Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stuck in Oz

Last night I saw Wicked at the Boston Opera House with my husband and my sons. I’ve been useless all day today, stuck in Oz, picturing the story, singing the songs, loving Elphaba. I’m scheming ways to get back, even though ticket prices make that a foolish notion, even though I’m a grownup who should know better. I want to go back to that place, that time, that immersion in the story.

This, I recognize, is the disease that made me want to be a writer.

What’s going on here? As Martine Leavitt said in a lecture I heard her give this summer at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, the older I get, the harder it is for me to suspend my disbelief in a story. Samuel Taylor Coleridge considered this the touchstone for success in the reader’s engagement with fantasy. Perhaps I’m a sucker for musicals, but Wicked’s Oz shattered my disbelief. It was the Oz I recognize from Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and from the 1939 MGM film with Judy Garland, so I entered this world of wonder with wide open eyes and fresh expectations, but I was already comfortable with the conventions of Oz. Its rules and denizens required no explanation, and the skillful twists with which the new invoked the old were a frequent pleasure.

But it takes more than just a world to make this mother and cubicle dweller spend her day composing emails and browning pot roast with her heart over the rainbow, romantically imagining herself completely green. It takes characters I can love intensely to snare me into another world and make me want to stay there. Perhaps “love” is too generic. Wicked’s chief players were complex, conflicted, immoral, amoral, passionate, self-absorbed, indifferent, casually cruel, idealistic, betrayed. In short, the stuff of family theater. They hooked me. I keep thinking about them. I want another invitation to their party. I’m like the wizard who dallied (wink) indulgently when he ought to have gotten back to Kansas and on with his snake-oil selling business.

This is why series have such power in our culture. Even at the risk of wearing out worlds and characters we adore, the consuming public would rather go back, and back, and back again to our favorite stories, served up in new episodes like warmed-up leftovers smothered in canned gravy. I’m no different. I clamor for sequels just like everyone else. At least now, if I want to get stuck in a world, I can create one.

In this instance I’m fortunate. If the textured landscape of Broadway’s Oz pleased me, I have Gregory Maguire’s novel to look forward to, and a signed copy on my bedside table to boot. And, what luck! It’s the first of a series. I can dally, stuck in Oz, for as long as I like. Wonderful.