How do you write about a musical when you don't actually like them? By taking a leaf out of the saying "never judge a book by its cover", itself a fundamental theme of multi-award winning musical Wicked, which opens in Auckland on Tuesday.
I'm not one for people singing when they could be speaking. Dancing and singing, accompanied by overly earnest performers and all manner of props, effects, costuming and production trickery, requires a little too much suspension of disbelief when my mind is recoiling in horror. Call it a natural defence mechanism or a tendency towards high art rather than lowbrow culture, but the spectacle of musical theatre is beyond my grasp.
Remove the singing and dancing and I might be engaged, but then it would be theatre, not musical theatre.
None of this anxiety would serve my purpose when I was invited to Melbourne to meet some of the cast and crew of the Wicked production before winging its way to New Zealand. Throw in attendance at a rehearsal, with several songs performed in civilian dress, and I'm out of my depth.
Except I've overstepped my mark. The singers we witness - Jemma Rix (Elphaba), Suzie Mathers (Glinda) and Steve Danielsen (Fiyero) - are exceptional, even if the songs leave me shuddering. They're all terribly friendly people too, happy to join a production line of interviews in a series of cafeteria booths. And by the looks of the stunning promotional artwork and beautifully conceived souvenir book Wicked: The Grimmerie, let alone the kingdom of footage available on YouTube, this is a remarkably well thought-out show, with major appeal.
"I think the most important message you can take from this musical is to not judge a book by its cover," agrees Rix, who grew up between Sydney and Newcastle on the New South Wales coastline. "You can't just judge someone on their skin. All the things that Elphaba does come from a good place and it all gets misconstrued. She gets picked on, people want to kill her, just because someone told them to feel that way. Don't judge so quickly. Experience somebody for yourself before you have that sort of opinion."
Sage words, even if Rix isn't referring directly to musicals themselves. Perhaps the way to understand and appreciate musical theatre is to simply immerse oneself in the shows.
I certainly managed to enjoy the production of King Kong we attended the night before the meet and greet with the Wicked folk. That phenomenally expensive show, complete with giant animatronic gorilla, was like Disneyland, Cirque du Soleil and a 1990s rave All rolled into one sensory experience. With singing. And dancing.
"I find myself in certain situations all the time, and this has been one of them, where for me it's a huge honour to be playing the Wizard," enthuses Jay Laga'aia, the first Polynesian, though not the first New Zealander, to play the role. "The fact that you're bringing home a show that's probably on a par, if not better than the show they've got in New York at the moment. When you sit down and watch this show, you'll think, 'Well, I know where all the money went'. Then you hear the music and the performers. You just get constantly blown away by it."
Speaking of grandiose, Mathers, who has worked her way up to the coveted role of Glinda after dropping her law/commerce studies in Perth to follow her passion, is required to wear a 25kg dress on stage. No small feat for the petite blonde who only weighs twice as much as the dress itself.
"It gives me that sense of the grandiosity and regality that Glinda needs to have," she insists of the Swarovski crystal-encrusted dress. "It automatically lifts my posture and it's got a harness built into it, which is what keeps me in the bubble. I enter the show in a bubble. But that dress is so built into my character I don't really feel the weight any more."
For Danielsen, starring in Wicked is a dream come true. The talented Melbourne-based actor and singer, with roles on such TV shows as City Homicide, Neighbours and Blue Heelers, has had to work hard at the dancing side of performing, attending classes in New York to improve his chances at auditions. The effort has certainly paid off, with Danielsen earning the coveted role of Fiyero.
"For me, Wicked is like the Holy Grail of modern musical theatre," he asserts. "All the numbers are so important to the actual journey of the characters. It's really important in this to not only focus on what the characters are singing, but more so the storytelling."
In other words, forget the book and its cover. It's the content that counts. Although I haven't seen the show yet, I'm keeping an open mind to this musical. Despite the singing and dancing.
Wicked opens at The Civic on Tuesday. Visit wickedthemusical.co.nz