Have you seen it? No? Too bad for you, I did! Have you heard of it? No? Then you must be living in a greater cultural wasteland than I do. What a pity.
While in Chicago a couple of friends and I had the chance to see this little gem. I had read the book by Gregory Macguire and thought it was very deep and intellectual. I thought it would be a silly little spoof or satire of the original. But, instead he treated the characters with a lot of respect and depth. Of course, what many people don't know (those who have only seen the Garland pic and not read the Oz book) is that Baum's novel was very dark. When 1930's Hollywood got hold of it and added red sequins to Dorothy's "silver slippers" it made Baum's rich original chocolate cake of a novel into a pop tart. It was a delicious and well made pop-tart, however, it was still a pop tart.
After reading Wicked and then heard it was to be made into a musical a few years back I thought, "Yikes, what are they thinking? Anyone in the U.S. who has seen the Oz musical with Garland are going to be outraged when the witch becomes the misunderstood heroine and our poor mislocated Dorothy and the Good Witch of the North become the villains." But, fortunately I was wrong. The musical, Wicked, wisely modifies and abbreviates some of the darker elements of the story into the traditional romantic-comedy/love-triangle format that we in the Western world now believe is the only form of story telling that can be entertaining to us.
Here's my synopsis of the staged version. We are introduced to Galinda announcing to the frightening and near demonic munchkins that the Wicked Witch of the West is dead. The typical dancing celebration of course ensues. Galinda is asked why the Witch had been Wicked. She responds that some people are born wicked and some people have wickedness thrust upon them. This statement tastefully and intelligently sets up the plot of the entire play. Next we briefly see that Elphaba (the Witch) is of illegitimate birth. Then we skip many chapters of the novel to focus on Elphaba being a geeky, nerdy, misunderstood academic during her years at the Shiz University. Galinda is her "good" and popular nemesis that is vain, flippant and shallow. Through several scenes and musical numbers the women gain a grudging respect for one another and then become friends. Elphaba, with the young and vivacious Prince Fiyero (wouldn't we all love to have a sporty, athletic little dancing prince named after a sports car), are thrown into a situation where they are required to break the law in order to protect the literate and speech capable animal citizens of Oz. Galinda, being Good, can't bring herself to break the law. However, she does help Elphaba and Fiyero escape. Earlier in the story Galinda gives Elphaba a hideous black hat in order to embarrass her. Then during the escape, Galinda puts a long black cloak around Elphaba to keep her warm during her escape from Shiz. Thus, we see that it is Galinda, The Good, who has literally made Elphaba into The Witch. Elphaba has had "wickedness thrust upon her." The end of the escape scene is the amazing end of the first act of the play with Elphaba flying above Oz on her broom for the first time and singing the song, "Defying Gravity." This number when performed to its fullest potential, as it was the night we saw it, is perfectly designed to pull a standing ovation from the audience.
Spoiler alert! Now I'll wrap it up. Here's how the musical really differs from the book and how the play connects itself to the 1939 movie version. The book continues on with Elphaba moving into the castle, having a child and living for years there studying magic and ruling her people. In the play, she is forced to use magic in order to save lives, yet is demonized by reports of her witchcraft being used to harm people. In order to soothe a frightened little lion from attacking during its rescue, she removes its courage. To save the fiancee of her sister after his death, Elphaba turns him into a "clockwork tin man." Then to save her lover, Fiyero, from being beaten to death she turns him into a straw man incapable of having his body broken. We see in silhouette the figure of Dorothy arriving at the castle and dousing Elphaba with water who melts, naturally. But, contrary to the book and movie (and to give us a warm, fuzzy, happy ending to our romantic-comedy), the scarecrow (Fiyero) returns to the castle and pulls Elphie out of the trap door where she has staged her own death. And we assume they live happily ever after as Galinda sings the final number.
For some reason the wonderful actress singing the Elphaba role on the night of our play did not perform the second act. The understudy did an acceptable job but certainly lacked the energy and punch of the actress in the first act who knocked us out with "Defying Gravity". The part of Galinda is not a secondary role by any means. The character is rich with comic elements and big emotional notes as she argues with Elphaba. The Galinda musical numbers require a soprano with almost magical powers in order to get them out. Wow, what range this lady had! I enjoyed our performers in Chicago but would have loved to have seen the original cast in New York. I bought the souvenir program and saw who they were. Galinda was originally played by Kristen Chenoweth (I recognize her from The West Wing), a brilliant little blond pixie that must have been a real pistol in the original production (picture from Wireimage.com).
So, after seeing it, I understand why this musical incarnation of Oz connects so successfully with its audience just as much as the original did. In 1939 the innocent, mostly agricultural and sweetly optimistic Americans identified with lost little Dorothy. We all long for home and family, its a universal theme. But, here in our much more cynical and technological world, many of us identify with the embittered Elphaba. We all feel the need to fit in. Our fashion and image obsessed culture drive us to want to be one of the "pretty people" like Galinda and Fiyero. Intelligence and academia are suppressed under the expectation to be young, fit, and POPULAR (as Galinda marvellously sings)!
I loved the Chicago cast, but Kristen, if you're out there reading this, I'll buy you dinner at Olive Garden if you'll drop by the house and sing some of these tunes for me. What actress in an Oz inspired musical could possibly turn down an offer to eat Italian food with a perfectly safe, musical-theatre loving gay guy. Who knows, the connection just might turn you into the next Garland-esque gay icon.