Why Wicked Is Important

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wicked posterWhat's the significance of the radical and enduring success of Wicked? It's this: we seem, as a culture, to be more open to different points of view - like that of a wicked witch, for instance. 


Put in more philosophical terms: there's an ever-widening postmodern streak tinting the mainstream. 


Wicked looks at The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West's perspective. It was published as a novel in 1996, and debuted as a Broadway musical in 2003. The book continues to sell (I commonly encounter it in bookstores, both new and used, and on friends' shelves) and the stage production has won Tony awards, Olivier awards, and set box office records in 2011 and 2012 in New York, London and elsewhere, so it'll certainly keep playing and touring for years to come. 


The Witch - whose name is revealed as Elphaba in Wicked - was never  anything but evil in the 1939 movie. Green skin, big pointy, warty nose, black hat and cloak, flying broom, spells, awful cackling laugh - she's a villain, through and through, the template for many a Halloween witch costume. When she dies, not only does no one mourn, everyone bursts into song. She was blackhearted and mean and deserved to die, and we're all better off without her. Hooray!


This presentation reveals a very modernist point of view. There are moral absolutes, and you can trust them. Good is good and evil is evil. Who's good? Us. Who's evil? Them. Or in this case: her. And her terrifying screeching flying monkeys!


Wicked (I'll stick to the musical version for this article) presents Elphaba sympathetically. She's friendly and optimistic at the beginning of the play, eager to go to college. She's socially outcast because of her green skin, a condition she was born with, thanks to her mother's having ingested a potion by a traveling salesman. An automatic outsider, Elphaba supports the rights of sentient animals, who are being discriminated against. She demonstrates an unexpected talent for sorcery, and studies it in school, brimming with optimism at the possibility of someday being of service to the Wizard. 


Galinda (later to become Glinda, the Good Witch) is snooty, haughty, ambitious, conscious of her beauty and initially not interested in befriending the green outcast. The two eventually travel to the Emerald City together to petition the Wizard for animal rights. They discover he's actually behind the the two witches in Wickedoppression, along with one of their professors. Elphaba escapes on a broom (levitating it with her newly acquired powers), and Glinda stays with the Wizard, becoming a public figure in Oz. 


Throughout the play various elements are put into place, and we learn the origin of the flying monkeys, the ruby slippers, and who the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion were before Dorothy (a very minor character in the play) arrives - none of them being what you might have expected. Elphaba, in her continued defiance, is labelled the Wicked Witch of the West by the Wizard as part of his political maneuvering, and the public buys it. To the audience, it's clear there's nothing wicked about her, and we're forced to reexamine what we'd thought of her from the original movie. In fact, we reevaluate everything we'd known about that particular story. 

Kevin Costner embraces Native life in Dances with Wolves 

The topsy-turvy-ing of what had previously been considered solid moral ground is very postmodern, like how First Nations people, starting in the 70s, were presented in Westerns as wise and in tune with nature, not at all the scowling, marauding, whooping savages John Wayne blasted off their horses with impunity. In Dances with Wolves, the US Cavalry seems villainous, and Kevin Costner's character chooses a life with the natives instead. This pattern repeats in The New World


The retelling of a familiar story from a different angle is very postmodern, as in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, looking at Hamlet from the perspective of two minor, practically irrelevant characters, with Hamlet himself only making the occasional appearance. 


Lion among Men, by Gregory MaguireGregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, finding the public quite eager to look at familiar tales from new angles, has gone on to write three other novels that examine the world of Oz from different points of view - those of the Cowardly Lion, Elphaba's son Liir, and her grand-daughter. He's also got one looking at Cinderella from the perspective of one of her ugly step-sisters, and another one retelling Snow White from the Queen's point of view. I'd be very surprised if he stopped there. 


But Wicked's success might also be at least partially credited to the fact that it straddles modern and postmodern sensibilities. The upending of moral certainties and reexamining a familiar story are postmodern, but the presentation is quite traditional. There are characters, and a story told in three acts - unlike The Vagina Monologues, for instance, which consists of distinct episodic fragments on a theme instead of a story. Wicked begins with Glinda eulogizing over Elphaba's melted, disappeared body, but from then on, the events are presented chronologically and in about as straight-forward a manner as you can get in the theatre. Songs conform to the conventions of traditional American musical theatre, none is challenging to the ear. 

The play isn't conscious of itself as a work of art - no one addresses the audience directly, like the cast of The Vagina Monologues, or the stage manager in Our Town. Animals aren't presented in blatantly the puppets in War Horsenon-realistic fashion, like the superb puppets in War Horse or The Lion King, or Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's Tim Roth in metamorphosisMetamorphosis, in which the lead actor portrays a man who wakes up to discover he's literally become a giant dung beetle, but he performs the role without any bug costume whatsoever.


Straddling these two philosophical worlds, Wicked is very digestible to mainstream audiences, for whom the postmodern tropes are interesting and refreshing, and not at all jarring, disturbing or off-puttingly intellectual. In fact, in the novel is a fair bit darker. Ephaba's mother is a bored housewife who has multiple affairs and is an addict. Her father's a fundamentalist preacher, and Elphaba doesn't adopt his hard-line beliefs, making her the family's less favoured daughter. These elements have been deliberately softened (as in, removed) for the stage adaptation.


Gregory Maguire, author of WickedGregory Maguire, as it happens, is gay. Elphaba's automatic status as an outsider because of a condition she was born with could easily be interpreted as an analogy for homosexuality - even though the character is heterosexual. The same goes for her championing of sentient animal rights. Again, this symbolism isn't explicit, and therefore the message communicates on a subtle level, threatening no one. And giving voice to a minority point of view, whether gay or wicked, is very postmodern as well. Appropriately enough, two of the original cast members have appeared on Glee - a show that features outsider characters - gay, multiracial, children of two dads, bi-racial marriages and single parents - and has found a strong mainstream audience, much like the wildly successful sitcom Modern Family.


Granted, the total audience for the various productions of Wicked, in their decade-plus on the stage, totals a mere couple of million - a great amount for a play, but a fraction of what a successful movie reaches. But theatre tickets cost a great deal more (a cheap seat for Wicked in New York will run you eighty bucks), so they're not as casually taken in as a movie. For a hit play, the theatre is usually full (especially if that play is breaking box office records), wickedcreating a sense of excitement in the audience, with everyone feeling privileged to be there. And emotions are contagious. A packed house laughs, gasps and applauds as one, and the long-term impact of such an experience is considerable. 


Wicked has done an extraordinary thing in both challenging the public's perception of a beloved story, and paying reverence to it, all the while taking mainstream audiences along with them as gentle, tip-toeing steps are taken to make anyone question the absolute status of someone considered "wicked" or "good." As in many other instances, a work of art leads the way, and the public sets a foot or two forward unknowingly, on a road they hadn't been aware existed. A swirling, twisting road, made of yellow bricks, perhaps.


Editor: Chris Dierkes and Bergen Vermette

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  • Comment Link Michael Milano Wednesday, 29 August 2012 16:59 posted by Michael Milano

    TJ I would also point out that a lot of the accessibility of Wicked is not just in the story and structure as you’ve described so well. It’s also in the lyrics of the songs.

    Who hasn’t had an unrequited crush - “I’m not that Girl” speaks beautifully of the feelings of insecurity and inferiority of such an experience. It’s universal.

    There is a not a gay man I know that doesn’t get a little glint in their eye during the Defying Gravity line “and if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free.” Flipping the bird to society, saying I am who I am, being true to myself. Deal with it.

    Being misunderstood and misrepresented is true of any minority. It’s relatable to so many people of so many backgrounds. People see something of themselves in this musical.

    That’s why it’s important

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 29 August 2012 17:44 posted by TJ Dawe

    Michael - it's so interesting to me that there's enough of a groundswell of minorities that there's such a massive, popular response to this musical.

    It's possible that I'm just seeing what I want to see with that interpretation - in the original movie of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy feels like an outsider as well. unloved, unappreciated. she longs for something better, over the rainbow.

    and I had a monologue in my show Totem Figures listing many, many hugely important novels, movies, plays that were about characters who felt like outsiders.

    But I still feel it's encouraging to see all of the hope and triumph over adversity you describe in those lyrics attributed to someone who'd been labelled "wicked" - and given that that's the title of the thing itself, it's practically an injunction for anyone to examine their beliefs, to see what's going on from the point of view of anyone who might be been villainized.

  • Comment Link Richard Weisdorf Wednesday, 29 August 2012 20:59 posted by Richard Weisdorf

    Great analysis. I think your point about Wicked challenging the absolute notions of 'good' and 'evil' is important. In fact, we get that from any movie that examines something from a protagonist's viewpoint (even when they do 'bad' things). One soft example was the Devil Wears Prada which produced debates of examining the lead character's morality. Some people had sympathy for the lead character even while she was paying less attention to her boyfriend and more to her job. Now, if we were just presented with the facts of that relationship (girl stays at job and breaks plan for boyfriend's birthday), the temptation to label the girl as evil occurs. However, since the audience was shown how difficult her boss was and why the job itself became so alluring to her, we understand the pressure she felt to succeed in her work environment without labeling her actions as 'evil' or 'wrong.'

    But the difference with Wicked and the previous example is that we have the original story to compare it to. Hence, people will more likely be forced into some introspection as to 'what you see' or 'what you label as good and evil' is truly what you get.

    The thing about fables with their 'good' and 'evil' labeling is that they represent black and white viewing of the world. Of course, it is easier to look at the world this way because shades of grey complicate things. In fact, psychodynamic theorists believe that this is how infants view the world because after all, a breast is either there to feed them ('good breast') or is unavailable ('bad breast).

    But these absolute concepts of good and evil do more harm than good to society. By not understanding a person's circumstances and looking at the whole story, we get: angry mobs, winning at all costs/perfectionism (since winning is associated with good and anything less is a failure), rationalizations for not helping people who are in need (since they are just lazy-an evil trait), and reactionary retributive justice. In The Wizard of Oz, we all relished when the witch died at the hands of water which was ironically a symbol of life (it refers to her anti-life/evil tendencies). After viewing Wicked, the viewer hopefully sees that retributive justice should not have occurred and hopefully applies that to other cases in real life.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Thursday, 30 August 2012 04:28 posted by TJ Dawe

    Richard - excellently said. In any movie, or novel, or play, it's pretty hard not to side with the protagonist, even if what they're trying to do is something the individual audience member would never do - committing crimes, for example.

    The Wild Bunch is one of my favourite movies, and it took me a while to piece together the complexity of the moral equation it presents. The main characters are bandits, but they're being pursued by a gang of men hired by the railroad company who don't want to arrest them - they want to kill them. The Wild Bunch has a code of honour and loyalty, even though they act like Hell's Angels. The pursuing men, who state that they represent the law, have none. They're vile. So who are the good guys? Same with the Mexican military that become involved in the story - merciless killers, but with the force of the government on their side. And there are women and children who fire guns and kill people, also disrupting the audience's previous associations of right and wrong, good guy, bad guy.

    Breaking Bad does this brilliantly as well. The main character cooks crystal meth, and his obnoxious, blowhard brother-in-law is a DEA agent. You don't want him to get caught, except... that means he'll still be creating huge quantities of crystal meth, which can't be rationalized as harmless, like the marijuana the protagonist of Weeds sells.

    Same with The Wire. some of the cops are horrible and corrupt. Some of the criminals have a sense of justice and community.

    It's normal that infants think in absolute terms. It helps us survive at that age. And that can be applied to the infancy (and adolescence) of our species altogether. Being able to see the shades of grey is a mark of maturity, both individually and culturally. Which is why I take it as so encouraging when a work like Wicked succeeds on such a massive and sustained scale.

    Al Franken made this quote eight years ago, apparently: They (Conservatives) don't get it. We (Liberals) love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. They love America the way a four year old loves her mommy. To a four-year old everything mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes mommy is bad. Grown-up love means understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow.

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