It sounded innocuous enough: Sit in on a Wicked-themed musical theater class for kids, try some moves, and jot down my observations.
Heck, it would be a treat. I raved about the touring production of Wicked, a variation on The Wizard of Oz that tells the story from the point of view of the witches, in my review for the Inquirer and Daily News. The show is currently on stage at the Academy of Music.
What's more, the class, offered Thursday by Music Theatre Philly, an outfit that set up shop in Center City two years ago, was taught by an actual member of the cast, Chicago-based actor-dancer Lauren Haughton, who has toured with Wicked since 2009. She's a swing performer and understudy for the role of Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East.
"There has been a real resurgence of interest in musical theater over the last few years," Haughton had said earlier in the day. "People are really into Broadway and into musical theater, and it's really exciting to see how many kids know about Wicked. We are reaching such a young audience because it's become such a phenomenon show."
Haughton said Wicked is a show of our times for our times, a show about female solidarity and equality between the sexes. "It's about female friendships and not just romance. There's a romance in it, but it's secondary. It's really about women helping each other. It's about empowerment, if you will."
I was jazzed. It would be a great afternoon. A fun day.
Fun? Boy, was I wrong.
I did not learn how to dance or belt out a showstopper like "I'm Not That Girl." Here are three things I did learn, though, at my Wicked master class.
Held at the Rock School for Dance Education at Broad Street and Washington Avenue, Thursday's class began with a few "light" warm-ups. At least that's what Haughton called them.
There are few things as humbling for a middle-aged dude than watching 24 energized "kids" – 18 female and six male ranging in age from 9 to 25 – dance to selections from the Wicked soundtrack. The afternoon was an ordeal, a reminder of just how old, how overweight, how out-of-shape and – yes — how unhip I've become.
It looked like torture. I decided straightaway I would abandon any idea of actually joining in the class.
My body wouldn't survive.
"What is this feeling?" I asked myself. "Something bad."
So I watched and listened as Haughton, who studied musical theater at Syracuse University, led a few numbers inspired by the show.
"I can't teach you actual choreography from the show," she said. "These are the Haughton variation."
Then she was off on one of her routines. "Six, seven, eight, then drag the left foot and roll the right shoulder."
Midway through the class, Haughton explained the difference between regular dance and dance theater.
In musical theater, "you don't dance just because it looks pretty," as Haughton put it. "There is intention behind the movement."
Musical theater, she said, involves the attempt to use dance to convey story, not just emotion. "I love dancing to Beyoncé like everyone else," she said. "But it's not the same thing."
How can dance portray intention?
"Think of being at the prom," she said. "The way you move toward your dance partner tells a lot about your excitement level."
So, apparently, does the mastery of what she called "the champagne hand," the Wicked version of a "jazz hand" flourish.
Sadly, I could not follow. I contemplated creating a flourish of my own to show how utterly inept I felt.
Then Haughton was off again on her routine. "Six, seven, eight, then drag the left foot and roll the right shoulder."
Things got even more troubling when Haughton walked us through one of the show's more complicated numbers.
The song "One Short Day," a duet between sometime BFFs Glinda and Elphaba ("I think we've found the place where we belong!" goes the song, "I wanna be in this hoi polloi") was accompanied by a crazy series of counterintuitive movements. Haughton's arms and shoulders seemed to move in opposite directions at the same time.
I lost my balance and almost fell at one point – and I was just watching. Talk about defying gravity.
The songs from the show seemed suddenly very apt. "But I don't want it, I can't want it anymore," Elphaba sings. "Something has changed within me, something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules."