Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
Published by Regan Books
406 pages, 1996
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Provocative. Sexy. Brilliant. Wicked.
It's a gutsy thing, poking holes in The Wizard of Oz. It's so revered a work. So beloved a movie. So classic, and at one time so controversial, a novel.
But poking holes is in vogue now. Plus, it's just plain fun. Anne Rice has made a career of poking holes in her own work, then setting out for the elaboration frontier. Witness the brilliant turn she pulled off in her second vampire novel, The Vampire Lestat, in which Lestat wakes from a long slumber, hears rock and roll music, tracks down its source, then introduces himself. The band members think he's cool; plus, in the coincidence that gives good stories their engine, he has the same name they do. When he asks where they would have ever heard the name Lestat, one of them tosses him a battered copy of Interview with the Vampire, Rice's first vampire novel. He reads it, then shreds it, then feels the need to write his own account of his own tale. Hence, so many of her subsequent novels.
In much the same way, author Gregory Maguire found a way to revisit and recalibrate and reimagine The Wizard of Oz in his 1995 masterpiece, Wicked. (He's done a bit of hole-poking since then, too, with his take on Cinderella, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and the recent Mirror, Mirror, his riff on Snow White.)
Wicked tells the back story of the two primary witches, that of the north (Glinda) and that of the west (unnamed by L. Frank Baum but given the playful Elphaba by Maguire. El-Fa-Ba, from L. Frank Baum).
The novel is a wildly ambitious work, introducing us to Elphaba at the moment of her birth. We see her as a little green infant, as a green college student, and then as a green political reactionary, fighting the warped politics of Oz and its questionable leader, the Wizard. It's a rambling, completely absorbing look behind the scenes, into the past of a set of characters we only think we know and understand so well.
Wicked is a fable, and while it certainly augments the original story, it doesn't, in all fairness, change too much about it. It's utterly fascinating, but that's all. (Don't get me wrong; being utterly fascinating is plenty enough.)
Now Wicked has been transformed into a Broadway musical by the brilliant Stephen Schwartz, the great and powerful talent behind Pippin, The Magic Show, Godspell, Children of Eden, as well as the lyricist for a few Disney movie musicals (Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame come to mind).
Wicked the musical is not Wicked the novel. While the novel is its source, the musical presents only pieces of it, in a much simplified form, and often diverging wildly from the novel's narrative. One might be tempted to think all this destroys the work; but in the end it improves it, shining a bright light on the story's numerous ironies and interlaced levels of social commentary.
Wicked, for all the hype, is not simply the prequel to the popular Oz story. Instead, it's a layered piece of drama that uses its musicality as a way to convey some of the deeper issues it sets forth. When Glinda (played to perky perfection by Kristin Chenoweth) floats onstage in her metal bubble, you know you're in for something different. She announces that the Wicked Witch of the West is dead, and the Ozians rejoice -- until one of them asks if Glinda and the Wicked Witch were friends.
So begins a flashback that encompasses almost the rest of the show, as Glinda recalls the circumstances of Elphaba's birth and their time together at Shiz University. There's a moment early in the Shiz section when Elphaba (played by Idina Menzel with an urgent, simmering self-satisfaction) appears for the first time. Glinda and all her white friends are on one side of the stage, and Elphaba comes in on the opposite side, in all her green-skinned splendor. Glinda and her pals stop what they're doing and -- stare. And just like that, we have gone from a fun night at the theater to something that holds potential for great and profound social commentary. At that moment, Elphaba might as well be a black woman in the South. No one has ever seen a green person before, not even in Oz.
It's a huge moment, and not only because it's unexpected. It establishes the show's entire tone, and every bit of social commentary -- indeed, condemnation -- is well-earned, well-placed and well-tended.
When, through a bit of confusion, Elphaba ends up as Glinda's roommate, the first phase of their relationship is forged: They despise each other. Glinda hates Elphaba's greenness, and Elphaba can't stand Glinda's blondness. One can't say they're color-blind, but at that point they're blind to everything else, most remarkably to the realities of their future (which we already know, of course).
Elphaba has some magical power. And when that power is pointed out as a potential ticket to see the Wizard himself, she sings "The Wizard and I," a powerhouse of a number that shakes the theater to its core. It establishes Elphaba as a girl who desperately wants to be seen for her soul, not for her color. She believes that if the Wizard himself believes in her, everyone else will have to follow suit -- and so meeting him is all she sets her sights on.
The girls' time at Shiz proves to be more than just the period pre-Wizard. The girls figure themselves out a bit, get involved in ominous political rumblings, and more.
I don't want to spoil the show for you. But from this set-up comes a vast array of disappointments and choices that, when combined, reveal that nearly nothing in Oz is what it seems. Those who are said to be good might just be wicked, and vice versa.
One of the great treats of Wicked is that it answers questions no one thought to ask. Seeing The Wizard of Oz, you don't stop to ask how anything got to state it was in. Oz just is. Or is it? In Wicked, you'll see how things happened before you started paying attention: The story behind the glass slippers. How the scarecrow and the tin woodsman and the cowardly lion got that way. Where Elphaba got her hat and broom. How the Wizard got to be the Wizard. And more.
After I saw the show, I watched the movie. And was blown away by how the experience was forever changed. The Wicked Witch was no longer the evil character I'd known, because now I really knew her. Imagine, if you can, seeing Dorothy not an innocent, but as an assassin.
Blasphemous? Brilliant! Now that's wicked.
If the layering of Wicked is a result of its book, written by Winnie Holzman, then its infectious energy comes in its songs. Alternately dark and bright, foreboding and joyful, searching and scathing, melancholy and soaring, Stephen Schwartz's songs are a gift to the musical theater. "The Wizard and I" is a standout, as are "Popular," Glinda's effort to gussy up her new friend; "Defying Gravity," Elphaba's testament to having the power to fly; "As Long As You're Mine," the show's love song; "No Good Deed," in which Elphaba asserts her resignation from and disgust with normal human behavior; and "For Good," the Glinda/Elphaba duet in which each admit to deep and unexpected discoveries.
All the songs are available on the generous original cast recording, available from Decca Records. Complete lyrics are included, so sing along if you can (a friendly warning: Chenoweth and Menzel are tough to match). There are even a few welcome snippets of dialogue from the show, featuring some of the playful words created for the show ("definish" for "definite," "braverism" for "bravery"). These words are a telling detail that elevates the show's smarts and effectively sets Oz apart from our world.
Lying. Deceit. Love. Irony. Hardly the stuff of Oz, right? Wrong. These are tall orders for any show, but Wicked delivers on each. Though it seems a simple, surface tale, this is really a show that happens just below the surface -- and delves much deeper.
In recent years, despite their often amazing music, musicals seemed to need some big, show-stopping special effect (witness The Phantom of the Opera) or some powerful social statement (witness Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Rent). Well, Wicked defies all those rules (and a bit of gravity), pushing to center stage the only special effect that really matters: talent. The composer/lyricist, the author of the original work, and the show's two female stars -- frankly, if there was no set, if everyone just stood on a bare stage and did their thing, it would still be one wicked great time at the theater. | February 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.