All of us are familiar with the children’s story, The Wizard of Oz and most of us have seen the 1939 classic film adaptation in which Dorothy is caught up in a tornado and dumped unceremoniously into the land of Oz. There, along with the assistance of the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and her little dog Todo, Dorothy must follow the Yellow Brick Road to find her way home – back to the farm in Kansas. Her nemesis is the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, who desires vengeance for Dorothy having inadvertently killed her sister.
The Witch is, of course, the villain.
Or is she?
This is the approach taken in the Broadway musical Wicked!, which explores the journey the Witch, Elphaba, takes from being an ambitious and starry-eyed student of magic to becoming the notorious figure that features so prominently in Dorothy’s adventure. The show is creative and entertaining but what lingers with the audience is the impression that perception is everything, and there is a second point of view to every story. In Dorothy’s world, the Witch is to be hated and feared, but all Elphaba wants is the ruby slippers, which hold great sentimental value for her, as they are the only thing left of her father.
She does not sound so very “wicked,” does she?
Elphaba, we come to learn, has made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of the Wizard of Oz; a simple traveling salesmen who has confounded the occupants of the Emerald City into believing he is all-powerful, the Wizard has chosen to unite the people against a common enemy—talking animals. By stirring up prejudice and encouraging censorship against them, the Wizard hopes their downfall will boost his popularity. When Elphaba refuses to assist him on moral grounds, the Wizard launches a propaganda campaign that maligns her reputation, making her an outcast in her attempts to defend the animals of Oz. The populace is quick to believe his lies and Elphaba becomes the villain, a legacy that follows her throughout her life and causes “a celebration throughout Oz” at the news of her death.
Life is of course more complicated than that, for she must also contend with the repercussions of her attempted good deeds: bewitching the ruby slippers so her sister can walk only encourages Nessa in her selfish behavior, having devastating consequences on the Munchkins; freeing a lion cub in the wood comes back to haunt her (the Cowardly Lion blames her for having defended him, and removed all desire to fight for his own welfare); and her desire to free the flying monkeys rebounds on the man she loves. Frustrated at being thwarted at every turn, Elphaba swears “no good deed will I do again!” and becomes, momentarily, the villain that the Wizard made her out to be.
The only one who knows the truth about the tornado (the Wizard arranged it in order to kill Nessa and force Elphaba out of hiding), Elphaba’s true intentions in Oz, and everything else is Glinda, who in the end does nothing to liberate Elphaba’s reputation but does remove the Wizard from power and “encourages” him to return home. The theme of “wickedness” is fully explored: what makes someone wicked? In many instances, the motives behind these “wicked” actions have rational reasons and sometimes are even intended for good – but for those on the receiving end are horrific. Elphaba becomes “wicked” when she turns on Dorothy and gives up all desire to be good. Glinda has her own amount of “wickedness” in perpetrating lies for the Wizard, whom she initially attempts to please by putting aside her own moral guidelines (she does not approve of oppressing the animals, but would never speak up in their defense). Nessa begins as sweet but rapidly transforms into a ruthless tyrant in ruling over Munchkinland.
Yet somehow, all of their faults pale in comparison to the Wizard, whose motives are purely selfish and stretch into deeply immoral through his reckless pursuit of fulfilling his own agenda at the cost of the inhabitants of Oz.
In the end, we learn it is not the green-skinned witch that is so very wicked after all, but instead the forces surrounding her that decide she must be silenced. ♥