Monday, December 31, 2007


Since I started 2007 seeing a touring production of the musical "Wicked" it's only fitting that I ended the year reading Gregory Maguire's novel. I finished it tonight.

Let's start out by saying that the two really don't have very much in common. They're so different that it's a bit disingenuous, if not downright deceptive, for the publisher to use the same cover on the mass-market paperback that's displayed on the posters and cast CD for the musical.

Where "Wicked" the musical is uplifting and family friendly with a clear message about friendship and not judging people by the way they look, "Wicked" the novel is violent and ominous and so crammed with ideas that by the end, I have to admit I felt more than a little bewildered about what it all meant. And while the musical is perfect for all ages, the book is clearly geared toward older teenagers or adults.

Maguire sets out to tell the story of the Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, (whose name is an homage to L. Frank Baum, the 19th-century creator of the Oz books). His Land of Oz is a rich, complex fantasy world ruled over by a malevolent wizard, a world in which Animals (with a capital "A") talk and think and hold positions of authority.

Elphaba's father is a minister and religion plays a big part in the story. Unfortunately, the various belief systems are never fully described. (The book really could have used a glossary.) Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, who ends up as the ruler of Munchkinland and presides over its secession from Oz, is fiercely devout. In the musical she's confined to a wheelchair. In the novel, she's born without arms. It's only her magical shoes that allow her to stand upright.

Maguire obviously intends the novel to be a kind of grab bag reflection on the dangers of unchecked political power, the ease with which minorities can be stripped of their rights when the larger society simply looks the other way, how horrible acts can be hidden behind innocuous language. He offers a condemnation of the 20th century's worst evils - his writing conjures up images of Nazi Germany, Eastern European pogroms and radical terrorist groups.

In this world, Elphaba is set apart not only by her green skin and intense fear of water, but by a highly developed moral sensibility. It reaches a zenith when she's a student at Shiz University, where she meets spoiled rich girl Galinda, country boy Boq and tribal prince Fiyero.

Elphaba is shocked at what is happening to Dr. Dillamond, a goat who teaches biology, and to other Animals. Gradually, they "lose their rights, one by one. Just slowly enough so that it's hard to see as a coherent political campaign." When she meets the Wizard to protest, he tells her "it is not for a girl, or a student, or a citizen to assess what is wrong. This is the job of leaders, and why we exist."

After her unsettling confrontation with the Wizard, Elphaba leaves Shiz and dedicates herself to fighting for Animal rights. She joins a shadowy, underground terror cell whose purpose is never fully explored. Fiyero reconnects with her, and they become lovers. Soon, Elphaba's attempt at a political assassination goes awry, and it's strongly implied that she's the cause of Fiyero's death.

Elphaba spends several years in a nunnery, then travels to Fiyero's tribal home to ask forgiveness from his widow. She brings along a small boy who may or may not be her child with Fiyero. Eventually, Elphaba returns to Munchkinland where she has a final confrontation with the people who have played important roles in her life: Nessarose, her father, Galinda, who is now called Glinda, and finally, with Dorothy.

Maguire has said that the inspiration for "Wicked" came from a desire to explore the nature of evil: "I realized that nobody had ever written about the second most evil character in our collective American subconscious, the Wicked Witch of the West, I thought I had experienced a small moment of inspiration."

While Elphaba does reprehensible things, she's portrayed more as misguided than truly monstrous. And she's certainly not amoral. She's genuinely concerned about the Wizard's totalitarian rule, about what's happening to the Animals, and she appears truly guilty over her part in Fiyero's death. Elphaba reminds me more of one of those overly idealistic 1960s college students who ended up getting radicalized and joining groups like the Weathermen and going over the edge into violence.

It seems to me that the truly evil people in "Wicked" are the Wizard and Madame Morrible, the head of Elphaba's college at Shiz. They're the ones who act undemocratically, who try to take rights away from the Animals. They're the ones who seem to me to be truly monstrous. Yet their backgrounds and motivations and actions are hardly explored at all by Maguire.

I'm glad I read "Wicked," even though I'm not a big fan of the fantasy genre. And I greatly prefer the musical version. Reading the novel gave me have an even deeper appreciation for the accomplishment of book writer Winnie Holzman and composer Stephen Schwartz. It's interesting to see what they took from Maguire's novel and what they tossed out.

They kept fairly close to the political points that Maguire wanted to make, even though they probably didn't keep a single line of dialogue. The main characters are pretty much the same, although their interactions are vastly different. Schwartz and Holzman basically turned them into American teenagers. The political element is still there, although thankfully vastly simplified. The religious references are almost completely eliminated.

While almost all of the changes improved the story, one was a little disappointing. In the book, Fiyero is described as "dark-skinned," but he's generally portrayed on stage by a white actor. It seems to me that the producers of "Wicked" lost a chance to make the cast more diverse and inclusive. Perhaps they simply wanted to make Elphaba's "greenness" stand out more.

What Holzman and Schwartz have done that's absolutely brilliant is to make the story lighter, funnier, more poignant, more human. The musical is much more a story of the pain of adolescence, of the power of friendship, of feeling like you just don't fit in. They added an entirely new layer of meaning that was pretty much absent from Maguire's novel and made the story more universal. (No pun intended!) By streamlining the story, they've made the message simpler, more direct, more thought-provoking.

Coincidentally, I finished reading "Wicked" the same day that my friend Steve posted his review of seeing the musical in Tokyo. For Steve and his beloved, "Wicked" is their musical. His reasons sum up perfectly what Holzman and Schwartz have done: it's the "ingenious inside-out twisting of "The Wizard Of Oz" fable we grew up on, or our hope from its message that different can be a virtue, or our love of its clever and often soaring tunes.''

Gregory Maguire owes Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman big time. Just as MGM did a nearly a century ago with L. Frank Baum's work, Holzman and Schwartz have taken Maguire's tale about a complex fantasy world and refashioned it into a classic.

One final note: I once worked in the small upstate New York village of Chittenango, where L. Frank Baum was born. When I was there, the village was clearly eager to cash in on its Oz connection: there was an annual Oz parade, a store called Auntie Em's and a sidewalk painted in yellow brick. A real estate agent showed me several apartments in rundown old buildings where, she assured me, Baum had lived as a child. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never took any of them.

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