Saturday, June 10, 2006

what, me wicked?

My 11-year old has taken an extreme liking to the CD of the musical "Wicked," a Broadway hit of a couple of years back which has finally made it to Philadelphia. The show was adopted from a book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, written by one Gregory Maguire, who apparently did a similar reworking of the Cinderella story. The musical adaptation was headed by Stephen Schwartz, who also did Pippin (which my kids also love), Godspell, and other less famous musicals. As best I can tell from the songs, which I've hard at least 1,000 times each, the story goes something like this:

It seems that the Wicked Witch of the West, the quintessential bad guy of Wizard of Oz fame, didn't start out so bad, after all. She had a real name, Elphaba (derived by Magurie from L. Frank Baum, author of the original Oz stories) and was actually a decent person who had the misfortune to be born ugly and green, in a world that values people who are pretty and white. Her misfortunes multiplied when she became friendly at school with Glinda (originally spelled Galinda), with whom she developed a life-long friendship but also a degree of jealousy since the latter had everything while Elphaba, well, didn't. (There is also something about a disabled sister, who may or may not have been the Witch of the East according to different members of my family, but that's another story).

Eventually, Elphaba finds herself in a castle in the land of Oz, which is ruled by a corrupt and (it goes without saying) white male wizard, who is oppressing the talking animals as part of the general fraud he has committed by pretending to be a wizard when he is really a second rate snake oil salesman from rural Kansas. (One of the brilliant things about the show is that it tries to avoid changing anything in the original Oz story, so that it can pretend to be filling in details left out in the original script.) She tries to help these unfortunate creatures--the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, etc.--but in the process just makes everyone (especially the wizard) angry, until a posse comes and melts her with the now infamous bottle of water that parents have been explaining to confused children since 1939. The show ends with Elphaba falling through a door in the stage . . . but then mysteriously reappearing, leaving open the questions of her future redemption as well as her frienshlip with Glinda, the couple's duet, "Because I Knew You," being one of the show's catchier numbers. There's more, including a lover affair with one Fiero ("proud" in Italian) that gives Elphaba her best line--"for once, I feel really wicked"--but that's the essential story.

"Wicked" is plainly a good show, and it seems churlish to complain about its rather sentimental, politically correct nature, especially if it gets my kids away from video games for a little while. Yet I have to wonder about a few aspects.

For one thing, there is the issue of good and evil and its sidestepping by the Elphaba ruse. The power of the original Oz lay in its confronting the issue of good and bad and the moral dilemmas that it creates. Was it justified for Dorothy to stalk the Witch, who had a deserved reputation for miscreance but had never done anything to her? Was Miss Gulch, the earthly character on whom the Witch in Dorothy's dream is based, really such an evil person, or were the Gales merely jealous of her because she had more money and enforced unpopular legal rules? Was the Wizard--a fraud in the original as well as adjusted versions--really a bad person or just (in his own words) "a good man [who had become] a bad wizard," and what does this even mean if it is true? These issues derive their power precisely from their being unstated or subconscious, forcing the viewer (and especially children) to confront them in the way they perhaps haven't before. By providing a sugary explanation for the whole story, "Wicked" avoids these problems.

A second point relates to "Wicked's" explanation of the Witch's evil tendencies. It is surely reasonable, if not particularly original, to expose children to the dangers of prejudice and the unfairness it creates. But is the notion that "I was born green, therefore nothing is my fault" really the message we want people to carry away from popular entertainment? What would a Black or Asian child, in particular, carry away from this performance? Instead of a confrontation with evil, "Wicked" tends to provide an excuse for it, thereby reinforcing rather than combatting the worst features in our culture.

Finally, there is the simple fact that "Wicked" lacks the Wizard of Oz's artistic and perhaps even musical merit, although this is largely a matter of taste.

I don't want to be hard on the show, which I think is creative and entertaining, and raises a lot of issues left unresolved by the original. (I have always wondered if the Witch wasn't really Auntie Em in disguise--I think the latter morphs into the former in one memorable scene--but maybe we just shouldn't go there.) But if this is what we are teaching our children, it's little wonder that they are so irresponsible. Maybe some of them, upon seeing the imitation, will want to go back for the original, the way I started studying Italy after seeing one too many Italian movies. The real thing is usually more painful; but it is nearly always more instructive.


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