repulsed her own parents, and she had been shunned by the other kids. She was only sent to school at all by her pompous father, the Governor of Munchkinland, to look after her paralysed, idealised sister Nessa Rose.

As she waded through the insults and bullies, Elphaba gradually realised that Oz was not the Paradise its citizens endlessly, brainlessly chant about. The talking animals who performed all the tough, tedious jobs in Oz were being increasingly blamed for everything that went wrong, from the Great Drought to vague "subversive activities" known only to the Wizard. The ordinary residents of Oz reassured themselves by deferring to the Wizard and muttering: "No, no, it couldn't happen here. Not in Oz."

Oz is not, the audience slowly realises, the Munchkin-filled land of magic that Dorothy imagined; it is a Technicolor tyranny. The dictatorial Wizard tried to co-opt Elphaba - and her magical powers - into his police state. "The way to bring people together is to give them a really terrible enemy," he told her. Elphaba rebelled - and became the perfect propaganda foe, an Emanuel Goldstein for the Yellow Brick Road. The Wizard falsely accused Elphaba of having elaborate weapons and evil intentions - but far from being "wicked", the late Witch was a freedom fighter trying to rescue the people of Oz. Confronted with his crimes, the Wizard insists: "[You can call me] a traitor or liberator/ Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?/ It's all in which label is able to persist."

Wicked is not perfect. Stephen Schwartz's score doesn't match the brilliance of the concept ("Defying Gravity" is the only really hummable tune), and the script is a weak adaptation of Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel. But this is a show that is connecting with American audiences today, and it's not hard to see why.

If South Pacific was a musical for an America finally confronting its racism, Wicked is a musical for a frightened, confused, suspicious America that can no longer believe its leaders. Is the grand Wizard in the White House lying to us? Is black, white and green good? Whatever you think the answers are, it is revealing that this is the Great White Way's sell-out success of 2004.

Americans can, it seems, bear to hear subversive messages so long as they are told to them by cartoon characters, storybook witches or puppets. Isn't the most politically subversive show on American TV The Simpsons?

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