I read Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked a few years ago—or rather, I listened to it on audiobook—and I thought it was quite good. It wasn’t as fantastic and mindblowing as I had been led to believe, but it was more than enjoyable. When it was time for my Master’s comps reading list, I put the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum on my list, and while it was good, I thought that Maguire’s world was more interesting to read about. (I’m all about renewing old franchises with fresh material, though). So when my fiancée bought us tickets for Wicked the musical a few months back, I was ecstatic. I knew a little about the soundtrack, but not a lot.
The date finally rolled around after months of anticipation, and my fiancée and I went to see the traveling show of Wicked Saturday night in Nashville at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). I was simply blown away by the show’s quality and spectacle. The story stayed close enough to the novel to be coherent, but was obviously much enhanced and adapted for the stage. We walked out of the theater with huge smiles on our faces and a few tears in our eyes, but I had a nagging thought about something I had seen earlier that day.
Apparently, 2009 is the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. The book has been out decades longer than that, for those of you caught unaware. I daresay that everyone alive is aware of the story of The Wizard of Oz, but if you’re not, I’ll spoil this for you: “good” prevails.
I put “good” in quotes because of the impact that Wicked has on the narrative. The musical starts out by framing the narrative around what happens after Elphaba’s (the Wicked Witch of the West) death as we know it in The Wizard of Oz. By the time Wicked’s narrative circles back to that point, the concepts of good and wicked are blurred so badly that the audience should, by all rights, question exactly how credible the original narrative’s perspective is.
Yeah, you heard me right: I said that an adaptation of a retelling can affect an original work’s narrative credibility.
The true power of a retelling’s narrative is to pay homage and enhance the original text by letting new audiences realize the depth and importance of the classic. Wicked does just that by having its parallel narrative never actually interact with Baum’s original plot; the only time one actually sees Dorothy and her crew are when they impact Elphaba’s story, not the other way around. Taken in concert, the story is exponentially enhanced and seems to be a little flat without considering both sides. Even though it could be considered commercialized fan-fiction (and if you don’t know my thoughts on fanfic, they’re not positive), taking either Wicked or The Wizard of Oz alone really feels like missing half the story now.
As far as the show on Saturday night goes, I think that we were privy to the most manic rendition of “Popular” that has ever been performed. Normally, Galinda primps and mocks Elphaba in stereotypical “I’m better than you” fashion, but Saturday night, the actress really played up the subtext of desperation that had to exist in Galinda. It came through loud and clear, and I’m going out on a limb to say that it worked better than the normal one. I just wish I had a clip of how understudy Michelle London did it so I could experience that vision of it again and again. If you guys and gals ever get a chance to see her in a show (Wicked in particular, obviously), spend the cash and take the evening. If her other performances are as quality as this one, you’ll be impressed. Her vocals were not the best in the cast, but it was obvious her heart was in the role. And to me, that means a great deal.
The only thing I really didn’t like about the musical adaptation of Wicked was the ending. I won’t say a lot on this for those of you who don’t know the differences between the novel and the musical (and even in the original The Wizard of Oz movie and book), part of the impact of Wicked comes from the emotional poignancy of some of final songs and the altered narrative takes some of that away. I just don’t think it works, but I suppose it could be considered necessary due to the medium and target demographic. If that’s vague enough, then good. If you get what happens anyway, oh well.
Wicked is very likely the best stage performance I’ve ever seen. I do what I can to see at least a few plays a year, one of which is professionally done, and Wicked easy beats out The Lion King, Putnam County Spelling Bee, and RENT, which was my reigning favorite, by far. I don’t know what I can see in coming years to beat it. It was that good. So if something Wicked your way comes, make sure you make time for it.