I have to admit I was enchanted by the Los Angeles production of Wicked at the Pantages Theater. It is a visual masterpiece and the songs are so catchy, so good–it’s a really interesting, fun and delightful show. I’m no theater critic and though I’ve “trod the boards” in community productions (and one professional Shakespeare theater production), I am no theater rat. We had a great time, all five of us and we’d gladly go again.
But you know I cannot leave well enough alone by now, don’t you? So, allow me to pick nits and talk about the play’s content. Wicked is the prequel and then sequel to L. Frank Baum’s timeless masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. It’s the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba and her college roommate, Galinda (Glinda), the Good Witch and Elphaba’s sister, Nessa Rose, who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the East. It’s a backstory, if you will and you’re left feeling sorry for Elphaba and realizing why she was called wicked in the first place.
The play revolves around a simple plot twist and that is that Elphaba is an animal rights activist. No, I’m not kidding–that’s the plot. It seems that the magical land of Oz was home to a wide and diverse group of beings from Winkie’s to Munchkins and even talking goats and monkey’s. According to the Wizard, who is speaking to Elphaba, “that’s what people want…” In other words, people are all dolts and the way to live in harmony is to give the dolts what they want. Oh, he never says that the people of Oz are dolts out loud. But the implication is, the mass of people are idiots and what you do is give them what they want. So, the Wizard started locking up the “animals,” one of whom is Elphaba’s college professor, and takes away their ability to talk any more.
So, here’s the thing: When Elphaba is outraged at the Wizard’s corrupt government, she lashes out at him and so he, along with Madame Morrible (played by Carol Kane rather nicely, I thought), condemn Elphaba to the citizenry as “evil” and “dangerous.” Throughout the beginning of Act II, then, Glinda is forced to fight Elphaba, but she cannot really bring herself to do it, even though the man she loves is actually in love with Elphaba instead. Glinda the Good is corrupted at first by the Wizard, but as the play comes full circle, she has her eyes opened to see that the corruption is bad and she sides with Elphaba, but only in private. We’re given to believe (and Glinda believes, too because “she can never know..”) that Elphaba didn’t actually die when the water was thrown on her. She actually sank into a trap door and when that scene from the film is tastefully done in shadow-play behind a curtain, Dorothy leaves and Elphaba is “resurrected” to be with her beau, who is actually the scarecrow.
Evil is good. Good is evil. What you thought was evil, wasn’t. It was just animal rights activism gone awry. Elphaba wasn’t really bad. And besides…as the wizard says, “Truth is just what people agree upon.” Earlier in the play, lies are laughingly referred to as “history.”
So, yes–one could argue that there were some good lessons in Wicked. One shouldn’t judge books by their covers, etc. And yes, it’s fair to say that the Good Witch, whom you really sort of loathe at the beginning because of her syrupy-sweetness, comes to a hard-won maturity in the end. But there is also a powerful lot of Post-Modernism in the story that tweaks L. Frank Baum’s original to the point of unbelief. We are left assuming that the story of The Wizard of Oz is actually the story of an adulterous wizard who is really Elphaba’s father (he was having an affair with Elphaba’s married mother) and the man who raised Elphaba thought her hideous anyway. He favored Nessa Rose and after her ascendancy to her father’s place as Governor, she is still unable to get the man she loves to love her and so in a fit of anger, she shrinks his heart and turns him into a Tin Man. The “tragically beautiful” Nessa Rose is quite evil indeed, but the evil is the result of unrequited love. After all, in the post-modern world, everything has a reasonable explanation.
Post Modern ideas are not new, of course. But they are frustratingly ubiquitous. My own problem with post-modernism is prima-facia, I don’t think Truth is relative. I know that people have perceptions and that many people see things differently, but that doesn’t mean there is no objective Truth. What it means is that we are flawed and broken people who frequently cannot discern the absolute Truth and so rather than try, we say that it’s all relative. Saying it, however, doesn’t make it so.
So, yes–the play is fun and whimsical, even, with a great score and some absolutely mesmerizing singing. But the story haunts me not because it is so good, so relevant, so powerful or so convincing. Rather, it haunts me because it leaves me thinking that I’ve been duped all along and that if I don’t believe that, then all that is real–love, friendship, genuine kindness, cannot be mine. And if that’s true, then that is Wicked indeed.