Monday, January 31, 2011

Wicked Is As Wicked Does

(warning: SPOILERS AHOY for both Wicked the musical AND Wicked the book.)

As you can see by the program above, I finally got to see Wicked: A New Musical last Friday, January 21st, as it finished out its Tucson run. Back in October, Nathan & I decided to treat ourselves -- we bought tickets to Wicked and decreed it would be our (slightly late) ninth anniversary celebration. So, we caught dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, strolled around the University of Arizona campus for a while, then finally sat down to enjoy the show.

And we weren't disappointed! I'd heard nothing but praise for this musical ever since it first appeared on my radar, and I'm happy to say that it (mostly) met my expectations.

More on that in just a moment, though (excuse me while I put on my "critic" hat)...

I was initially perplexed by the musical's huge popularity, since I really wasn't a fan of the book upon which it was based. I got the novel Wicked: The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West as a birthday present years ago, and I was very excited--I thought the "twisted fairy tale" premise had a lot of potential. After reading it, though, I was mostly confused. Did I just not "get" it? Was I missing something? So, like the glutton for punishment I am, I read the book AGAIN.

After this second read-through, I was forced to admit that really, there wasn't much to "get." Gregory Maguire came up with a wonderful premise, a compelling heroine in Elphaba, and a nicely reimagined Oz...and then squandered all those things with a meandering, preachy, hopelessly muddled plot. The second half of the book really goes off the rails; it feels like Maguire is taking every soap-box topic in his arsenal and throwing them at the wall to see what sticks. The preachiness & the randomness of the novel's second half wore on me quickly; by the end, I no longer cared about any of the characters or what happened. So, I sold the book and gave it no more thought.

So, when the musical came calling, I decided to do some "research" to see if it was really worth my valuable time & money. I listened to the soundrack (not bad, I thought), and even checked out the "book of the musical" from our local library. From what I could gather, the musical focused primarily on the friendship of Glinda & Elphaba--a good thing in my mind. So it was off to the theater!

Comparing the two stories is really fascinating. My first impression was that the musical's plot was oversimplified--but in this case, that's a good thing! For example, here are a "few" things that DON'T happen in Wicked the musical:

-Elphaba was born inside the Time Dragon Clock, and was born with teeth & multiple genatalia (!!)
-Elphaba's "father" wasn't the governor of Munchkinland; he was a missionary preaching religion to the Munchkins.
-Nessarose was also a bastard, and instead of crooked legs, she was born with no arms. She also never had a "thing" for Boq; she was too busy being a religious zealot just like her daddy.
-Boq did have a crush on Galinda/Glinda, but got over it fairly fast. Instead, he becomes close friends with Elphaba and eventually marries one of Glinda's college friends.
-Dr. Dillamond isn't expelled from Shiz College; he's murdered in his classroom, and no investigation of the crime ever takes place
-Oh, by the way, Dillamond's killed by a Tik-Tok, a race of mechanical servants that populate all of Oz. They don't seem to be in the musical at all.
-Boq and Fiyero visit a nightclub in Emerald City and engage in a bestial orgy, scarring them sexually for life. Um, WHAT THE HECK??!?!?!?!?
-Elphaba doesn't flee the Emerald City after confronting the Wizard; she lives there for years afterwards as a domestic terrorist. She's not a lone revolutionary, but part of a whole underground movement.
-While in the underground, she starts an affair with Fiyero, who lives in town as a diplomat. Oh, by the way, he's married with 3 kids by now! When they met in college, he was already married (he got married at like 14), and his family was living back in the castle at Kiamo Ko.
-Poor Fiyero ends up being murdered, presumably by the Wizard's secret police force. Consumed with guilt, Elphaba retreats to a monastery, where she delivers Fiyero's bastard son and lives for seven more years, before traveling to Kiamo Ko to apologize to his widow.
-Elphaba lives at Kiamo Ko with Fiyero's family for at least a year. It's during this time that she starts messing with the Grimmerie, and she voluntarily creates the winged monkeys (although her original goal was just to have them speak; the wings ended up being an extra frill).
-At one point, Fiyero's family flees the castle, forced out by Ozian soldiers. They are presumed captured, and their fate is uncertain. Does Elphaba care? Does Maguire care? Nope...we never find out what happened to them.
-Nessarose becomes a tyrant ruler of Munchkinland, and it's a random cyclone that kills her, not one conjured up by Madame Morrible.
-Speaking of Madame Morrible, Elphaba tries to murder her by bashing her skull in towards the end of the book. However, Morrible had died just a few minutes before, denying Elphaba the satisfaction.
-At one point, Elphaba becomes convinced that the Scarecrow is Fiyero come back to life/in disguise. Why does she believe this? Heck if I know. It turns out to be untrue. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman are never explained in the book; we never learn who or what they really are.
-Surprise! Turns out Elphaba really is allergic to water. When confronting Dorothy, she accidentally catches her broom on fire. Dorothy tries to save her by throwing water all over her, and POOF (or should I say Ding Dong?), she's dead.

Got all that? Yeah, it irritated me just typing it out. Anyway, virtually none of that stuff is in the musical (one or two of those things are cleverly twisted at the musical's conclusion, however).
You may be asking yourself, "Where's Glinda in all that mess?" The answer is: "She's not in the book all that much, particularly after the first half." It's a shame, because she's one of the few supporting characters in the book that's truly enjoyable to read. She's a dynamic character that grows and changes over time, particularly with her relationship to Elphaba. Their unlikely friendship is one of the few things that really worked in the novel. Wisely, the musical's writers took that thread & ran with it.

The result is a very simplified version of the novel, which fancied itself both a socio-political allegory and an existential rumination on good & evil. The musical's story does raise some of the same questions of the book ("what is good?" versus "what is evil?"; how our personal biases affect our views of "right" and "wrong"), but does so primarily through the friendship of two very different people. The Wizard is still a mysterious tyrant, and he & Elphaba still clash over their treatment of the Animals, but that's no longer the main focus. In the musical, it's all about Elphaba and Glinda: how they meet; their rivalry-turned-friendship; how they view the world differently and how they are both forced to revise those views; and how their actions ultimately pull them down very different paths.

And that aspect of the musical works wonderfully. Most musicals have one strong male or female lead; Wicked the musical is really a two-woman show and I love that it treats both characters sympathetically, even though they don't always do the right thing or even treat each other well. It's a simpler way of telling the audience, "See? Sometimes it's not always about 'good' or 'evil'; it's just a different way of looking at a situation." And it's much less tedious than wading through pages of Elphaba moping and wondering if she's really "wicked" or not. She gets to take that journey with a friend, and that makes it a much more compelling journey for the audience.
There's only one aspect of the musical's story that really suffered in comparison to the book: the treatment of Nessarose and Boq. Both characters in the book were fairly dynamic and even likable. In the musical, they come off as pretty one-note and shrill. Boq's hopeless infatuation for Glinda ends up defining his whole character...he literally exists for no other purpose, except to explain where the Tin Woodsman comes from (unnecessary in the book, since the Tik-Toks were present).
Also, in Act 2, when Boq tells Elphaba that Nessarose is ruling Munchkinland with an iron fist, it seems to come out of nowhere, and Nessa's motivations seem silly. So...she becomes a tyrant because Boq doesn't love her enough? Hmmm. It works much better in the novel, when Nessarose attempts to convert (and then enforce) her strong religious beliefs over all of Munchkinland. Religion seems a better motivator for tyranny than pining over some boy. This has (sadly) been proven over and over again in real life. However, while I wish Nessa's character had more substance, I think removing the religious aspects of her character was a hard but necessary omission from the musical. Adding religious overtones to an already complex universe may have made the story too volatile & less audience-friendly.

Otherwise, though, most of the changes from book to musical were definitely "for good" (see what I did there?). The Elphaba/Fiyero/Glinda love triangle adds a nice dramatic thread (and a more personal conflict between the two friends that amps up the tension on stage). The Wizard is made more buffoonish, although Madame Morrible's character becomes stronger & more sinister to compensate. Having the Grimmerie be a well-known, mysterious artifact makes Elphaba seem that much more remarkable (and dangerous) to her opponents. And the lengthier "college" scenes in Act 1 make us care much more for the characters, so we can empathize with them when things go wrong in Act 2.
Speaking of Act seems to go really fast. Maybe it's because I'm aware of how much junk was cut out of the story to make it flow faster (see my list above, most of which takes place in the "Act 2" timeline equivalent in the book). But that's a minor complaint. As for the music's pretty good but not great. A few songs sound a little too "pop" and I worry that they'll sound outdated in another decade or so. The same goes for some of the dialogue and slang used in the show. However, most of the music is in good service to the story, and there are a few real showstoppers ("For Good," "No Good Thing," and "Defying Gravity" in particular are great--"Defying Gravity" gives me goosebumps!).

I hope this doesn't sound like me being too critical; these are just some thoughts I've had stewing for the last week. I really had a great time at the musical, and think that, while it could have been a little better, was still the superior version of the story--it actually manages to improve on Maguire's original idea! I also think this is a good show for girls (not that it's overly "girly"; Nathan really enjoyed it as well). Maybe I like the idea that girls can feel empowered watching Elphaba make her own destiny, and even watching Glinda grow beyond her original narrow views to embrace the exciting differences in others. I look forward to going back to see Wicked again someday--and this time I hope to take my girls along!

However, I'll probably pass on the book... :)


  1. Agreed. I pretty much recommend people to skip the book entirely. Not worth it.

    Another big difference is a much expanded role of the Time Dragon Clock in the book. It almost seems like he was trying to build a whole mystical mythology around it, but mostly it was just equal parts horrifying and disturbing whenever it showed up. With no point.

  2. I totally agree with you on the book. I was not a fan at all! I want to see the play though. I love the music. I think your critique was spot on.

  3. least the Time Dragon Clock makes for a nice stage frame for the musical!! I am personally happy that it didn't play a bigger role, although I'm sure that design decision confused people who hadn't read the book.