Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Are these judgments too Wicked?

This past week, I finally got around to reading Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. Now, this might sound strange, but I've never seen Wicked, the musical, or even listened to every song on its cast album. Chalk it up to misplaced teenage elitism: the musical came out when I was a senior in high school and while other Broadway-loving girls thrilled to the story of Glinda and Elphaba, I was put off by their teenybopper enthusiasm. I spent the year memorizing everything Sondheim ever wrote, looking down my nose at people who wrote on message boards about "Elphie," and wishing high school was over. (Yeah, I was kind of insufferable.)

Now, after having read Maguire's novel, it turns out that my stubbornly anti-trend, iconoclastic attitude actually made me a kindred spirit of Elphaba's (aka Elphie aka the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire's character is, of course, more sympathetic than L. Frank Baum's out-and-out villainness, but she's still prickly, difficult to truly like. She has plenty of courage and integrity, but also a lot of bitterness and an aversion to being seen as weak or vulnerable in any way.

This is why I'm so surprised that Stephen Schwartz read Wicked and said "Boy! This needs to be a Broadway musical!", because that requires some major re-jiggering of Elphaba's personality to make her someone the audience can identify with. In the musical, Elphaba despairs that Fiyero will never fall in love with her because she's not a pretty blonde like Glinda, but the book-Elphaba would sneer at such sentimentality. In the book, a major turning point comes when Elphaba decides to go underground and ally herself with a revolutionary/terrorist cell. In the musical? She soars into the sky singing the triumphant "Defying Gravity"!

I do think that the musical improves on some of the problems of the novel. (Disclaimer: I still haven't seen Wicked or heard all of its songs, but I read all the lyrics and a thorough plot summary.) The opening number "No One Mourns the Wicked" compresses the entire first section of the novel--the circumstances surrounding Elphaba's birth--into just a few minutes of stage time. Because I didn't think that Elphaba's parents were particularly engaging characters, I'm glad that the musical greatly reduces their role.

Another problem with the novel is that it introduces characters and themes, but doesn't really make them pay off. One of Elphaba's schoolmates, who seems like he will be a major character, is Boq, a Munchkin boy. But after the school sequence, Boq disappears from the novel and only comes back for one more brief scene. The musical integrates Boq more fully into the story, adding a twist that reinforces the motif of dramatic irony/connection to the original Wizard of Oz story. And (even though I know it probably happened in order to boost Kristin Chenoweth's role), it makes sense to structure the show around the Elphaba/Glinda friendship, to give it an emotional thread. The complexities of female friendship are not often enough portrayed in musical theater.

Wicked-the-book now has a sequel, Son of a Witch. When it came out, some of my Wicked-loving friends (book and musical) cried "Sacrilege!" or "Sellout!" But honestly, there are so many loose ends in the novel that a sequel doesn't strike me as a bad thing in this case. For example, the Oz system of religious belief seems needlessly complicated for the story that Wicked tells; maybe the sequel takes better advantage of it.

Then again, I'm not really clamoring to read the sequel, especially because I hear it lacks the clever connections to the original Oz books that were some of my favorite parts of Wicked. I liked that Maguire considered how a woman who is deathly allergic to water could live to adulthood, and informed us that the Wicked Witch of the East (Elphaba's sister, Nessarose) was born without arms--after all, the only part of her we ever see in Baum's novel are her feet, crushed by Dorothy's house! Otherwise, I'm beginning to suspect that Maguire has trouble creating vivid, multilayered characters. Elphaba, Glinda, and a few others seem multilayered, but that's because while we read Maguire's book, we are always aware of the way that L. Frank Baum originally described them them, and the discrepancy between the two novels creates a sort of depth. But Maguire's original creations (e.g. Elphaba's parents, Fiyero) won't pass into popular mythology the way that Baum's Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman have.

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