Hey, gang!

Jim Hill again. As I've said numerous times before (Which probably means that you folks are getting tired of hearing me say this): One of our long range goals here at JimHillMedia.com is we want this website to be about "More Than Just the Mouse." So that the writers who work for JHM don't have to feel like they're stuck in this Disney-related rut.

Toward that end, over the past few months, we've been actively expanding the areas that JimHillMedia.com covers. Deliberately looking for interesting stories that AREN'T automatically tied to Anaheim, Burbank or Orlando.

That's why I'm pleased to introduce you to JHM's newest columnist, Gregg Jacobs. Gregg is going to be our guy in the Big Apple. The writer who'll constantly be on the prowl for fun new stories to tell about New York City.

And what better way is there for Mr. Jacobs to make his JimHillMedia.com debut then to talk about a big new Broadway show. One that's sure to be a hit with your "Friends of Dorothy" out there. (And - yes - I DO mean that in both connotations of the term.)

Okay. That's enough yammering from your allegedly witty webmaster. So - ladies and gentlemen - let's give a warm JHM welcome to the site's newest columnist, Gregg Jacobs!


 

"Long before Dorothy dropped in, two other girls meet in the Land of Oz. One, born with emerald-green skin, is smart, fiery and misunderstood. The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular. How these two unlikely friends end up as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch makes for the premise of 'Wicked' ", a new Broadway musical, formally opening Halloween Eve at the Gershwin Theater in New York City. What began life as an intense prequel to the classic tale of "The Wizard of Oz" becomes a fun and thought-provoking new musical that will make both pop culture fanatics and students of political science happy.

Wicked actually was created in 1995 as a novel, "Wicked: The Life and Time of the Wicked Witch of the West," written by Gregory Maguire, an author who specializes in these fractured fairy tales. Maguire, upon seeing The Wizard of Oz as a child, had a very different take on the story. Formerly a children's book author, he said that rather than seeing Dorothy as a sympathetic character, he frankly "just wanted her to shut up." He resented Glinda's lies in neglecting to mention that all Dorothy had to do to get home was click her heels, as well as the Wizard in holding himself out as being something he wasn't. He thus decided to write a book from the point of view of an unlikely character, the Wicked Witch of the West. Instead of being simply evil as she was portrayed in the movie, he looked at her as a more complex character. We learn where she came from and why she became (or seemed to become) what we saw in the film. Similarly, all the familiar residents of Oz where shown in shades of gray, rather than as the black and white characters to which we were accustomed. Maguire enjoyed this endeavor so much (as did his many readers), that he went on to write a similar story, "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister," based on another not so sympathetic character from another fairy tale, Cinderella. A third novel, "Mirror, Mirror," based on you know what, is due out shortly.

Universal Pictures optioned the book for a movie, but many felt the material had the makings of a great musical (it should be noted that Universal still retains the film rights, so if the show becomes a big hit, "Wicked" may follow "Chicago" 's footsteps to the big screen). Stephen Schwartz, familiar to animation fans as the lyricist who, along with Alan Menken, penned the songs for Disney's "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" as well as Dreamworks' "Prince of Egypt", was brought in to write the music and lyrics, and Winnie Holzman, one of the writers of television's "My So Called Life" and producer of "Once and Again" for ABC were brought on to adapt the material for the stage. Tony Award winners Wayne Cilento and Joe Mantello were responsible for the musical staging and direction.

The musical itself strives to answer the question, "are people born wicked, or is wickedness thrust upon them?". The show answers this question through an extremely clever backstory retelling of "The Wizard of Oz". The show begins and essentially ends at the familiar moment Dorothy douses the witch with a bucket of water, with some steamy results. In between, we learn the story of Glinda the Good and Elphaba (a name cleverly inspired by the initials of Wizard's author, L. Frank Baum), who would later become known as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Upon entering the theater, it becomes immediately clear that you're not in Kansas anymore (come on, you knew I had to squeeze that line in here somewhere). A large dragon scowls down at the audience from high above the stage. The dragon moves and blows smoke at dramatic points during the show. The curtain is a map of the land of Oz, with a shimmering green Emerald City in the center. The rest of the stage is surrounded with gears and shafts as if we were in some sort of factory. The lights then go down, the music starts and some interesting looking monkeys start roaming the stage.

A beautiful Glinda arrives in a stylized version of a bubble, also her preferred method of travel in the movie. She tells the story of the Wicked Witch to the curious Munchkins as they celebrate her death. We are then, through a series of flashbacks, told the stories of these two women and how they intertwine with one another. Elphaba's green color renders her an instant outcast, even within her own family, and this continues when she attends school at the *** Academy (think the Oz version of Harry Potter's Hogwarts). It is there that she meets Glinda and while the roommates initially feel "intense loathing" toward one another, a series of events leads them to become unlikely friends. The two, together, go off to see the wizard who, as we found out in the movie, is not what he seems and, as we find out here, may not have the noblest of motives.

Wizard of Oz fans will love the numerous references to the movie. "There's no place like home" and "Follow the Yellow-Brick Road" are uttered to the delight of the screaming audience. We also learn the origins of many of Wizard's people, places and things. The ruby slippers, scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man (you didn't know he used to be a munchkin, did you?) are all in attendance and carefully worked into the story. How that cyclone just happened to bring Dorothy to Oz, and of course, the origins of the Wizard are all explained.

Those looking for something deeper will also be entertained. There is an undercurrent of racial intolerance running through the show, beginning with the oppression of the green Elphaba and continuing with the animals, who become, pardon the pun, the scapegoats for things all that is not right in Oz. There are also discussions of propaganda and political power that will strike a cord in our media charged era.

The cast was terrific across the board, but the standouts are the show's two leads. Glinda is played by Kristen Chenoweth, a Broadway veteran who won a well-deserved Tony Award for her portrayal of Sally in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." She also was just seen as Marion the Librarian in ABC's "The Music Man" opposite Matthew Broderick. She's essentially the comic relief here, and she does so brilliantly, throwing away a line as well as anyone and playing the self-absorbed Glinda in a way that you can't help but like her. Idina Menzel appears as Elphaba. She is best known for creating the role of Maureen in the Broadway production of "Rent." She has a powerful voice and remarkable stage presence. As she takes to the sky at the conclusion of the first act while singing the show's signature number, it's quite a sight to see. Joel Grey, who won an Oscar for playing the emcee in "Cabaret" with Liza Minelli rounds out the cast as the Wizard.

The second act is a little bit slow and the music ranges from brilliant to "didn't I just hear that song somewhere else", but the quibbles are minor. Wicked is a lot of fun and provides a great way to see some familiar old friends in a very different light.

My best advice to New Yorkers and visitors alike is to get your tickets fast. Once the show opens October 30, tickets are going to be hard to come by. They can be purchased at the Gershwin Theater box office on West 52nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan, through the Ticketmaster website at http://www.ticketmaster.com, or through Ticketmaster's Broadway hotline at (212) 307-4100. Please also check out the terrific website at http://www.wickedthemusical.com to see some great multimedia material on the show.