Features Reviews

RetrOZpective: Wicked

Are people born wicked, or is it thrust upon them against their will? The nature of evil is the overarching theme for Wicked, the first instalment of The Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire. Following a revisionist take on the Oz books, Wicked follows the life of Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire’s book dives into a more complex, greyer Land of Oz, where politics, propaganda, racism, and inequality are raw and unflinching. The book was adapted into the brilliant Broadway musical, which in turn is being adapted into a two-part film.

Maguire conceptualised the book after considering the nature of evil; whether or not a person is born that way, or are pushed to evil by circumstances. That is the journey Elphaba takes to become the Wicked Witch. She is pushed to the brink and publicly condemned as a villain, so she chooses to become one. Contrariwise, the Wizard is portrayed as a tyrant, yet is loved by his people. In the middle, we have Glinda (or Galinda to begin with), who is a good person, though chooses to side with the Wizard to feed her own ambitions.

Elphaba is introduced with green skin and a fear of water. Her sister, Nessarose, was born without arms, though is beautiful and popular. Elphaba attends Shiz University, winding up with the snobbish Glinda as her roommate, though they become friends (with a large dose of LGBT subtext hanging over them). Political intrigue and romance soon come into play, introducing Fieyro, a prince from Vinkus, whom Elphaba has an affair with years later. The Wizard strips animals of their rights, leading to the murder of Elphaba and Glinda’s teacher Dr. Dillamond. The two witches go to beseech the Wizard to end his political moves. However, things go wrong, leading Elphaba to join a rebellion against the Wizard. A series of tragedies over the years lead to her transformation into the Wicked Witch.

The book has a much more grounded and detailed take on Oz, introducing politics, themes of racism, and religion, such as the Time Dragon Clock. The characters are complex, often carrying dualism. Elphaba is a powerful witch who is outcast for her beliefs, whilst the Wizard is secretly powerless, yet rules Oz. Elphaba remains a sympathetic character throughout the novel, resorting to terrorism, but refuses to harm children – at least until a certain farmgirl drops a house on her sister. You can obviously predict the book’s outcome, but that was to be expected.

Three more books followed, including Son of a Witch, focusing on Elphaba’s son Liir; A Lion Among Men, about the Cowardly Lion; and Out of Oz, which is about Liir’s daughter Rain.

In 2003, the Broadway musical debuted. Stephen Schwartz wrote the musical’s songs, whilst the show was directed by Joe Mantello, creating a show with some of the greatest stage songs in history. Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth were cast as Elphaba and Glinda. Both were already Broadways stars, though Wicked propelled them to stardom. Menzel’s passion and mind-blowing vocals really made Elphaba a standout character, whilst Chenoweth brought much wit and heart to Glinda. The stage was designed to resemble a clock, complete with the incredible Time Dragon Clock puppet towering over the audience. Rounding out the original cast was Norbert Leo Butz as Fiyero, Michelle Federer as Nessarose, Christopher Fitzgerald as Boq, Joel Grey as the Wizard, and Carole Shelley as Madame Morrible.

The musical takes liberties with novel’s plot for simplicity’s sake. The priority shifts to focus on the rivalry-turned-friendship between Elphaba and Glinda, as well as their love triangle with Fiyero. The Wizard is revised to less tyrant and more well-intentioned conman, much like his 1939 counterpart. Madame Morrible, the Ursula-esque headmistress of Shiz, as the main antagonist, pushing her agenda to climb up the Littlefinger ladder of power. Nessarose, who was born without arms in the novel, is instead wheelchair-bound. Boq, a relatively minor character in the Baum books, becomes a major supporting character. Boq is in love with Glinda, who pairs him up with Nessarose, though their romance is one-sided, turns toxic, and has tragic if surprising consequences.

Most of the deeper politics are cut out, though the core themes remain ever present. Elphaba evolves from a withdrawn bookworm, going through many tragedies and misunderstandings to become the iconic villain; yet never loses the humanity she has sought for all her life. Glinda starts off as very vain and ditzy, prone to siding with the winning team in order to catch a glimmer of the power of others. Yet, she matures into perhaps my favourite incarnation of Glinda, good-hearted as the character should be.

Of course, Idina Menzel would find later fame as Elsa in Frozen, a film which takes obvious inspiration from Wicked; a film about an isolated girl with untapped magic, severe angst, and a habit of bursting into fantastic numbers. Disney’s others films like Oz the Great and Powerful, and Maleficent, both take keys from Wicked.

Speaking of which, the show’s score and songs are just fantastic. Highlights into Glinda’s peppy solo “Popular”, the moving duet “For Good”, and Elphaba’s first number “The Wizard and I”. The biggest and best song is “Defying Gravity”, literally propelling Elphaba to new heights as she finds power within herself, freeing herself from the ground and the tethers that bring her down. It is a sensational end to the show’s first act, being the emotional high point of the musical. Wicked remains hugely popular internationally, being the most well known Oz adaptation after the 1939 film.

For years, rumours and announcements swirled about a film adaptation of the musical. At long last, a film is being made, due for release in two parts in 2024 and 2025. The film is directed by Jon M. Chu, who has previously directed In the Heights and two of the Step Up films. In the roles of Elphaba and Glinda are Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande, both with stellar musical and theatrical careers behind them. The cast will be rounded by Michelle Yeoh as Madame Morrible, Jonathan Bailey as Fiyero, and Jeff Goldblum as the Wizard.

Whether you love the book, the musical, or will come to love the films, Gregory Maguire’s incarnation of the Oz characters has to be amongst the best. Wicked is just, well, wicked!

What are your thoughts on Wicked? Love the musical, or not much of a fan? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell

Leave a Comment