Once upon a time and far far away there was a great land with an amazing wizard and a terrible Wicked Witch! She was green from head to toe, no doubt a reflection of the evil within her heart. She spread terror wherever she flew on her broomstick that was obviously missing it’s catalytic converter because it spewed thick dark smoke across the sky, leaving evil messages about the great Wizard and all his friends, even an innocent little girl (who may or may not have stolen some beautiful red or silver shoes from the Wicked Witch’s dead sister). Oh, and they say she could shed her evil green skin as easily as a snake and that "her soul is so unclean pure water can melt her"... Or so they say... But who are they? Who writes the history books?
If this story sounds familiar, that is because it is the premise of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Arguably the 1939 movie version is the most well known, as most people will know exactly who you are for Halloween when you step out in a gingham dress and striking red slippers rather than the silver slippers given to Dorothy by the Good Witch of the North, Glinda, via the late Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road to see the Wizard of Oz who can send her back to her Kansas home, befriending a Scarecrow who wants a brain, a Tin Man who wants a Heart and a Cowardly Lion who wants to be brave. He sends them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West and then he will grant their desires. When Scarecrow catches on fire and Dorothy tries to save him by dousing him with water she also hits the Witch and melts her with that clear, pure, unique polar molecule that is water. The friends then go back to the Wizard with the Witch’s broom and pointy hat, only to find out the Wizard is a con man with no real amazing powers at all. However, he gives them trinkets to commemorate examples where they showed the exact trait they desired from him. Everyone is happy, the conniving Wizard floats away from Oz in his amazing balloon and Glinda sends Dorothy home by teaching her how to use her Ruby Slippers. "There’s no place like home."
Lovely and sweet story! However, as much as I adore fairy tales, I suppose every child reaches an age where they want more. More complexity in the characters or more characters asking questions like, "how on earth did you run Oz and hoodwink all the people into wearing green glasses to think their city was made out of real emeralds? Isn’t lying supposed to be wrong?" or "Why would you tell an innocent young girl to just run off and kill some lady you don’t like?" or even "Why would a GOOD fairy steal a dead lady’s shoes?" It can become hard to see the magic in tales anymore because all we can see are these questions. Some try to revamp the fairy tales to either hypereroticised or hyperviolent romps with differing levels of success. My absolute favourite of these revisionist fairy tales is based on Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire.
Though I personally find Maguire's revisionist style a little bleak, one day I was introduced to the musical Wicked with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Breaking into Broadway with Godspell, Schwartz is probably most familiar to readers – at least in work if not by name – through his compositions for Disney's Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Enchanted and the stage musical Disney's My Son Pinocchio: Geppetto's Musical Tale as well as Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt. His credits include three Oscars, six Tony nominations, one Golden Globe, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, and four Grammys, one of which was for the original cast recording of Wicked starring Idina Menzel in the title role. I have seen this musical twice: once in London at West End and a second time in Calgary. Both productions were beautifully presented, complete with fire-breathing dragons and brooms and green ladies defying gravity.
The curtain opens to the chorus singing "No One Mourns the Wicked"... we have entered the world of Oz right after the dreadful Wicked Witch of the West has been killed by the innocent “Farm Girl.” The crowd is ecstatic, and even more so when Glinda comes along in her bubble to give the official statement to all the excited munchkins. Yet as the munchkins sing, the Good Witch can't help but wonder “are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” We learn that the father of the girl who would become the Wicked Witch was the Mayor of Munchkinland and his wife... Well, she had a tryst with a travelling salesman who had her drink a green elixir as they enjoyed each other’s company. We soon see the birth of Elphaba (named after L. Frank Baum) where she comes out lovely... and with froggy green skin! Her father rejected the child, Glinda says, adding that "it couldn't have been easy." One munchkin asks if the rumours are true that the two witches were once friends, and she reveals that they did know each other in school, a long time ago.
The story that unfolds is full of complex drama as Elphaba deals with life at school, alternating between outcast and Glinda's pet project, her longing to meet both her real father and the Wizard, her search for identity and belonging, embracing the very talents that alienate her from others, finding the possibility of love (and a love triangle), and her discovery that all in Oz is not as well as one might think. The result is a personal drama that make a grown-up fairy tale. Each character grows, not without cause, but for the strong relationships they form with each other.
Another reason to love this musical is the music itself, with complex harmonies that are elegant but not too modern or difficult to sing along with. Duets and trios are not just singers taking turns. The lines in the song “For Good” weave in and out with two different melodies but still blend beautifully together, communicating how Elphaba and Glinda are so different yet still best friends in their final moments together before the climax of the story rips them apart. Because the musical takes place in Oz, the possibilities for creative costuming and silliness is boundless. Wicked is visually stunning no matter which continent you see it on. The number of unique shaped costumes and different striped stockings on each leg was delightful!
I also felt that this was an ode to every girl growing up (I am biased, I am female). From the start, people are polarized as popular and outcast girls. Both need each other to sharpen an area that the other is not good at and both will change over time. Wicked features two very strong female leads but their ambition is never considered to be a bad thing in itself. The point where it becomes bad is when people choose to make cruel choices to hurt each other.
However, what I love most is that it is realistic. Working with the world of history, you always have to look at where the writer was coming from because you will never get an absolutely true account of events. You always get an account of things looked at in one perspective. Rarely do you get a true right or wrong. In my role as a museum educator, I was speaking with children one day about the battle of Crècy during the 100 Years War between the French and the English. I had a girl ask me, "who was the good side and the bad side?" In most things in life it is not about who is Good or Bad. Not about who is Good or Evil but more, who is courageous enough to do the right thing at the right time... And still be labelled "wicked."