WICKED [Decca Broadway B0001682]
Following a bumpy tryout in San Francisco, Wicked seems to have surmounted the usual Broadway obstacles and worked itself into a hit. We applaud the industrious work, we are glad for the people involved, and we cheerfully acknowledge that the show succeeds as a crowd pleaser for a significant portion of the crowd. The CD, though, handily serves to accentuate the show's various strengths and its main weakness (the score).
The songs of Stephen Schwartz have never quite captured my fancy. (I'll be the first to admit that Mr. Schwartz has done very well without me in his corner.) Godspell (1971) was all right in its way, which was as an intimate Off-Broadway revue with jingly tunes. Pippin (1972) was not unlike Wicked in certain aspects; the score was initially savaged, with the magical theatrics of Bob Fosse and a couple of the performances carrying the enterprise past the critics. The battles over material between Schwartz and Fosse are well-documented; according to Stuart Ostrow, in his illuminating "A Producer's Broadway Journey," "Schwartz has never accepted the Broadway version as his own — or ever returned any royalties." The composer attempted a de-Fosse-ized Pippin in 2000, with diminished results.
The Magic Show (1974), with Schwartz's least interesting score, enjoyed a confoundingly long run of almost 2,000 performances. (Three weeks less than Pippin, more than three times as long as the competing A Little Night Music). But that was the end of Schwartz's luck. As his work became more interesting, he became box- office poison. The Baker's Wife (1976) collapsed after a cross country tryout tour. This is one of those shows that people who've never seen it think must be wonderful. As someone who was trapped into four visits, twice with Topol in Boston and twice with Paul Sorvino in Washington, let me tell you: it didn't work, and the score was the heart of the problem. (Does anyone remember them all coming downstage with baker's paddles extended over the pit, singing a paean to fresh warm bread? "What is as luscious / As a brioche is?" Schwartz asked.)
Working (1978) was equally troubled, with the problem lying not only in the score — a score by committee, including four songs by Schwartz — but in the conceptual work of director Schwartz, who proved that he was no Fosse. Schwartz returned as lyricist (but not composer) of another debacle, Rags (1986), which lost its way (and its director and its choreographer) in Boston. A hastily patched version staggered into the Hellinger for four embattled performances, after which everyone went home — and Schwartz vowed "not to work in a commercial venue again." The West End musical Children of Eden (1991) was yet another massive failure. The cast album of this production, however, revealed a mature and inventive Schwartz. Children of Eden has had several productions in America, including a well-received benefit concert in New York this month, and might well see further life.
And now we have Wicked. 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?
CINDY-ELLA, or I Gotta Shoe [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3009]
It is somewhat difficult to describe Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin's four character musical Cindy-Ella, or I Gotta Shoe. The authors call it "the Cinderella story told as a Mammy might tell the tale of Cindy-Ella to her little girl in a tenement yard in New Orleans," to which I'll add only that it is funneled through a British sensibility.
Originally performed as a Christmas play for the BBC in 1957, Cindy Ella became a novel (with illustrations by Tony Walton). Excerpts from the book were televised, with Cleo Laine and Elisabeth Welch doing the honors. This, in turn, was almost immediately transformed into a Christmas musical. Cindy-Ella opened at the Garrick on December 17, 1962, with Laine and Welch joined by Cy Grant and George Browne (and Walton providing rear projection slides).
Brahms and Sherrin wrote the script and lyrics, most of which were adapted from what the liner notes describe as "Negro music." The music is mostly traditional, with a pair of songs from musical director Peter Knight and another two from Ron Grainer (who wrote the richly romantic Robert and Elizabeth two years later). One of the new songs, "Look on Me with a Loving Eye" (Grainer-Brahms/Sherrin), is especially lovely. The uncredited musical arrangements are very good indeed, making for a delightful, unusual and intimate score with a jazzy touch.
Fanciful is the best way to describe it, I suppose. The Prince "looks just like Johnny Mathis, only with a deeper voice." And when Cindy flees the ball, she doesn't just run down the stairs. "She's running through the anteroom," we are told, and "the anteroom's connected to the rainbow room, the rainbow room's connected to the crystal room, the crystal room's connected to the hibiscus room, the hibiscus room's connected to the seven stars room and the billiard room. Plenty good rooms in that palace." This sort of cockeyed treatment might not appeal to all listeners. I find the combination of material, treatment and performance ingratiatingly droll; how it worked on stage, in 1962, I can only imagine.
Cindy-Ella is comparable, I suppose, to Once On this Island, Simply Heavenly, and perhaps The Robber Bridegroom. While I generally prefer musicals to have original scores, Cindy-Ella — thanks in good part to Cleo and Elisabeth — comes across as magical. Listen to those girls "Raise a Ruckus" or explain that "You Gotta Look Disdainful." All in all, a charming surprise.
— Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com(mailto:Ssuskin@aol.com)