"Wicked" rips the lid off of Oz. Rips it right off.
A love child.
Racial discrimination (y'know, against the green-skinned coloreds).
And then, in the second act, there's torture, terrorism, media manipulation, Munchkin oppression and a witch-hunt.
A REAL witch-hunt.
When "Wicked" lands in Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center through Feb. 17, it will look just like a great big ol' satisfying Broadway musical comedy with all the requisite physical humor, eye-popping production numbers as well as jaw-dropping costumes mixed with witty lyrics and soaring music by Stephen Schwartz.
But as goofily funny as "Wicked" can be, there just no getting around it: Oz is now topical as all hell.
"Those are plot points, but they are not the driving themes of the show," said producer David Stone from his Manhattan offices. "It's about empowerment. It's about media and spin. And what's history. Who writes the history? And who decides what is good and what is wicked?"
Stone is also the theatrical producer behind the Great White Way hits "Next to Normal" and "The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee."
"I also think it's about friendship. A deep, real friendship — the kind only women really have. It's really about those two little girls."
It is now. But "Wicked" is based on a 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, who has jettisoned to fame and fortune with his revisionist works that, for example, sample from "Cinderella" ("Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" in 1999) and "Snow White" ("Mirror, Mirror" in 2003).
Remixed and rebooted from "The Wizard of Oz," Maguire set the story of his "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" in the Land of Oz years before Dorothy Gale plops down in Munchkin Land. The retelling of L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" a la Maguire is much darker and threatening, too dark and threatening by far for a family-friendly musical.
The [Broadway show] is the story played in a different key," Maguire said. "There are some chamber pieces from composers ... Tchaikovsky, for example, who put some things in a lower register with these atonal chords. Broadway sort of moved the register [of "Wicked"] up to the key of bittersweet. It is not the key of tragedy ... and that is appropriate."
Maguire doesn't think he's the source of the story's ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Look to Baum's original work instead he insists.
"When I read the [L. Frank Baum] book, I found it absolutely chilling. Dorothy goes off to kill the Wicked Witch of the West because she has been told that she deserves to die. Dorothy is a paid political assassin. The Wicked Witch never gets to speak for herself. She never gets to sing. So I decided she was going to sing in my novel."
Maguire says that Elphaba singing is one of the things he enjoys most about the transfer of his book to the stage, a feat that originally garnered mixed reviews for Schwartz, Joe Mantello (director) and Winnie Holzman (book).
"I knew Elphaba could sing even before Broadway got ahold of her," said Maguire from the Massachusetts home he shares with painter Andy Newman and their three adopted children. "In the original movie, the way they make her so scary is by keeping her offstage, as it were. She's only on for about 12 ½ minutes. But she totally dominates the movie. Too much actually; they had to cut her scenes down."
The musical made a lot of changes moving the story from one medium to another. But Maguire adds that the headlines of recent history have also shifted ever so slightly the way he thinks his novel is being read today.
"I thought I was writing a book with an old-fashioned aspect to it with some social ills that we had more or less matured beyond," Maguire said.
"I was thinking Pinochet in Chile; Nazi Germany; Ceausescu in Romania. I thought, 'contemporary readers will read this.' Then I found we hadn't some sort of sepia-toned memory at all. 9-11 happened and, of course, the fear mongering that followed. And I think it changed how people read it. I realized that now this was a story about being cautious about how convinced you are about your own rightness."
Whatever the take-away is, the Broadway juggernaut is wrapped up in a Crayola-colored glossy package like a Broadway hit should be. "Wicked" still casts a spectacular, yet sly, spell. Stone's favorite audience reaction story bears that out:
"I heard this one mom and her — I guess she must have been about 10 years old — daughter and they were coming out of the theater and the mom said, 'You know it's about not judging people.' And the daughter said, 'I know mom, it's a metaphor.'
“Wicked” runs through Feb. 17 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Matinee performances are 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (as well as Thursday, Jan. 31). Tickets cost $44.50-$169.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org