ozdust ballroom

Ranking PBS’s Wicked in Concert Moments by Sheer Bafflement

Photo: Courtesy of Edvin Cobaj/Nouveau Productions LLC

The Wicked original Broadway cast recording should be an FDA controlled substance for theater kids under the age of 12. If found at an impressionable time, that shit will do something permanent to your brain. Stephen Schwartz’s 2003 musical is a misunderstood villainess prequel to America’s own native fairy tale The Wizard of Oz, and it has ascended to comparably iconic status in pop culture. Where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster-ified musicals fester with sludgy recitative, the songs of Schwartz’s Wicked are alchemically catchy and bright. The show’s ever-present wordplay and confusing rhyme schemes disorient the listener, wearing them down before forcing them to internalize every line by rote. Idina Menzel’s Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda give young fans two complementary archetypes to identify with and position themselves against and buy merch of. Negotiating which friend would sing which part of “For Good” at the talent show was a major act of fourth-grade self-actualization for me, and there’s no way I’m alone. Wicked endures and enchants for the very same reasons it annoys.

And on August 29, for some reason (something to do with Broadway reopening?), PBS aired a 90-minute prime-time Wicked in Concert special, not even three years after NBC aired its own star-studded Wicked musical special, pegged then to Halloween and the show’s 15th anniversary. The NBC special channeled the appropriate vibe of going to see Wicked: nerdy teens in costumes singing along in the studio audience, glittery sets, and Ariana Grande giving us a now-definitive version of “The Wizard and I” in sparkly green lipstick just weeks after breaking up with Pete Davidson. But the PBS-ified version was degreenified in comparison, primarily in its refusal to treat its source text as something that’s ultimately fun, ridiculous, and the right kind of kitsch.

This sober educational tone felt at odds with the material, and the special’s defining conceit — new, original arrangements by the American Pops Orchestra — led to the show’s crowd-pleasing songs coming across as more than a little off. That feeling was compounded by the special’s fairly clumsy integration of several other “reimaginings” of the tracks from a series on the Wicked YouTube channel a few years ago. Theater is a living thing; it’s meant to be reinterpreted. But while this special had some high points, I wouldn’t say it defied gravity. Below, the special’s most baffling moments, ranked from Swankified (pretty cool) to Disgusticified (don’t blame me for this Schwartzcabulary).

Amber Riley performing “Defying Gravity” on Lea Michele’s birthday

First, Beanie Feldstein gets cast in Funny Girl, and now this! Lea Michele has long styled herself as Idina Menzel’s musical heiress apparent, so it was a brilliantly dramatic casting choice to cast Michele’s Glee castmate Amber Riley to sing the show’s signature song, especially considering what we know about Michele’s treatment of her co-stars. And as Vulture’s Zoe Haylock astutely pointed out … this special aired on Lea Michele’s birthday! It helps that Riley crushed the performance. I’ve replayed the way she sang “look to the western sky” ten times.

Rita Moreno as Madame Morrible

Rita Moreno gave captivating camp stepping into the role of Madame Morrible, the camera trained just on her as she delivered the opening lines to “The Wizard and I” as more-or-less spoken word. Moreno understands modulation, people. She also appeared at the top of “Defying Gravity” in a rare Wicked in Concert moment when a performer gave a snippet from the play that isn’t on the cast recording. Has Moreno voiced a Disney villain yet? Something to consider.

Seeing Gabrielle Ruiz do musical theater on TV again

Gabrielle Ruiz was always a secret weapon on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it was a welcome treat to see her sing musical theater on TV again. Out of all the performers in this special, Ruiz might have come away the most unscathed, singing lovely renditions of the “I’m Not That Girl” reprise and Elphaba’s half of “What Is This Feeling” opposite Riley. The downside is now I want to see her in everything.

Ali Stroker (and Ali Stroker’s brand)

Between this and Oklahoma!, Ali Stroker is now contractually obligated to sing the horniest song in every musical. Here, she duetted in “As Long As You’re Mine” with Gavin Creel, who took pains to point out that he actually did the workshops for Wicked, thankyouverymuch. But the highlight of Stroker’s appearance was the way she talked about what makes Schwartz’s songwriting so good. “The music of Stephen Schwartz is the best music to sing,” she said. “For a female voice, he writes right in the pocket. So you really get to sing your favorite notes.” So true, bestie.

No mention of Dr. Dillamond or the furry subplot

This was for the best.

Ariana DeBose’s Megara cosplay

She really said, “I will not be remembered as the second Ari in a notable ponytail performing ‘The Wizard and I’ on a prime-time Wicked special.” Huh.

Isaac Powell serving Fiyero

Here was a tragic case of a brilliant performance getting absolutely sabotaged by this orchestra’s insistence on “thinking of the show from a different angle.” Isaac Powell understands that “Dancing Through Life” is best performed when playing Fiyero as some sort of true-neutral bisexual bordering on anime character. But man, this arrangement was rough. I’m talking smooth, dulcet saxophones where no saxophones should go. I’m talking elevator-music jazz. When performed at their fine-tuned best, Wicked’s songs are corny, yes, but also shimmering and huge. The downside to insisting on making tracks like this “jazzy” is that it brings out some of the melodies’ easy-listening undertones.

Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth’s interstitial narration

“Thank you to the American Pops Orchestra for that thrillifying arrangement.” —Idina Menzel

“Even if she resorts on occasion to the sharing of [jazz hands] fake news.” —Kristin Chenoweth, trying to make Glinda’s Act Two opening number, “Thank Goodness,” topical.

Annaleigh Ashford as the Wizard

We saw only a glimpse of this in a montage of “reimaginings” taken from YouTube to fill the time, but her postmodern-jukebox-style Wizard turn had me intrigued.

Cynthia Erivo

This version of “Thank Goodness” turned the tempo far, far too many notches down, like, all the way down to sleepy, but Cynthia Erivo’s voice was not at fault.

The giant carnival organ accompanying Mario Cantone

Look, intellectually, I get it. The Wizard is presented as a turn-of-the-century fairground huckster. In this special’s quest to “reimagine” all of the show’s arrangements, it landed on pairing this song with an era-appropriate instrument. But why did it have to do Mario Cantone so dirty by pulling out the massive novelty organ from the Fred Willard I Think You Should Leave sketch? And why, in a special that didn’t have a performance of, say, “One Short Day,” did it have him perform the whole entire song for “Wonderful,” one of the album’s true skips?

The black-and-white “behind the scenes” footage

Again with the self-seriousness. I have a conspiracy theory that the special’s director, Baayork Lee, included these standard-issue concert-tour-doc bits because she genuinely seems like a really fun director in that footage. It makes her look good, but it’s a weird choice for this show. And overall, the stripped-down black-box stage setting didn’t fit this material either. A Wicked show should be extravagant! Wherefore art the dragon clock?

The bongos-forward percussion

Because when you think Wicked, you think bongos.

A marimba instrumental of “One Short Day”

In the background while Menzel and Chenoweth were narrating in an early segment, you heard a marimba instrumental version of “One Short Day.” It was kooky as all hell, but now I’m going to ask my gynecologist to make it her office phone’s hold music.

Dueling pianos

Alex Newell’s rendition of “Popular,” in which they sort of danced in between two pianos and tried to distract the very focused pianists, could have really been served by the glitzy and glamorous NBC Wicked special treatment. I wanted sets, dammit!

Jennifer Nettles singing a literally made-up version of “No Good Deed”

What happened here? Out of all the wild swings this show took with its arrangements, this one was by far the furthest from the original. Jennifer Nettles’s phrasing made this witchy track sound, if anything, like a more generic ballad. But at least it didn’t sound actively bad, like …

Aaron Tveit’s “Defying Gravity” duet, which sounded like something from Nashville

Not the good movie Nashville, the mediocre TV show Nashville. And not even one of the better seasons of Nashville. Season six, maybe.

Casey Cott from Riverdale’s “The Wizard and I” mashup

Anything but Kevin Keller serving mash-up. Aca-miss me with this.

Some weird fucking bluegrass version of “I’m Not That Girl”

Stephanie Hsu sang a lovely version of “I’m Not That Girl” in the special, but there was also a snippet of one sung by Rachel Tucker and Kara Lindsay doing some harmonizing that can only be described as unnecessary.

Idina and Kristin’s “For Good” … which was recycled from a video on the official Wicked YouTube channel from five years ago?

More like “For(e) Head,” am I right?


These things are sent to try us.

Ranking PBS’s Wicked in Concert Moments by Sheer Bafflement