SPOILER ALERT: This review contains information about the plot of the musical Wicked. If you have not seen this musical and are hoping to see it in the future, read no further. This is your only warning.
Earlier this week I promised a review of Wicked, the very successful musical that opened on Broadway in October 2003 and now has a traveling company that performed downtown for two-and-a-half weeks this month. The story, based on a book, gives an alternate view of The Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and made into a popular movie in 1939. Wicked focuses on the witches of the land of Oz: Elphaba, her sister Nessarose, and Galinda (Glinda), who are to become, respectively, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wicked Witch of the East, and the Good Witch of the South. Beginning with the celebration after Dorothy has melted Elphaba, the musical looks back to the conception and birth of Elphaba, her college days (in which she meets Galinda), and her subsequent career.
The traveling production that I saw was impressive. The performers were all talented actors, singers, and dancers. The sets, costumes, and props were superb. The musicians did a fine job, and the production was well-received by the audience. From a technical viewpoint, the show was a rousing success, and if that were the purpose of this review, I would give Wicked the highest marks.
On the other hand, the script and story of Wicked are heavy-handed and disappointing. In fact, I have not been so repelled by a reboot of a familiar story since Star Trek came out in 2009. In both cases, the writers and directors did a fantastic job of conveying details from the original tale but failed to create a likeable story in their re-creation. The songs in Wicked are not memorable, and the story told by the production is disappointingly preachy.
To begin, Elphaba is green. Much of the story concerns diversity and self-acceptance, as Elphaba’s father and classmates are largely opposed to Elphaba because of the color of her skin. Her mother eats white berries during her second pregnancy to prevent a second green child; as a result, the mother is poisoned and dies in childbirth, and the daughter (Nessarose) is born with damaged legs. Elphaba blames herself for the tragedy. When the two sisters leave for college, they meet Galinda, who is portrayed as a dumb blonde, Homecoming Queen, feeling entitled to every privilege in the book. Galinda gives Elphaba the trademark black hat as a joke, but later befriends Elphaba as she learns to have compassion for those who are different.
Two love triangles develop at the college, involving the three future witches and male students Fiyero and Boq. Meanwhile, an unnecessary subplot is added as some malevolent power seeks to deny the animals in Oz the privilege of speech. (Once again, diversity and acceptance are hammered home as the themes of the musical.) Elphaba is excited to meet the Wizard of Oz, assuming that in the Emerald City she will finally be accepted, since everything there is green. But the Wizard is revealed to be the power depriving animals of speech, and so Elphaba becomes his enemy.
Elphaba’s magic is responsible for the winged monkeys, as she tried a levitating spell on one of them but somehow got the spell wrong. She and Fiyero free a lion cub that was being held at the school; somehow, in the second act, the lion has become an adult (the Cowardly Lion). Magic spells likewise turn Boq into the Tinman and Fiyero into the Scarecrow. Boq blames Elphaba for the transformation and is her outspoken opponent, but Fiyero remains faithful to Elphaba. Meanwhile, the Wizard campaigns against Elphaba, labeling her as wicked, and forcing her into hiding. Madame Morrible, once a teacher at the college the witches attended and now the Wizard’s press agent, summons the tornado that drops Dorothy’s house on Nessarose, attempting to draw Elphaba out of hiding. Here the witch’s shoes are explained: they were silver when her father gave them as a gift to Nessarose, but they turned to ruby slippers when Elphaba enchanted them, giving her sister the ability to walk. Elphaba is furious when Glinda gives the shoes to Dorothy, but (in one of the better lines of the play), Glinda tells Elphaba to “get over it; they’re just shoes.”
The idea that Elphaba could be melted with water is originally a joke started by her intolerant enemies. Near the end of the musical, Dorothy indeed throws a bucket of water on Elphaba, who appears to melt and disappear. But this is revealed to be a trick, allowing Elphaba to end her ordeal of being hunted by the Wizard and his minions. Fiyero (now the Scarecrow), is part of the trick; he and Elphaba escape together. Finally, it is revealed that the Wizard was actually Elphaba’s biological father, which explains her green skin and her magical powers.
I found the retelling of the Wizard of Oz to be sadly lacking in quality for several reasons. First, the appearance of the three friends to help Dorothy was totally undermined by their backstories as presented in Wicked. Second, changing the Wizard from a well-meaning humbug into a scheming evil dictator also disappoints. Galinda as a dumb blonde who learns acceptance of others is overplayed. And the attempts to change the Wicked Witch of the West into a likable character, although an interesting idea, is spoiled by heavy-handedness.
That said, if you want to see a powerful performance with superb effects (including an astounding animatronic dragon who hovers above the stage but has no connection to the plot) and join the many others who have viewed this spectacle, be sure to buy a ticket when Wicked comes to your area. If you are fond of the Baum book and of the Judy Garland movie, though, stay away from Wicked. J.