Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West: 5/10. A great idea, poorly executed with sloppy plotting and clumsy craft.
Wicked (the musical): 8/10. Appealing characters, tight and plotting, but the music is a bit forgettable.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a simple story. Oz is terrorized by the Wiked Witches of the East and West. Dorothy shows up and kills both of them by accident.
But who were the Wicked Witches? Didn't they have names? How do we know they were wicked? Might she simply be misunderstood? Gregory Maguire retells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West in his his book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. We see the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, her sister Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East, and Glinda the Good, their time in school, interactions with the Wizard, and eventually Elphaba's fall at the hands of Dorothy. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman adopted Maguire's book into the musical Wicked. Both versions portray the Witch as fundamentally good, victims of politics and circumstance.
Gregory Maguire stumbles quickly in telling the tale of Elphaba. The first fifth of the book follows Elphaba's parents from before Elphaba's birth through her early childhood. While some background is important, it drags on too long.
The second problem is that Maguire spends most of the book focusing on anyone except Elphaba. Her father gets a chapter. Her mother gets a few. Glinda gets a few. Boq gets a few. Fiyero gets a few. Sarima gets a few. To all of these characters, Elphaba is a bit of a cypher. She walks on, does various strange things, then leaves. Seeing a bit of how Elphaba influences the lives of others is interesting, but I spent much of the book wanting to follow Elphaba around, not these secondary characters. Elphaba only gets the focus for the last quarter of the book.
Maguire has apparently never been told, "Show, don't tell." Maguire is all too happy to tell us things. Galinda decides to change her name to Glinda as a sign of respect for another character. This seems like a noteworthy event, one lightly to lead to interesting responses from other characters. We don't get to see this; we're simply told that it happened. Worse, Galinda chooses "Glinda" because of a specific event that happened earlier, but that we've never heard of before! (It is possible that it was mentioned before, but if so, he glossed over it. An event that left an impression on Galinda should have left an impression on me.) The name Glinda has a wildly recognized historic connection, , but we only learn that sixty pages later!
Elphaba spends a chapter or two working with a professor on his research. We never see Elphaba doing that work, her interactions with the professor, her excitement, her opinions changing. Instead, we only hear about it when Elphaba describes the work to Boq.
The enchanting of Nessarose's silver shoes (the ruby shoes in the movie The Wizard of Oz) is an important event, but it again happens "off-screen," only related to Elphaba months or years later.
Maguire spends a lot of time following irrelevant events which have no impact on the later story. In the most egregious case, we follow a secondary character to a sex club for a bit more than five pages.
Indeed, Maguire wanders all over throughout the book. We meet people and see events that don't matter in the long run. A few characters show up repeatedly, but without explanation; they're just mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It never feels like Maguire has a theme or goal in mind, he just rambled on for several hundred pages, then Dorothy offs Elphaba and we're done.
(Spoilers follow, this paragraph only.) Finally, the story ultimately feels pointless. Everything Elphaba attempts fails. She fails her part in an assassination plot. She fails to protect her lover. She fails to apologize to her lover's wife. She fails to rescue her lover's family. She fails to even learn where her lover's family was taken. She fails to murder an old enemy. She fails to recover the silver shoes. She fails to kill the wizard. She spends years on some of these tasks without result. Then Dorothy kills her, by accident. In the end Elphaba's life was in vain. Other characters don't even learn anything from her death. It doesn't feel like a tragedy, just a waste.
At the very end, Maguire tries to reveal the ironic twist, but fumbles. He's shown us the key prop repeatedly, but without attaching significance. It's a minor detail whose origin is uncertain enough that while there is a connection, it fails to truly hit home.
Maguire kept me interested in knowing what would happen to Elphaba next, to see where her story lead, and ultimately impact Elphaba would have. My desire to know kept me pushing past the many flaws. It Maguire had brough the book to a satisfying ending, it would have been worth my time. Maguire's wasn't able to bring it to a satisfactory ending, and I'm just left annoyed. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West wasn't worth my time.
Schwartz and Holzman took the fuzzy mess that is the book and extracted the best bits. They then carefully knit those bits into a tight story, added skilled writing, and gave us Wicked in musical form.
Wicked shows off the strengths of a good theatrical adaptation. There is no time to waste on on irrelevant details. Characters and ideas are hoarded and reused to avoid hypnotizing the audience with an endless stream of names and faces. When the story ends, everything feels like it had meaning and purpose. The result is satisfying.
Holzman makes it easy to empathize with all of the characters, good, bad, and secondary. The good characters are flawed, the bad characters are well intentioned, the secondary characters have depth. All are well written.
The one stumbling point is the music. It's not bad, it's just workmanlike. In an otherwise strong show, it is a shame that the music does the job an nothing more. The songs are a bit muddled, bouncing around in style so that no strong overall impression is left. The lyrics try to cram too many ideas and words into too few beats. Songs from some musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Into the Woods) stick with you, immediately after the show and for years afterward. The songs from Wicked faded from memory moments after the end.
While the mediocre music is unfortunate, it is an otherwise strong work. I enjoyed it immensely and would consider seeing it again.
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