By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 23, 2005
Before Dorothy followed the yellow brick road on a perilous and life-changing Technicolor journey, she encountered two witches -- one good, one evil -- who lorded over the magical Land of Oz. It's the unsung witches who come to life in the blockbuster 2003 Broadway musical "Wicked," which has dropped into the Kennedy Center Opera House for a sold-out run.
It all started with L. Frank Baum's children's book published in 1900, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which inspired the incomparable 1939 MGM fantasy musical featuring such classic songs as "Over the Rainbow," by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. As a cultural icon, "The Wizard of Oz" brings to mind images and themes -- searching for paradise and discovering no place like home -- that have earned a place in America's collective unconsciousness by dint of annual television showings and repeated DVD viewings.
"Wicked" picks up after Dorothy slays the Wicked Witch of the West and looks back to the beginnings of an untold story: the relationship between glimmery Glinda the Good and her green-faced rival. It's based on Gregory Maguire's novelistic examination of what made these two distinctive characters friends and then foes. The Oz in "Wicked" turns out to be a much more complex world than we thought, especially as imagined by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, lauded for his works "Godspell" and "Pippin," and the musical's book writer, Winnie Holzman.
Stephanie Block plays Elphaba, the name Maguire gave to the Wicked Witch of the West. Block remembers her childhood "Oz" as a family gathering each year the movie aired on TV. "I was petrified of the Wicked Witch," Block says. "She would come on the screen, and I would run and sit on my father's lap for protection. She was terrifying."
"These characters," she says, "we think we know them so well from what we've seen on 'The Wizard of Oz.' They become almost like friends because we have seen the movie so many times. Definitely everybody's black and white, good or evil." "Wicked," on the other hand, is colored with shades of gray, uncertainties and missed opportunities.
Kendra Kassebaum, the good witch Glinda, says her first memory of "Oz" was not a happy one. "I was traumatized by the monkeys," she says. "I was completely inconsolable whenever I saw them."
But there's one thing Kassebaum and Block always loved about "Oz," a particular fascination they share with millions of little girls around the world. "I think any little girl would want to be Dorothy," Kassebaum says. Block, a Los Angeles native who had set her sights on a performing career at age 8 or 10, wanted to be Dorothy for another reason: "She had all the good songs." In fact, by the time she was a teenager, Block had played Dorothy in a community theater production of the show.
But once those little Dorothy fans grow up, Block finds, they enjoy the depth and challenge of the relationships that lie at the center of "Wicked." Block loves being Elphaba, so much so that she doesn't even mind the heavy green makeup, which she reports takes just 30 minutes to apply. "It's a super role, very exhausting and passionate," Block says. "Audiences are intrigued right off the bat by seeing a different point of view of this character. To see her journey -- this beautiful girl -- who is kind of out of touch with her powers, who doesn't quite know what her purpose in life is. The audience gets to see this vulnerable green woman in her transition into finding her path."
Kassebaum finds no less depth in her role as a sweet-voiced antithesis: "Glinda comes from a very privileged area in the Land of Oz called the Upper Uplands," Kassebaum explains. "I envision these people as just perfect, Stepford-wives perfect. So she's never seen any other way except perfection and respect paid to her."
Both women have found new musical theater fans in teenage girls, for "Wicked" is at heart a story of friendship between two young women as they mature. "Most girls walk into the theater wanting to be Glinda," Block says, "but they leave the theater wanting to be Elphaba. That's such a great statement because . . . society pounds into young women [the need] to be the kind, bubbly, beautiful, blond-haired, sparkly girl. But by the end of the play, they've found something deeper. . . . I find that to be such a true and beautiful and strong statement."
Wicked Kennedy Center Opera House 202-467-4600 Through Jan. 15