May 27, 2012 2 Comments
Dear Carla Fran,
I saw Wicked tonight at a theater with my Mom. A dragon with neon eyes glowered down from the upper part of the stage where I watched the surtitles with my dad when he took me to operas as a kid. (Have I told you that we went to operas a lot? One of the kids’ dads would prep a group of us music-nerds for each opera by arranging themed evenings where we’d talk about the plot over a period-piece dinner, after which we’d watch the movie version from start to finish. When we it was time for Die Fledermaus, we had fake beer and duck. The host offered me the duck’s heart, explaining that at the time it was considered an honor. His older daughter was a model, and thought we were losers.)
The model-daughter made me feel pretty lame about enjoying those dinners as much as I did, and I remember trying to tone down the enthusiasm whenever I remembered she was there. Not unrelatedly, there’s still a version of me that regrets loving musicals as much as I do. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself that I don’t, that I find criticisms of the genre true, and that it is uniformly mawkish, overwrought, unnatural, bourgeois, obvious, sentimental.
You can convince yourself you’re over something, but you can’t always convince the people you love. My mom, for instance. Thanks for the ticket, mom! To my dismay, Mr. Millicent has discovered that whenever I’m moved by a bit of story, my legs and arms break out in goosebumps. (I know this at some level, it’s part of why I gravitate toward jeans and long sleeves.) These days, when we sit down to watch Scrubs reruns, there’s the totally predictable moment when the music goes soft and Something Moving happens. I watch with a steely eye, but lately Mr. Millicent has taken to hitching up my pajama legs. Without fail, the uncool goosebumps bear silent witness against me and my claims to a more discerning taste.
When it comes to musicals, I know I’ve never been able to fool you, and one of the beautiful things about our space here is how has been not even having to try. Your love of the thing and your writing about the thing has given me permission—hell, monkey bars, a trampoline, a language—to have one musical-loving face instead of two, one of which scorns them for the maudlin qualities you’ve given us a way to prize. It’s thanks to you that I have a way of thinking, of putting words to a reaction I’d consigned to hair follicles. I’ve had fewer faces since I’ve known you, and there’s no way to measure that relief.
Anyway, about Wicked.
I spent tonight awash in goosebumps. Like I’ve said, it’s hard to trust them, because they’re just stupidly easy to manipulate. I know they’re wrong sometimes in the way sentimentalism is wrong when it goes unchecked. If I think over and through them I can see the flaws. I can note that the speaking-animals-going-mute subplot is underdeveloped in Wicked. That it’s an awfully easy way to make Elphaba good and the Wizard ungood because there are no counterarguments. Elphaba’s clearly right, everyone else is clearly wrong, and as moral stances go, this one manages to evoke a spectrum of arguments that apply to vegetarianism and the Civil Rights Movement without ever really committing. Fiero’s change from party-boy to activist feels thin. I had to look away during the love scene between Elphaba and Fiero out of embarrassment both for its excess and for the weird logistics that go into singing incredibly loud and not particularly good lyrics directly into someone’s face. Talk about sentimentalism going unchecked—I couldn’t take it. Every time I tried I started suffocating from discomfort.
All that’s true, and if someone asked me what I thought I could say those things and I wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly. But the other, meatier truth is that I got goosebumps from the crazy deep-green set of Emerald City, from the astonishing Victorian steampunk costumes that made almost every chorus scene an improvement on Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue covers. From the jarring shade of Elphaba’s skin, from the intense physical comedy of Glinda’s makeover—her first kind act. And from the incredible singing that musicals always have, but maybe I’ve just been away long enough that it blew my socks off to hear it live.
Speaking of singing, I still like opera, and pretty much the way I did as a kid: it makes silly utterances majestic and makes sexuality consumable as art (cf. Carmen). It gives amazing music a veneer of story that will make it go down easier if you can’t be there for the music alone. But I rarely get (or got) goosebumps at the opera because opera librettos are almost magically vapid, the stories tend to be both melodramatic and staid, and the singing, while technically brilliant, doesn’t quite square with my sense of how music and human emotion intersect. (That said, I love The Marriage of Figaro to death, even if it leaves me bumpless, because of its unflagging sense of humor.)
What forced me wrap my coat around my bumpy legs tonight in an effort to calm them down was that Wicked was a story about friendship. I had no idea. I’d listened to the soundtrack several times because my sister loves it. She and I can holler our hearts out to Disney songs and musicals for hours when we’re at home; it’s one of our favorite games and it’s so habitual that I sometimes forget to treasure it. Still, when she told me how great it was a part of me suspected that her goosebumps, like mine, were too easily roused. I just didn’t expect much out of Wicked. I’d been so sure Glinda would be torn down in order to raise Elphaba up in a dumb contrarian way that I didn’t think it was worth seeing. (Whyyy do I think I’m automatically smarter than the story? Or that my taste has any reason to be better than my sister’s, or anyone else’s, when I have ample evidence to the contrary? Unconscious Hubris, meet humility.)
I guess I just didn’t expect the friendship to survive the musical. I didn’t expect to see an incredibly smart portrayal of female friendship to the near-exclusion of other more traditional musical relationships. I didn’t expect it to honor both witches’ motivations and choices, or to saddle them both with losses. Most of all, I didn’t expect the story to refuse to make either friend learn a lesson.
But it did, and their leave-taking from each other is a really raw ode to friendship, and goddamn if it didn’t make me think about how lucky I’ve been, and how you’ve changed me for good.