As you presumably know by now, the Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holtzman show is based on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same title, which endeavors to tell the "true story of the witches of Oz." Taking inspiration from both the classic M-G-M film The Wizard of Oz and L. Frank Baum's novels (there were quite a few, although only the first was successfully filmed), Maguire weaves the complex life story of Elphaba Thropp. Born an unnatural green, Elphaba grows up an outcast; she ends up in wizarding school at Shiz University, where she meets and clashes with the rich, snobby, supremely blonde Galinda (who eventually drops the first "a" in her name). Elphaba and Galinda develop a friendship, fight over a Winkie prince named Fiyero, venture to the Emerald City, and become enemies before the inevitable 11th-hour watering of Elphaba by a little girl named Dorothy Gale.
Of course, it's hard to tell most of the plot from the recording. Very little dialogue is included, and although the full text of everything said and sung on the album is present in the CD booklet (along with an essay by Maguire), there are no stage directions and no synopsis. This wasn't a wise choice; while it may keep the plot's myriad twists secret, it makes the album seem less a record of the show than a record of songs from the show.
Fortunately, Stephen Schwartz has written for this show the strongest score he's yet put together. (I realize that this is an unpopular opinion.) Melodically, it's in the vein of his earlier works -- i.e., reminiscent at times of the soft rock style of Schwartz's mid-1970s heyday. Yet the score is structurally more complicated, extending the musical scene format that the composer-lyricist employed in Children of Eden. However, none of these scenes/songs survive the transition to CD intact; most of them are cut considerably, with much of the dialogue and underscoring dropped. This damages such sequences as the extended Act I closer "Defying Gravity," which is thrilling on stage and remains a terrific song on disc but loses something without the dialogue (and, for that matter, without the flight effect during the last verse). On the other hand, Joel Grey's two numbers, "A Sentimental Man" and "Wonderful," work better on disc as compacted here than they would have in their complete versions.
The lack of dialogue on the CD means that performers with meaty supporting parts are all but absent. Carole Shelley as the Mephistophelian university dean Madame Morrible and Christopher Fitzgerald as Boq, a very tall Munchkin, are each consigned to two brief appearances; Michelle Federer, who plays Elphaba's "tragically beautiful," wheelchair-bound, younger sister Nessarose, is left with only one. Federer and Fitzgerald have a scene/song in the second act, "Wicked Witch of the East," that didn't make it to disc, and Shelley's part exists mainly in Holtzman's adept libretto.
All of this means that the disc -- much like the show itself -- is mainly a showcase for its powerhouse leads, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. One or the other sings lead in 14 of the album's 19 tracks. Both give knockout performances: Chenoweth plays a character she was born to inhabit and Menzel finally gets to essay a role that shows off her full vocal and dramatic range. Galinda's "Popular" puts the winning Chenoweth through all of her cute paces and faces but the disc's true highlight is Menzel's performance: She runs the gamut from youthful exuberance ("The Wizard and I") to quiet-ballad sadness ("I'm Not That Girl," destined to become a cabaret and concert staple like Schwartz's earlier "Meadowlark") to fury ("No Good Deed").
Sonically, the Schwartz-produced disc is terrific. Other than a strange, momentary volume dip in the 11 o'clock duet "For Good," the sound levels are perfect. Stephen Oremus's crackerjack orchestra -- 30 pieces, including seven extra strings for the album! -- never overwhelms the singers. In addition to conducting, Oremus co-arranged the score with Alex Lacamoire; kudos to both and to orchestrator William David Brohn. (Brohn seems to be stretching himself in recent years; having created more "traditional" orchestrations for shows such as Crazy for You and Ragtime, he's charted Wicked in a pop-rock idiom and he crafted wonderfully brassy, dark-jazz orchestrations for Sweet Smell of Success two years ago.)
Finally, a curiosity: Is it possible that nobody noticed Norbert Leo Butz flubbing one of his lyrics during the recording sessions? In "Dancing Through Life," he sings the line "We can dance till it's light" as "We can dance till it lights." But this is a very minor quibble. On the whole, the cast album of Wicked is, as they might say in Boston, "wicked good."
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