One recent piece of evidence for The Wizard of Oz‘s staying power in the cultural consciousness is a sketch from the current season of Saturday Night Live. This blog hasn’t explored many theatrical adaptations of fictional works, with the exception of the play adapted from Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White, which was, of course, adapted from previous versions of that classic tale. In a similar (but in many ways different) vein, Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked from 1995 evolved from reinterpreting a narrative familiar to the culture not as much from its original version–L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)–as from its 1939 movie adaptation, The Wizard of Oz. Maguire’s novel, in turn, was adapted into a highly successful Broadway show that’s been running since 2003 (Baum’s novel was itself adapted into a Broadway show over a century before that, in 1901). Having tickets for Wicked the musical during a trip to NYC this past December, I read Maguire’s novel first to be able to compare the different versions.
Wicked‘s basic premise is that it provides the “untold” life story of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, one of the most infamous villains of all time. Wicked the novel, subtitled “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” is told in five parts, after a prologue in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man rehashing crazy rumors they’ve heard about her. The first part, “Munchkinlanders,” shows us the birth and early childhood of our main character, Elphaba (whose “real” name we never got in Wizard, unless you count the character who inspired the figure in Dorothy’s dream of Oz, Almira Gulch, the ill-tempered neighbor back in Kansas who wants to euthanize Toto). This first part mainly involves getting the perspective of Elphaba’s parents, Melena and Frexspar, the latter a local unionist preacher/minister and the former a bored housewife whose mother, Nanny, comes for an extended stay to supposedly help out after Elphaba’s birth. Nanny bears witness to Melena’s affair with a Quadling named Turtle Heart who shows up at the house one day (Melena also tells Nanny about her former trysts, including one with “a tinker with a funny accent [who] gave me a draft of some heady brew from a green glass bottle”). Elphaba bites off someone’s finger with her abnormally sharp teeth the night she’s born–the same night a weird cultish group called the Clock of the Time Dragon shows up to give a prophetic performance about Frex’s fraudulence–and has strange green skin that keeps her parents emotionally estranged from her. When Melena eventually becomes pregnant again, she takes a strange herb procured by Nanny to try to ensure the new baby doesn’t have Elphaba’s abnormalities. At the end of Part 1, Melena gives birth to another daughter.
In Part 2, “Gillikin,” we meet Glinda, who meets Dr. Dillamond, a goat, on a train on her way to Shiz University. Glinda is from the Pertha Hills and has high social hopes, but then ends up with the social outcast Elphaba as her roommate. The two grow closer along with a group of other students (including Boq the munchkin) as they get caught up in political intrigue about the wizard trying to take away the rights of Animals. Eventually Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who was born without arms, comes to Shiz as well, with a gift of fine ruby slippers from their father showcasing his favoritism toward her. Elphaba comes to believe that a Shiz administrator, Madame Morrible, is responsible for the death of the prominent professor goat (Dr. Dillamond) who was doing research that was basically going to reveal Animals and people were biological equals. Elphaba was his research assistant and grabbed all of his findings from his lab before they could be taken by others. Madame Morrible tries to enlist Elphaba and Glinda to do sorcery work for a shadowy cause, but Elphaba declines. Elphaba, Glinda, and some others get an audience with the wizard in the Emerald City to try to defend Animal rights. When they fail, Elphaba announces she won’t return to school, and vanishes for several years.
In Part 3, “City of Emeralds,” a former Shiz student from the Vinkus, Fiyero, encounters Elphaba again years later as she’s doing some kind of undercover operative work to try to assassinate the wizard, and they become lovers (despite Fiyero’s being in an arranged marriage). On the night Elphaba is supposed to do something to kill the wizard, there’s some kind of random interference her team didn’t anticipate, and Fiyero ends up getting killed at their meeting place.
In Part 4, “In the Vinkus,” we jump seven more years and discover Elphaba’s been living in some kind of convent in the interim; she’s now leaving it for the Vinkus with a mysterious young boy in tow and a mission to get forgiveness from Fiyero’s widow Sarima. Elphaba ends up living at Sarima’s house in the Vinkus, the estate Kiamo Ko, with her sisters and Fiyero’s children and Liir, the boy Elphaba brought with her (her child with Fiyero). At Kiamo Ko, Elphaba discovers an old spell book called the Grimmerie among Fiyero’s possessions that Sarima says a mysterious old sorcerer brought one day, claiming it was from “another world,” though Elphaba doesn’t believe this because she’s able to decipher parts of it. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose has become the Eminent Thropp of Munchkinland, a title they received through matrilineal lineage through their mother and that should have gone to Elphaba as the eldest, but she rejected it. Her father calls her home to potentially help Nessarose govern, but after visiting she decides not to and leaves; when she returns to the Vinkus, she discovers Sarima and her sisters have been taken by soldiers.
In Part 5, “The Murder and Its Afterlife,” Elphaba hears that Nessarose (nicknamed the Wicked Witch of the East) has been crushed by a house in a tornado, and that Glinda gave the girl who came out of the house (Dorothy) Nessarose’s red slippers, which have become an emotional symbol for Elphaba and a political symbol for Munchkinland (“SHE WALKED ALL OVER US” is a common Munchkinlander complaint, and Elphaba is convinced if the wizard gets hold of the slippers he’ll be able to re-annex Munchkinland, which seceded under Nessarose). After Nessa’s funeral, the wizard visits Elphaba at Colwen Grounds, and she learns he isn’t actually from Oz and only came for the Grimmerie spell book, which he wants to exchange for a hostage, Sarima and Fiyero’s daughter Nor. (He also reveals that Madame Morrible told him to have Elphaba watched after Elphaba rejected Madame Morrible’s enlistment at Shiz, which is what led to Fiyero’s murder.) On her way back to the Vinkus, Elphaba looks along the Yellow Brick Road for Dorothy (Glinda having told her she sent Dorothy along there to the Wizard). Along the way she has a reunion with Boq before stopping at Shiz to kill Madame Morrible, who dies five minutes before Elphaba gets there. Elphaba tries to take credit by confessing the murder to an old classmate, Avaric, who doesn’t believe her. She then runs into a dwarf from the Clock of the Time Dragon, who tells her he’s the guardian of the Grimmerie and who reveals that the Wizard is her real father (the lover who gave her mother the green elixir while Frex was off preaching). She gets close to Dorothy and co. on the Road, but then a storm comes in and blocks her. Then Liir hears and tells Elphaba that the wizard has told Dorothy to kill her in exchange for granting Dorothy’s wish of leaving Oz. When Dorothy and her friends arrive at Elphaba’s Kiamo Ko stronghold in the Vinkus, Elphaba throws all she’s got against her, in the form of animals, of course—dogs, bees, crows—but they all die. (Elphaba also allows herself to hope that Fiyero somehow faked his death and is the scarecrow in disguise.) When Dorothy gets there and Elphaba confronts her about coming to kill her, Dorothy says the real thing she came for was forgiveness for killing Elphaba’s sister when the house fell—parallel to the forgiveness Elphaba wanted from Sarima for being responsible for Fiyero’s death, but that Sarima refused to give her. Elphaba then accidentally lights herself on fire with the broom she’d lit to carry as a torch, and Dorothy, thinking she’s saving Elphaba’s life, throws water on her and inadvertently kills her. When Dorothy brings a token of the witch’s back to the Wizard to prove the Witch is dead–a “green glass bottle that said MIRACLE ELI- on the paper glued to the front”–the Wizard seems to realize something and soon flees his Palace. There’s debate about how exactly Dorothy left Oz, but the Witch is dead, and remains only in “the carapace of her reputation for malice.” The End.
The musical, whose subtitle is “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz,” simplifies a lot of the novel’s elements even as it purports to tackle multiple witches’ stories instead of just one (though these multiplied witches are really just two, Elphaba and Glinda). Act I begins with the the number “No One Mourns the Wicked”: the announcement, made by Glinda, that the Wicked Witch (of the West) is dead. Glinda then circles back to tell the story of Elphaba’s life with the seeming goal of trying to understand how/why she was so wicked, revealing that Elphaba’s father is a governor (whom her mother cheated on) and, in “Dear Old Shiz,” that she knew Elphaba herself when they were students at Shiz University, where they roomed together. “The Wizard and I”: Though Elphaba, a great admirer of the Wizard, is socially outcast because of her green skin and was only sent to Shiz to attend her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, she quickly demonstrates an aptitude for sorcery that garners Madame Morrible’s favor and encouragement. “What Is This Feeling”: Glinda, a subpar student, mocks and is jealous of Elphaba, and they don’t get along despite clear similarities. “Something Bad”: Elphaba befriends the goat professor Dr. Dillamond, who makes her aware of increasing discrimination against Animals (and the fact that a lot of them are mysteriously losing their ability to speak). “Dancing Through Life”: The popular and aimless Fiyero arrives at Shiz, kindling an attraction in Glinda, who’s inclined to humiliate Elphaba at a dance (and who also convinces Boq to invite Nessarose). “Popular”: Glinda regrets her humiliation of Elphaba and they become friends. “I’m Not That Girl”: Elphaba joins forces with Fiyero to rescue a lion cub a professor is using for class. “One Short Day”: Elphaba’s sorcery talent earns her an audience with the wizard, and she invites Glinda to come to the Emerald City with her. “A Sentimental Man”: Elphaba demonstrates her ability to enact a spell from a book the Wizard shows her by giving some monkeys wings. “Defying Gravity”: When the Wizard–along with Madame Morrible–reveal they’re going to use the winged monkeys as spies, Elphaba becomes disillusioned with the Wizard, steals his spellbook, and vows to no longer play by society’s rules.
Act II opens with “Thank Goodness,” in which we see that the Wizard and Madame Morrible have publicly painted the witch as wicked in order to discredit any attempt she makes to reveal the Wizard’s true nature (and to paint her attempts to use her powers to save persecuted Animals as criminal), while Glinda’s become a celebrated public figure. “The Wicked Witch of the East”: Elphaba visits Nessarose, who Boq has been taking care of, and via the red slippers their father gave Nessa as a token of his favor(itism), Elphaba uses her powers to enable Nessa to stand and be free of her wheelchair. Nessa thinks this will enable Boq to truly love her; when instead he thinks her new independence will allow him to leave and pursue his true love, Glinda (about to marry Fiyero), Nessa snatches Elphaba’s spellbook to try to enchant him; Elphaba has to save him from Nessa’s spell with another spell, but the best she can do is turn him into the heartless Tin Man. “Wonderful”: Elphaba meets with the Wizard, who espouses on his love of the people of Oz’s love for him. “As Long As You’re Mine”: Elphaba and Fiyero get together. “No Good Deed”: When a house falls on Nessarose and Elphaba turns up, falling for the trap the Wizard and Madame Morrible set up to lure her out, Fiyero turns on his fellow soldiers in the Wizard’s army in order to save her, and is arrested. “March of the Witch Hunters”: A mob of Ozians is riled up to hunt down and kill the Witch by the Tin Man, who says the lion Elphaba rescued as a cub also has a grievance against her for turning him into a coward. “For Good”: Glinda goes to Elphaba’s hideout at Kiamo Ko to warn Elphaba (who apparently has Dorothy locked up below the floor, wanting her slippers) about the mob, and they espouse on the good influence they had on each other, assuming this will be their last meeting; Elphaba also makes Glinda swear that Glinda won’t try to clear Elphaba’s name. Glinda hides as the Wizard’s soldiers storm the hideout and, silhouetted behind a screen, appear to kill the Witch by throwing water on her. “Finale”: As Ozians celebrate the Witch’s death, it’s revealed that the Wizard is Elphaba’s real father (the stranger who was shown giving her mother a green elixir in the opening number), and that Elphaba was able to fake her death because it was only a rumor that water would melt her, and that Fiyero escaped and disguised himself as the Scarecrow, and that they’ll run away together to somewhere outside of Oz, and that Elphaba feels bad she can’t tell Glinda she’s really alive but won’t for the safety of both of them. The End.
Obviously the musical is a different genre than the novel, one that might be a little more interested in mass appeal (and thus happy endings).
In a nutshell, Wicked the musical puts a lighter spin on the novel’s darker themes, most notably turning its grim ending into a happy (if slightly bittersweet) one. The merit of such an overhaul would probably be weak on strictly literary grounds (a point I’ll return to). But we would do well to remember that this is one of the most popular (so to speak) musicals in recent history, which means that it basically oozes mass appeal, like a Disney movie. The much more complex beast of a novel does not.
The novel is sprawling, so one interesting thing to note about the musical is its consolidation. The novel’s entire first part is condensed into the thirty-second mention in the opening song of Elphaba’s mother drinking the green elixir with the stranger and Elphaba’s being born with green skin. In the musical, Glinda is also positioned as the narrator of the tale of Elphaba’s life–she is the one describing Elphaba’s mother cheating on her father as well as her parents’ initial reaction to her birth, and these are presented as the facts of what happened–but it’s like, Elphaba herself wouldn’t have been able to know the details of these exchanges concerning her own conception and birth, so how does Glinda know them? The novel has a roving omniscient narrator, a narrative stance in which how it comes by its knowledge is a given that doesn’t raise such potential questions.
Also in apparent service to consolidation, Elphaba’s father is given the political governor position instead of her mother (though her mother’s political position was heavily downplayed in the novel’s opening section that focused on her), and is not a preacher as he is in the novel. (In the novel Elphaba and Nessarose also have a younger brother named Shell who barely makes what qualifies as an actual appearance a single time in the entire book and whose relevance is very hard to pinpoint; the musical dispenses with him altogether, as it also does with Nanny, Sarima, and Liir.)
One change that was good in the musical was Elphaba’s initial admiration for the Wizard and her ambition (that’s already clearly ironic because of the opening number celebrating her death), demonstrated early in the “The Wizard and I”:
But I swear, someday there’ll be
A celebration throughout Oz
That’s all to do with me!
In the novel, Elphaba doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about the Wizard one way or another until she gets deeper into the Animal intrigue issues, which are not going to inspire feelings of admiration. Establishing an initial admiration heightens the drama of the Animal intrigue issues and the extremity of Elphaba’s disillusionment and fate as the Wizard’s mortal enemy, and, unbeknownst to her, his daughter–though in the novel Elphaba is given this information directly, while in the musical this tidbit is relayed to the audience but Elphaba is apparently left ignorant of it. The near-end reveal of this paternity felt clunky in both the novel and the musical. I’m still not sure what the green elixir was supposed to actually be.
Almost as mysterious as the green elixir is the Grimmerie spellbook. In the novel, we first hear about this book when Elphaba discovers it at Kiamo Ko. Sarima explains that a mysterious visitor once dropped it off:
“He told me a fabulous tale and persuaded me to take this thing from him. He said that it was a book of knowledge, and that it belonged in another world, but it wasn’t safe there. So he had brought it here–where it could be hidden and out of harm’s way.”
“What a load of tripe,” said Elphie. “If it came from another world I shouldn’t be able to read any of it. And I can make out a little.”
Later, the Wizard tells Elphaba:
“This is an ancient manuscript of magic, generated in a world far away from this one. It was long thought to be merely legendary, or else destroyed in the dark onslaughts of the northern invaders. It had been removed from our world for safety by a wizard more capable than I. It is why I came to Oz in the first place,” he continued, almost talking to himself, as old men are prone to do.
So Elphaba’s ability to decipher parts of the Grimmerie, in both the novel and musical, is a major clue to her paternity, the fact that she’s partially from some other world. In neither version do we learn any more about what this other world actually is.
In the novel, the Wizard is seeking this magical spellbook, while in the musical, the Wizard apparently already has the Grimmerie in his possession. Elphaba (and Glinda) has her first audience with him in the novel on her own initiative of making a protest for Animal rights, while in the musical the Wizard specifically solicits her visit because of her sorcery talent to attempt a spell out of the mysterious book. This plot point seems to work better in the musical version than in the novel, as it’s where Elphaba learns of the Wizard’s true treacherous nature in a single condensed episode, as opposed to the novel’s depiction of her more slowly becoming disillusioned with him over the course of her time at Shiz, which means the tension is not as high.
Related to this plot point that the musical treats as the climax of Act I are the winged monkeys and Dr. Dillamond. In the musical, Elphaba inadvertently creates the winged monkeys from a spell in the book the Wizard gives her, then becomes consumed by her mission to free them once she understands the purpose they were created for. In the novel, Elphaba scientifically engineers the monkeys herself from research she gleaned from Dr. Dillamond (while also getting some help from the Grimmerie):
When the news of Nessarose’s premature death arrived at Kiamo Ko by carrier pigeon, the Witch was deep in an operation of sorts, stitching the wings of a white-crested male roc into the back muscles of one of her current crop of snow monkeys. She had more or less perfected the procedure, after years of botched and hideous failures, when mercy killing seemed the only fair thing to do to the suffering subject. Fiyero’s old schoolbooks in the life sciences, from Doctor Nikidik’s course, had given some leads. Also the Grimmerie had helped, if she was reading it correctly: She had found spells to convince the axial nerves to think skyward instead of treeward. And once she got it right, the winged monkeys seemed happy enough with their lot. She had yet to see a female monkey in her population produce a winged baby, but she still had hopes.
Certainly they had taken better to flying than they had to language.
Also, in the novel Dr. Dillamond is murdered at Shiz, while in the musical he’s not killed but instead stripped of his ability to speak, a punishment that in this context actually seems more cruel than death.
I could more or less take or leave the aforementioned changes as “better,” but one major change the musical made seemed to be more in keeping with the novel’s themes than the novel’s own ending: the reveal that Elphaba is not actually able to be harmed by water, because this is just a rumor. The novel opens with a prologue of characters familiar to us (Dorothy et al) spouting ridiculous rumors about the Witch that the opening section almost immediately goes on to dispel–and yet, in the novel, it is not merely a rumor that water is anathema to Elphaba:
She held his hand until he fell asleep, and wiped his face though his tears burned her skin.
But the image of Sarima in chains, Sarima as a decaying corpse, still withholding from the Witch her forgiveness for Fiyero’s death–it pained her like water.
“You smell of blood, go wash up,” said Nanny. “Is it your time?”
“I never wash, you know that. Where’s Liir?”
And in the end, just as in the end of The Wizard of Oz, it is Dorothy’s throwing water on the Witch that kills her (though in the movie this happens because the witch sets the Scarecrow on fire intentionally, while in the novel she sets herself on fire with her broom-torch by accident). The musical, on the other hand, turns the water issue into a rumor:
Do you hear that – water will melt her?! People
are so empty-headed, they’ll believe anything!
Though we can’t really be sure Fiyero is right that it’s a rumor until we discover at the end that Elphaba has not really died from water exposure but has only exploited everyone’s belief in rumors about her to then be able to escape and run away with Fiyero.
Which brings us to a couple of other major changes.
Like Elphaba, Fiyero is another significant character the novel kills off who gets to survive in the musical. The entire plot development in the novel of Elphaba being responsible for his death via her efforts to assassinate the Wizard–leading to the crucial character development of her desire for forgiveness (which she then sees unexpectedly and climactically reflected in her mortal enemy Dorothy)–is rendered moot. On top of this, the musical banishes entirely what might be considered Fiyero’s outsider status and otherness as a “diamond-skinned prince” in the novel:
“He stays at Ozma Towers and his name is Fiyero. He’s a real Winkle, full-blood. Wonder what he makes of civilization?”
“If that was civilization, last week, he must long for his own barbaric kind,” said Elphaba from the seat on the other side of Boq.
“What’s he wearing such silly paint for?” said Avaric. “He only draws attention to himself. And that skin. I wouldn’t want to have skin the color of shit.”
“What a thing to say,” said Elphaba. “If you ask me, that’s a shitty opinion.”
In the novel, the shared outsider status reflected in skin color is kind of a significant factor that Fiyero and Elphaba share that facilitates their intimacy (that said, it did feel like there wasn’t really enough attention paid to Fiyero in the novel’s Shiz section for as important as he turned out to be to the overall plot). The musical dispenses with this aspect entirely; though it definitely foregrounds the importance of Fiyero early on, it merely turns Fiyero and Glinda into football-and-cheerleader stereotypes. In the novel, Glinda wouldn’t have gotten with Fiyero in a million years:
“It was suggested to me once that [Fiyero] had been carrying on an affair with you in the Emerald City.”
Glinda turned yellow-pink. “My dear,” she said, “I was fond of Fiyero and he was a good man and a fine statesman. But among other things, you will remember he was dark-skinned. Even if I took up dalliances–an inclination I believe rarely benefits anyone–you are once again being suspicious and cranky to suspect me and Fiyero! The idea!”
And the Witch realized, sinkingly, that this was of course true; the ugly skill at snobbery had returned to Glinda in her middle years.
In the musical, Fiyero is a carelessly rich heartthrob whose eventual interest in Elphaba is supposed to show us he’s not as shallow as we’d assumed, and/or that Elphaba’s charisma is more powerful than we’d imagined. He’s not cheating on his wife by being with her as he is in the novel; instead, he’s cheating on the cheerleader.
This love triangle is also a product of one of the musical’s biggest changes–its elevation of Glinda into a second main character rather than just a supporting one. In the novel, Glinda fulfills her role of giving (or magically cementing) the red slippers to Dorothy after the house falls on Nessa, and Elphaba’s confronting Glinda about this after Nessa’s funeral is Glinda’s final appearance (during which she expresses the callous racism referenced above that obliterates any notion her relationship with Elphaba has improved her character, negating the sentiment expressed in the musical’s number “For Good”). In the musical, Glinda makes her way out to Kiamo Ko to try to warn or help Elphaba and is present for the climactic sequence, showing up so she and Elphaba can sing a moving duet about how much their friendship means to them. This felt like pure schmaltz to me because 1) it was schmaltzy, and 2) it didn’t feel earned. I was hard-pressed to see how Glinda had really changed Elphaba “For Good” when the height of her efforts seemed to consist of making Elphaba “Popular.” (I will note that the response in the theater from both strangers and the people I went with would seem to indicate that I’m in the minority here and most of the audience was moved by this number, and I’m tempted to say that’s mass entertainment for you–presented for “maximum emotional coercion,” to borrow a phrase from The Corrections.)
The musical may have dispensed with Fiyero’s otherness, but the added element of the love triangle seems to have almost inadvertently accentuated the homoerotic undertones between Glinda and Elphaba. The initial ambiguity expressed in the title and lyrics of the song “What is This Feeling” makes these undertones more overt:
What is this feeling?
So sudden and new?
I felt it the moment
I laid eyes on you:
My pulse is rushing:
My head is reeling:
My face is flushing:
What is this feeling?
Fervid as a flame,
Does it have a name?
Yeah, sure, it’s “unadulterated loathing.” In keeping with not being focalized on Glinda and Elphaba’s relationship, the novel’s lesbian undertones remain fairly understated:
For when [Glinda] chose to remember her youth at all, she could scarcely dredge up an ounce of recollection about that daring meeting with the Wizard. She could recall far more clearly how she and Elphie had shared a bed on the road to the Emerald City. How brave that had made her feel, and how vulnerable too.
Basically, Glinda replaces Dorothy in the musical’s climax, fulfilling a sort of parallel if more exaggerated role of enemy-turned-friend. Dorothy’s actual appearance in the novel “in the flesh,” so to speak, rather than as simply being spoken of by other characters, is a big part of the novel’s climax, presaged by her brief appearance in the prologue talking about the Witch. Dorothy never appears in the flesh in the musical; she’s referenced fleetingly before Glinda arrives at Kiamo Ko when Elphaba lifts a trap door in the floor and yells down at Dorothy that she wants the shoes. So apparently we’re supposed to understand that Elphaba has abducted Dorothy, but we never see an actual interaction between them. The trap door introducing the marginal Dorothy element was one of the things that made the second act of the musical feel rushed and incoherent.
It’s interesting that while the musical minimizes Dorothy’s role, it provides origin stories for the other classic characters that the novel doesn’t. The musical includes the one origin story the novel does touch on, the lion being cowardly because of his time as a test subject at Shiz (using this as a bonding device for Elphaba and Fiyero in a way the novel doesn’t), and then goes further by twisting Boq’s narrative into the Tin Man’s and Fiyero’s into the Scarecrow’s. In the novel, as Dorothy and her gang are approaching Elphaba’s fortress at Kiamo Ko, Elphaba secretly hopes Fiyero might not really be dead and has disguised himself as the Scarecrow (which of course turns out not to be the case), but I don’t recall any precedent in the novel for the Tin Man’s origin. But it does make sense that if you’re going to hint at one of the original character’s origin stories, you’d reference the others.
In the vein of the origin story and water changes, another thing the musical adds that I think makes the narrative more cohesive is Madame Morrible’s being responsible for the tornado that kills Nessa, designed specifically as a trap to lure Elphaba out so she and the Wizard can kill her. If the novel in any way implies that Madame Morrible is responsible for the tornado that kills Nessarose, I can’t find a reference to it, though the fact that this storm is the first of its kind does seem suspicious, to say the least. Otherwise, the description of its appearance is fairly vague and uncertain:
Such a maelstrom had not been known in Oz before. Various terrorist groups claimed credit, especially when news got around that the Wicked Witch of the East–also known as the Eminent Thropp, depending on your political stripe–had been snuffed out.
The musical seems to more openly represent the plotting between Madame Morrible and the Wizard that the novel implies may or may not actually be happening; it also maintains a structure pivoting around two different meetings between Elphaba and the Wizard, while adjusting what actually happens at these meetings. In the musical, the Wizard is specifically out to get Elphaba because of her open defiance of him during their first meeting, while in the novel he doesn’t even recall their first meeting at which he rejected her and her friends’ plea for Animal rights:
The Witch breathed in deeply. “I have met you before, you know,” she said. “You once granted me an interview in the Throne Room, when I was a schoolgirl from Shiz.”
“Is that so?” he said. “Oh, of course–you must have been one of the darling girls of Madame Morrible. That wonderful aid and helpmeet. In her dotage now, but in her heyday, what she taught me about breaking the spirits of willful young girls! No doubt, like the rest, you were taken with her?”
“She tried to recruit me to serve some master. Was it you?”
“Who can say. We were always hatching some plot or other. She was good fun….”
In the musical, Elphaba does not take false credit for Madame Morrible’s death after failing to murder her before she dies of natural causes. This turns out to be a blow to Elphaba’s character development in the novel of risking becoming as bad as those she’s fighting against:
“Surely [Madame Morrible] was beyond the point of hurting anyone now?”
“You’ve made the mistake that everyone makes,” said the Witch, cruelly disappointed. “Don’t you know there is no such point?”
“You had worked to protect the Animals,” said Boq. “But you did not intend to sink to the level of those who brutalized them.”
“I have fought fire with fire,” said the Witch, “and I ought to have done it sooner! Boq, you’ve become an equivocating fool.”
“Elphie,” said Boq, “look at me. You are beside yourself. Have you been drinking? Dorothy is just a child. You may not retell this to make her into some sort of fiend!”
Elphaba’s comment here that she’s fighting fire with fire foreshadows her death by fire–significantly, a fire she starts herself. Her death in this manner would seem to underscore the reading that she’s fallen victim to the same tactics she was originally fighting against–a reading that her survival in the musical negates entirely.
Elphaba’s recasting Dorothy’s true nature to suit her own purposes echoes what the Wizard has done to her, but this was seemingly too complex an element to try to jam into the musical, as were other motivations at the heart of Elphaba’s character:
Why hadn’t she joined forces with Nessarose, and raised armies against the Wizard? Old family resentments had gotten in the way.
Nessarose had asked for help in governing Munchkinland, and the Witch had denied her request. Instead the Witch had gone back to Kiamo Ko these seven years. She had squandered the chance to merge forces with her sister.
Virtually every campaign she’d set out for herself had ended in failure.
In the novel, Elphaba is like Dorothy, it turns out: both seeking forgiveness, and in Oz from another country. In trading Glinda out for Dorothy, the musical jettisons all of this.
In the novel, when Elphaba confronts Glinda over the slippers, you can see a nugget of inspiration for another change the musical made:
“I’ll remind you,” said Glinda, “that those shoes were coming apart until I had them resoled, and I laced them through with a special binding spell of my own. Neither your father nor you did that much for her. Elphie, I stood by her when you abandoned her in Shiz. As you abandoned me. You did, don’t deny it, stop those lightning bolt looks at me, I won’t have it. I became her surrogate sister. And as an old friend I gave her the power to stand upright by herself through those shoes, and if I made a mistake I’m sorry, Elphie, but I still feel they were more mine to give away than yours.”
This is a moment when Elphaba has to reckon with the consequences of the choices she’s made–she left Shiz for principled reasons, but that principled action still had its negative consequences, specifically on her own family member. The musical inverts this by making Elphaba the one to enable Nessa to “stand upright by herself through those shoes” rather than Glinda.
In the novel, as Elphaba seeks to carry out her mission of killing Madame Morrible, Elphaba ponders and overtly discusses with Glinda whether Madame Morrible really did put a spell on them at Shiz that’s been controlling them ever since:
“I just mean, Glinda, is it possible we could be living our entire adult lives under someone’s spell? … How do you know your life hasn’t been pulled by the strings of some malign magic?”
This discussion opens up into general symbolism about the Witch’s life, and about life in general:
“I have always felt like a pawn,” said the Witch. “My skin color’s been a curse, my missionary parents made me sober and intense, my school days brought me up against political crimes against Animals, my love life imploded and my lover died, and if I had any life’s work of my own, I haven’t found it yet, except in animal husbandry, if you could call it that.”
“I’m no pawn,” said Glinda. “I take all the credit in the world for my own foolishness. Good gracious, dear, all of life is a spell. You know that. But you do have some choice.”
“Well, I wonder,” said the Witch.
The shoes become a symbol of both the political and the personal that thereby muddy Elphaba’s motivations:
The Witch said, “Glinda, if those shoes fall into the hands of the Wizard, he’ll use them somehow in a maneuver to reannex Munchkinland By now they have too much significance to Munchkinlanders. The Wizard mustn’t have those shoes!”
Glinda reached out and touched the Witch’s elbow. “They won’t make your father love you any better,” she said.
The Witch pulled back. They stood glaring at each other. They had too much common history to come apart over a pair of shoes, yet the shoes were planted between them, a grotesque icon of their differences. Neither one could retreat, or move forward. It was silly, and they were stuck, and someone needed to break the spell. But all the Witch could do was insist, “I want those shoes.”
Following this shortly after Nessa’s funeral is officially Elphie’s and Glinda’s last encounter in the novel:
As she strode through the forecourt of Colwen Grounds, she crossed paths once again with Glinda. But both women averted their eyes and hurried their feet along their opposing ways. For the Witch, the sky was a huge boulder pressing down on her. For Glinda it was much the same. But Glinda wheeled about, and cried out, “Oh Elphie!”
The Witch did not turn. They never saw each other again.
So let’s note at this point Glinda’s exit from the novel–it’s in the final part (5), but with a fair amount still left to go (5 is probably the longest section in the book). Also, let’s note Elphaba’s more or less final attitude toward Glinda when she recalls Glinda after this final parting during her subsequent reunion with Boq:
“…Remember the saffron cream party after Ama Clutch’s funeral?”
The Witch breathed heavily for a moment; there was a pain in her esophagus. She did not like to remember those trying times. And Glinda had known full well that Madame Morrible was behind the death of Ama Clutch. Now as Lady Glinda she was part of the same ruling class. It was hideous.
Then there’s what Elphaba sees when she revisits Shiz to kill Madame Morrible:
The back lawn beyond the orchard was gone, and in its place stood a stone structure, above whose gleaming poxite doors was carved THE SIR CHUFFREY AND LADY GLINDA CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC AND THE THEATRICAL ARTS.
This spirit of Glinda’s public self is conveyed in the musical, as she overtly acknowledges to Fiyero the need to be duplicitous in the leadership role she occupies (denouncing Elphaba publicly while not believing what she’s saying privately). But in the musical, Elphaba understands this distinction between Glinda’s public and private selves–an element that becomes an interesting parallel to Elphaba’s own titular situation–while in the novel Elphaba’s final attitude toward Glinda does not seem to have evolved so sympathetically:
“You were devoted to Glinda, you were,” said Nanny. “Everyone knew it.”
“Well, no more,” said the Witch. “The traitor.”
The social commentary is pretty funny during Glinda and the Witch’s final encounter:
“I hear you were one of the first on the scene,” said the Witch, “when Nessarose died. How did that come to be?”
“Sir Chuifrey–my hubby–he has some investments in pork futures, you know, and Munchkinland is trying to diversify its economic base so as not to be at the mercy of Gillikin banks and the Emerald City Corn Exchange. You never know what relationship might develop between Munchkinland and the rest of Oz, and it’s best to be prepared. So where Sir Chuifrey does business, I do good. It’s a partnership made in heaven. You know I have more money than I can give away?” She giggled and squeezed the Witch’s arm. “I never imagined that doing public charity would provide such a rush.”
In consolidating characters–the love triangle mitigates Glinda’s businessman husband from the novel as a character–the musical sacrifices a lot, if not all of this commentary, though you can see something of Glinda’s spirit that’s been taken and used in the musical at play in this passage in the irony of the “good” themes–if she’s doing “good” for the sake of cultivating relations conducive to her husband’s business interests, is it then actually “good”…?
Elphaba and Glinda aren’t the only ones whose character development can’t be fully realized in the format of the musical. Take Elphaba’s father Frex, transmuted into a political role (governor) rather than religious one (preacher). The latter enables not only a deeper complexity of character development, but also enables that complexity to reinforce a major theme, as we see in one conversation between father and daughter:
“Why was I cursed to be different?” she said. “You are a holy man, you must know.”
“You are my fault,” he said. Despite his words he was somehow pinning blame on her instead of himself, though she still wasn’t clever enough to see how this was done. “For what I had failed to do, you were born to plague me. But don’t worry yourself about it now,” he added, “that’s all long ago.”
“And Nessarose?” she asked. “How do the weights and balances of shame and guilt account for her?”
“She is a portrait of the lax morals of your mother,” Frex said calmly.
“And that’s why you could love her so much,” said the Witch. “Because her human frailty wasn’t your fault.”
Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin will later be disputed by an all-knowing dwarf (more on that shortly) in a way that reinforces the main idea behind the title–people are constantly constructing narratives about others that are more about serving themselves than being anywhere near a true reflection of the individual that narrative is about. Frex’s version of Elphaba’s origin says way more about him than it does her.
The musical nods to the novel’s complexity in ways I think I would have found confusing had I not read the novel beforehand. Why the musical’s set is festooned with clock gears and characters’ lines are strewn with time references is not clearly established, nor is the purpose of the impressive but seemingly underutilized mechanical dragon that periodically flares to life above the stage. The novel clearly establishes these elements as part of a (anti-)religion: the Clock of the Time Dragon, which plays something of a significant role in the plot with its prophecies, something else the musical dispenses with, including this reference to some controlling power far greater than the Wizard who may or may not have specifically conspired to have Elphaba conceived:
“You work with Yackle.”
“We sometimes have the same intentions, and we sometimes do not. Her interest seems to be different from mine.”
“Who is she? What is her interest? Why do you hover at the edges of my life?”
“In the world I come from, there are guardian angels,” said the dwarf, “but so far as I can work it out, she is an opposite number, and her concern is you.”
“Why do I deserve such a fiend? Why is my life so plagued? Who positioned her to influence my life?”
“There are things I don’t know, and things I do,” said the dwarf. “Who Yackle answers to, if anyone, if anything, is beyond my realm of knowledge or interest. But why you? You must know this. For you”–the dwarf spoke in a bright, offhand tone–“are neither this nor that–or shall I say both this and that? Both of Oz and of the other world. Your old Frex always was wrong; you were never a punishment for his crimes. You are a half-breed, you are a new breed, you are a grafted limb, you are a dangerous anomaly. Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are. Can you be so dull that you have not figured this out?”
But one thing the musical and novel have in common is attention to wardrobe and a snarky sense of humor (“We can’t all travel by bubble.”):
Glinda approached slowly, either through age or shyness, or because her ridiculous gown weighed so much that it was hard for her to get up enough steam to stride. She looked like a huge Glindaberry bush, was all the Witch could think; under that skirt there must be a bustle the size of the dome of Saint Florix. There were sequins and furbelows and a sort of History of Oz, it seemed, stitched in trapunto in six or seven ovoid panels all around the skirting. But her face: beneath the powdered skin, the wrinkles at eyelid and mouth, was the face of the timid schoolgirl from the Pertha Hills.
The Witch took Glinda’s arm. “Glinda, you look hideous in that getup. I thought you’d have developed some sense by now.”
“When in the provinces,” she said, “you have to show them a little style. I don’t think it’s so bad. Or are the satin bells at the shoulder a bit too too?”
“Excessive,” agreed the Witch. “Someone get the scissors; this is a disaster.”
On the whole it seems the best possible version of the story would combine elements of both the novel and the musical. Through looking at both one can see how sprawling and in many places saggy the novel is–like the character of Shell, Elphaba’s and Nessa’s younger brother, who appears, very briefly, exactly once, and whose purpose is utterly unclear except for possibly some kind of setup for a sequel. One can also see how the sprawling canvas of a novel, while risking such sagginess and seemingly useless appendages, provides space for much more complex treatment of theme and (other) character(s). A whole other post could be written about how Maguire has developed this touchstone fantastical universe of Oz to couch a surprisingly sober critique of capitalism and religion alike in a comedic dressing gown that might be quite reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s original political allegories.
For me, having to shove through the morass of Times Square on a December Saturday afternoon in order to get to the theater where Wicked was playing provided another layer of thematic development. Being stuck in a horde of people when one is running late to get somewhere does not make one think the best of one’s fellow woman. I can’t even remember now if it was me or the friend I was with who joked about understanding why someone (i.e. terrorists) would want to blow up all of this shit-show sea of people being blasted by the seizure-inducing flashing lights of gigantic advertisements. We conceded it was probably not a good idea to make that joke too loudly. It all made me think of the good v. evil narrative that the Bush administration propagated after 9/11. It was easy to think of the terrorists as evil, harder to try to understand that perhaps there could have been reasons they did what they did other than just being pure evil, reasons that had to do with things America had done. A whole other post could be written about how Elphaba’s trajectory in Wicked dovetails with America’s surrounding 9/11, if you consider her character arc of becoming as bad as those she was fighting against (going to the “dark side” as exemplified in Abu Ghraib). It’s interesting that the musical version (the novel having been published pre-9/11) was launched in ’03, when the good-v-evil narrative was being propagated so intensely in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.
I don’t feel like we as a country have ever properly reckoned with the things we’ve done that are root causes of other problems we then claim to be a victim of (like certain migrant caravans…). Probably most of the people watching the musical with me in the theater that day would have been shocked by the idea that the 9/11 terrorists might have been anything other than pure evil, even as they were consuming a story about a politician spinning a story to make someone else seem evil to distract the populace from the fact that they, the politician, were not who they purported to be. (The terrorist parallel was patently a point I did not bring up to the group I attended with, one of whom had lost many colleagues on 9/11 and was revisiting NYC for the first time since then.) But there was something a little queasy to me about sitting in this plush theater, every aspect of which was more or less a manifestation of the very apex of the advantages of Western capitalist privilege, watching a show purporting to point out the fallacies of the duplicitous political rhetoric that engenders such privilege. I’d have to say that potential irony seemed lost on most of the audience…though I know that my logic is somewhat cynical and in theory would discount any commentary made through the inherently extravagant medium of a Broadway musical.
Of course these themes go beyond the Bush administration. Politics maybe haven’t so much as changed in the Trump era as been taken to their–logical?–extreme. In teaching my freshmen composition classes this semester, the subject of which is rhetoric (how language persuades), I mentioned the narrative of Wicked as a classic example of rhetoric at work–more specifically, Trumpian rhetoric: if someone might expose your true evil/inadequate nature, you make up a claim to discredit them so people won’t believe their claims about you. (It’s even better if the accusations you hurl at them are actually things you yourself did.) Trump’s words are the Wizard’s smoke and mirrors. Many of us see through him, but it remains to be seen how much that will actually matter.