Thoughts on Wicked

My first introduction to the musical Wicked was through my siblings blasting the soundtrack incessantly when I was home on breaks from college. In that way, I was innoculated against all desire to see the musical and I knew nothing about the plot except for the ending, which my brother explained for me. Well, I saw it last weekend. And I liked it. (I also really like the people who I saw it with, so that adds immeasurably to the experience, but I digress.)

I am not a theater buff, so I will stick to praising the plot and the ideas presented. Being a dusty bookworm, I tend to find ideas a little more exciting than singing and dancing — though the swooshing trenchcoats were cool. As I proceed, I go with the assumption that you already know everything that there is to know about the plot and that we are discussing it with the same sort of mutually shared knowledge on the huh-duh level of “did you know that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother?” so no more plot spoiler warnings for you!

The reworking of the familiar Wizard of Oz story does something interesting with the good-evil split between the Wizard and the Good Witch of the North on the one side with the Wicked Witch of the West on the other side. Somewhere Chesterton says something about how Dante could have written a Divine Comedy with heaven under the floor of hell as a reversal of moral polarity, but that the reversal would just be a sophistic exercise. In Wicked, although making the Wicked Witch the good guy sort of tickles the same itch scratched by calling some dessert “sinfully” delicious, the writers execute far more than a sophistic exercise.

The story starts with a typical high school story where the dorky rejected girl (Elphaba, the Wicked Witch) is very powerful and cares about all the things worth caring about, and the successful and popular brainless blonde (Glinda, the Good Witch) tries to work the system to get her own way. In the background you have The Man (the Wizard and Co.) trying to maintain stability and order; although Elphaba is talented enough to join the Wizard and be successful in real life beyond school, she finds that the traditional authorities above her are corrupt and incompetent, squeezing life out of some people to provide for other people. Just as she masters the source of power that the Wizard was hoping to use to keep his sinister charade going, Elphaba runs off and declares war against the Wizard and all his works.

Where the Wizard is trying to blame animals for some drought afflicting all of Oz and give all of Oz a common enemy to unify against, the Witch sees the value of all living things and tries with varying degrees of success to use her powers for good. Through school, Elphaba and Glinda become very good friends, and their friendship sustains the tension between them as Elphaba damns the Wizard’s way of doing things and flies off to obey her conscience. Elphaba against The Man and Glinda employed by The Man provide an exquisite tension as real good works its way up through the rottenness of evil. The Wicked Witch is the first to realize what good is, but through a little romantic drama and personal growth, the Good Witch realizes that she cannot mindlessly obey the social system that has caught her up.

As far as the story we know is concerned, Dorothy is just a girl caught up by a ghastly plot to catch the Wicked Witch. The Wicked Witch has Dorothy locked up in her tower because Dorothy involuntarily came into possession of the Witch’s sister’s shoes, so the formerly brainless Good Witch intervenes and convinces Elphaba to let Dorothy go and end the rebellion against the Wizard. The Wicked Witch gives the Good Witch the source of her power and concocts a ruse by which she can escape and let Dorothy go. The Good Witch deposes the Wizard and all his cronies to restore health to The Man, as it were, and they start again with an official union between The Man and the people trying to do good.

Through the story, evil is not really an alternative to good; it is a corruption and twisting of good. The Wizard even has good intentions for the totalitarian-ish regime he tries to impose, but he uses rotten methods to achieve those ends. This is a popular culture demonstration that good is more fundamental than evil and that evil is ultimately a stale and rotting tendency toward nothingness. The same guards that try to capture the Wicked Witch in the middle of the play are the same ones who arrest the Wizard’s cronies in the end. The fight between good and evil happens in one unified realm of creation with one source of life, so yesterday’s jackbooted thugs may very well be tomorrow’s firemen saving kittens stuck in trees — God is fighting to bring back his rebellious possessions, not steal stuff from the devil.

Another interesting bit is the reality of exceptional characters with more power and moral authority than the mindless mob. Though the clever and the strong usually try to crush the simple and the weak, Wicked demonstrates what the clever and the strong need to do. The popular Glinda and her boyfriend-for-a-little-while Fiyero personify the mindless mob with their hopes to control life through their popularity and charisma. Elphaba is powerful and independent, and she could have been a Nietzchean Superman and rule over the pathetic rest of Oz. Instead, her friendship with Glinda and with Fiyero raises them to her level of moral authority and healthy autonomy as they also learn to use their social influence and magical power to serve rather than to force life to serve their convenience. God raised nothingness to sentience and Jesus made his formerly anonymous disciples into figures that rich people named buildings after. Whether or not you are a genius, giving your life to put others ahead really is much more alive than sucking them dry.

All in all, going to see the musical provided a great deal to think about and even helped me to bring together a lot of things that I have been thinking about for a long time. Although Jesus answers everything, popular culture can give you a boost. You never know what happens when you get out once in a while.