In 1996 Gregory Maguire wrote an ingenious novel about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. In Maguire’s sensitive, intelligent backstory, Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba started out as college roommates and fast friends. Elphaba the brilliant student spoke out against the persecution of talking animals. And also everyone was creeped out over her green skin so they hated her. Glinda was pretty, mostly vapid and had political ambitions that gave her a certain moral flexibility. The ruling Wizard, oddly reminiscent of Hitler, Nixon and President Logan of 24, uses an annoying innocent from Kansas to martyr Elphaba. Glinda ends up in a powerful cabinet position. It’s a fabulous read.
In 2003, an adaptation of the story opened on Broadway as a musical. Friends returned from New York wide-eyed and spellbound. I was intrigued. When I think of big selling musicals, I don’t think of themes like the evils of totalitarianism or the importance of sisterhood .
I shelled out £55 per ticket – stratospheric price -- and watched. First of all, I was in the second row and mesmerized by the way Idina Mendes’ green makeup did not run or smear on her clothes or any other person she touched. Second, the set was a wonder – fantastical, magical, soaring art deco. A rain shower done with fast-moving pelts of yellow lights is particularly impressive. Third, the material is a goldmine. Truly. The film of the Wizard of Oz is never explicitly mentioned, but the musical is in continual homage to the images – from Glinda descending in a bubble to those ruby slippers. These images, and, more importantly, the characters, are important to the shared history of Americans. They are absolutely electrically charged with meaning.
It’s almost to the level of Jesus Christ Superstar, which I think paved the way for Wicked by plucking our most revered icons from scriptures and putting them on stage. Jesus Christ Superstar maybe turned my perception of Jesus around by fifteen degrees or so, though. Wicked got me one hundred and eighty, about-face, holy shit. How could I have been so naïve as to believe that the Wicked Witch of the West really was wicked? How could I have been blinded by Glinda’s beauty and not seen the slimy, two-faced political savvy?
But, you know, I saw the movie (read the scriptures) every year. The movie was true.
Elphaba is freakin’ bright green. She is also a beacon of honour, integrity, compassion and courage. Unfortunately, in our world one is as rare as the other. Truly virtuous people are about as feasible and welcome in Oz (or any other world) as are the bright green.
The musical didn’t go that far. It didn’t have to - the ideas stayed with me and that’s important. For that and for the set, I would recommend it.
Allow me to trash the songs though before I finish. They are all forgettable pop rubbish. The lyrics are done in a very personal “I feel so bad/good/green . . .” which is very wrong. The characters and dialogue evoked Harry Potter on an acid trip in Kansas with midgets. The songs could have easily gone in the same weird, wonderful, post-modern direction. Instead, they were painfully sincere and simple. If the lyricists had paid attention to the lessons of Wicked, they would have realized that in today’s world, sincere and simple can’t be trusted anymore.