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Why is Wicked the ultimate in Marmite musicals?

Craig Hepworth debates the box office success of Wicked versus the critical reaction.

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Wicked has flown in to Manchester to begin its first ever UK national tour at the Palace Theatre, but whilst the musical is a financial success on both sides of the Atlantic it seems to be the Marmite of the musical theatre world, some love it, some hate it, you can't please everyone though, right?

Nikki-Davis Jones, Elphaba
© Matthew Crockett

I myself saw the Broadway production not long after it opened and have to put myself in the ‘hate it' category, though hate may be too strong a term, I simply did not find anything in it that excited me. People like myself seem to be many in the theatre community, you only have to look on the message boards of Broadway World to see that it's one of the most unpopular musicals with theatre fans, but why?

Countless reason are bounced around as to why the show is sniggered at by many, and I could be here all day listing them, my own opinion is quite simple, the show feels like a dumbed down theme park ride. The score by Stephen Schwartz ranges from pretty good ("Defying Gravity", "No Good Deed") to bottom of the barrel awful ("Dancing Through Life") but never seems to evoke a genuine emotion.

The book is also full of plot holes and watered down so much from the original novel it is based on that it bears little resemblance to it anymore, and even with an enormous production cost it still lacks the magic of many other mega musicals.

The reactions like mine seemed to also be true when it came to the critics on both Broadway and the West End as the reviews were dismissive at best with the New York Times critic saying it was like a ‘sermon" that "so overplays its hand that it seriously dilutes its power" and calling the score ‘generic' (the musical also lost out at the Tony Awards and Olivier Awards when it came to best new musical).

Now before people call me a snob for not enjoying the show (which seems to be the defence by all Wicked fans to us ‘haters') I must make it clear that I love fun light and fluff musicals as much as the next person, Legally Blonde, the Broadway production of The Wedding Singer, Hairspray etc. are all shows that I had a great time at, it does not come down to what kind of musicals I like. It's just simply the fact that I did not come out of Wicked excited or entertained.

However, as the message boards continue to bash the musical (some theatre fans typing the show's title as WiCkEd as if to demonstrate that the only people who like the show are little kids) the musical has become a financial beast showing no signs of slowing down, so clearly many out there do seem to love the show.

You see the show for many is a starter musical, its fantastic advertising, recognisable name and accessible story and score seem to attract a flood of new theatre goers and casual theatre goers, the people who only see one or two musicals a year, and if a show is bringing in a new theatre crowd then that is fantastic.

Also, many do genuinely like the show and score, they attach to it and have a great night and that is wonderful, just because many theatre fans speak out against it does not mean that our opinion is the final one, art is subjective after all.

The show also attracts families who know the show will be a safe bet for the kids, and even those who work at Wicked will tell you that the shows fan base is mainly made up of teenage and younger girls, but why do they flock to Wicked, what does this show have for them?

Well the most important thing are the two leads, whilst as adults we may not relate to anything on the stage the young girls identify with Elphaba and Glinda, they understand the role as outcast or they aspire to be the popular girl with the heart of gold, they believe in the friendship between the two, and that is what keeps the young girls coming back again and again, and that can only be a positive thing right?

It's the ultimate Girl Power musical (sorry Spice Girls) and the team wear that tag proudly, and I for one have no problem with any show that sends out a positive message to young people. I must also comment that whilst the musical was not for me the two leads are always magnificent, the casting team never let the quality of the performances slip and for that they should be applauded.

So whilst Wicked continues to split audiences down the middle it will always find a new fan base waiting for their introduction to theatre, and to be honest if people are paying out £40 or £50 to see their first musical or one of only a few they get to see then I would rather it be this one than some of the rubbish that is littering the theatre land at the moment (Thriller Live etc. I am looking at you) because at least with this they get to experience a real musical, one that even us ‘haters' can see has had a lot of love put in to it.

Let's just hope that all these people booking for this Ozian tale will enjoy the experience so much that they will run out and book for something like West Side Story..... that's also at the Palace this Christmas.

- Craig Hepworth


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