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Composer Schwartz talks ‘Wicked’ politics

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Published : 2014-03-25 20:47
Updated : 2014-03-25 20:47

While the popular musical “Wicked” is largely promoted in Korea as a fairy tale-like story about two witches, its composer Stephen Schwartz put the show’s political interpretation in the spotlight during a press conference in Seoul on Monday.

“The other day in America, somebody died recently,” he told reporters. “His name is Fred Phelps. He was a very angry person who used to organize pickets at funerals. And he caused a lot of trouble. When he died, someone wrote an article for one of our major magazines, saying he should’ve seen ‘Wicked’ because he would’ve realized that the way people get brought together is to be given an enemy, someone to be against. And he became the enemy that many people were against.”
Stephen Schwartz (Seol & Company)

Premiered in Korea by an Australian cast in 2012, “Wicked” drew some 250,000 viewers during its first Seoul run. Its Korean-language production, which kicked off in November starring Park Hye-na, Oak Ju-hyun, Kim Bo-kyung and Jung Sun-ah, has so far sold more than 150,000 tickets.

The musical is known as a ravishing spectacle and captivating fantasy, mixed with the touching account of a difficult adolescence, life-changing friendship and growing up. It tells the story of two very different witches in the Land of Oz ― the green-skinned and alienated Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the beautiful and popular blonde Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

“You can pick up a newspaper and turn on the television and you’ll hear Mr. Putin saying one thing about why he is doing what he is doing and then you’ll hear somebody from the West having an entirely different comment and both of them present that as if it’s completely true,” he said.

“But of course we know that things are more complicated and more nuanced than what is presented to us in public. And that’s what ‘Wicked’ is really about. You know, you have a character who is called the Wicked Witch, you have a character who is called Glinda the Good, as if one of them is all bad and one of them is all good. And of course, that’s just not the case and it’s not how life really works. So I think at a time of competing propaganda, this kind of story has resonance for people all over the world because we are dealing with it every day.”
Composer Stephen Schwartz poses with actresses Park Hye-na (right) and Kim Bo-kyung, who play Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, in “Wicked.” (Seol & Company)

The musical also offers a compelling allegory about racism, discrimination and human dignity. After her goat professor, Dr. Dillamond loses his job as speaking animals are no longer allowed to teach at universities in Oz ― he is later confined, abused and rendered mute ― Elphaba visits the Emerald City to meet the Wizard of Oz, whom she has admired all her life. She discovers he is in fact the criminal mastermind behind the cruel injustice against the animals.

“The best way to bring people together is to give them a really good (collective) enemy,” he tells Elphaba in the show.

“The point is that in order to consolidate their own power, very, very often political leaders create an artificial enemy. And rally people to be against this enemy, even though the whole thing is fake,” Schwartz said.

“This happens over and over again throughout history. I am not familiar with Korean history but I am sure you could think of examples. I can think of plenty of examples in American history. We went to a war in Iraq for completely fake reasons and created an enemy that didn’t actually exist. … Putin is an example of someone right now who is creating an artificial enemy in order to keep his own power. He has demonized, in the country of Russia, the gay people, but he could have just as easily picked gypsies, Muslims or anything. He has just picked someone to be an enemy.

“Of course ‘Wicked’ is not primarily about politics,” he continued. “It’s a story of these two women and how they relate to one another. There is a lot of humor in it. There is a love story. But there is a real political philosophy of demanding to know the truth behind the propaganda.”

Schwartz also expressed his satisfaction with the Korean production of “Wicked.” He has seen both of the casts ― Oak Ju-hyun and Park Hye-na as Elphaba and Kim Bo-kyung and Jung Sun-ah as Glinda ― perform and thought they were both good in different ways.

“This production is the exact same production as the Broadway show. If you went to see the show in America you would see this exact production, except it’s in English,” he said. “That being said, I thought there were some special strengths about the show here. For whatever reason, whether the way the theater was designed or the skill of the sound engineers, I thought the sound and the orchestra blend was excellent here. Maybe as good as I’ve ever heard.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)

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