Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Singing Through Fairyland: Wicked

Since the first Oz book had been turned into a rather successful little musical movie, it was not surprising that Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz decided to turn Geoffrey Maguire’s revisionist Oz novel into a splashy Broadway musical—turning to inspiration not merely from the Maguire novel, but also the 1939 MGM film and (to a lesser extent) the 1970s Broadway show The Wiz. The end result is something not at all like Maguire’s novel, and not much like the film (although several visual and verbal references to the film are scattered through the show), and a demonstration of just how far away from the original Baum book some adaptations can get.

I finally had the chance to see the musical (yes, for the first time) when a touring production arrived in Orlando. I found it both marvelous, in the best sense of the word, and occasionally heartbreaking and infuriating, not in the best sense of either word.

Like the Maguire novel, Wicked tells the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, scorned and tormented because of her green skin, and the beautiful, wealthy, superficial Glinda, the Good Witch, her friend and rival. Several characters are ruthlessly cut from the tale (some to the decided improvement of the storyline), the first few parts of Maguire’s novel are as ruthlessly compressed into a single song with some dancing, and the book’s ending has been…how do I put this? Tweaked.

As in the novel, Glinda and Elphaba meet at college and immediately loathe each other (they even have a little song about it) but slowly become friends and romantic rivals. They live in a changing world: the once respected Talking Animals of Oz are facing deep persecution and slowly losing the ability to talk. Both study sorcery under the guidance of the occasionally word-challenged Madame Morrible, in the hopes that Glinda can become still more perfect (although, really, as she assures us, she already is) and Elphaba can meet the Wizard, and persuade him to help the Talking Animals of Oz. They do a bit of dancing and singing along the way.

(The musical assumes that the audience will have a basic knowledge of the 1939 MGM film—some of the verbal and visible jokes are based on this—but can still be enjoyed without this. No knowledge of the Baum books or the Maguire novel is needed.)

The first act sparkles with wit and fun, and ends in a genuinely spectacular number (“Defying Gravity,” pictured above). Alas, the second act never quite manages to top or even equal that moment, but still provides its own entertaining moments. As in the best Broadway musicals, Wicked offers plenty of dancing, a bit of romance, a few surprise sight gags, dancing, and Flying Monkeys. (Okay, the Flying Monkeys aren’t exactly ubiquitous in Broadway shows, but they OUGHT TO BE.)

Either because the musical was created and produced after 9/11, or because it is a Broadway play, or both, Elphaba’s terrorist activities against the Wizard of Oz—which Maguire viewed unflinchingly and realistically in the novel—are deeply downplayed here, with Elphaba more viewed as someone just rescuing sympathetic talking animals, not involved in activities that end up killing people, adding to her guilt and acceptance of the term “wicked.” This has the beneficial side effect of making Elphaba much easier to identify and sympathize with. But it does lead to the aforementioned problems with the second act: none of Elphaba’s activities seem to justify the response of the land of Oz to her activities. Oh, certainly, we are meant to see certain manipulations of the press and public opinion—certain references to the White House administration in charge during the composition of this musical (2003) seem inevitable. But it does lead to a less engrossing, and less believable plot line. (I also found myself blinking at the revised origin stories for the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, but well, Broadway.)

These aren’t the only changes from novel to musical. The Glinda of the musical is far more privileged, far more wealthy, far more self-centered; therefore, when she finally learns a bit of kindness, it means more. The Elphaba of the musical is even more lonely, ridiculed and despised than the Elphaba of the novel, and therefore, when she finally learns to be friends, to love, this too means more. The growing friendship between the two is far more convincing in the musical than in the book. If the romance between Elphaba and Fiyero is somewhat less convincing—okay, considerably less convincing—it at least fits in with the best of Broadway tradition.

I have said that the musical is about both witches, and of course takes its title from Elphaba, but, again and again, Glinda upstages Elphaba every time they appear on stage together, and even when they do not. That might just have been our performers, but I don’t think so: our Elphaba had a genuinely glorious voice, and acted well. No, Glinda gets all of the best lines, the biggest laughs, and the most clear cut character development. And although initially presented as just the brainless, superficial popular girl, certain changes made to the plot end up making her appear more sympathetic, at times, than Elphaba. I never warmed to the Glinda of the novel; I loved the Glinda of the musical.

And another change: however, um, ham-handed the musical might be in certain respects (Hi! It’s 2003 and your national leaders ARE WARMONGERING!) for the most part, it spends considerably less time hitting the audience over the head than the novel did. And, not surprisingly for a Broadway musical, it offers considerably more hope for most of its characters. This is not a musical where everything continually goes wrong for Elphaba, which means it is, for the most part, easier to view.

With one exception.

Nessarose.

Nessarose, Elphaba’s sister—later to be the Wicked Witch of the East—is introduced early in the musical. Her life is tragic, we are told, because she is in a wheelchair. It’s all very sad. Just in case we missed this the first time, Glinda later sings (it’s on the Broadway cast album): “See that tragically beautiful girl? The one in the chair? It seems so unfair, we should go on a spree, and not she” and asks the Munchkin Boc to ask Nessarose to the dance. Boc says he will do anything for Glinda—even to the point of asking out the tragically beautiful girl out.

Nessarose is delighted, because she could not possibly go to the dance on her own. We are told that thanks to the wheelchair, she has never had a happy moment before this (despite the loving care of her father and sister, and the way her father ignores her sister while showering her with gifts); as she sings, “Finally for this one night, I’m about to have a fun night, with this Munchkin boy Galinda found for me.” It takes, you see, the kindness—well, feigned kindness—of an able bodied blonde woman for a disabled person to have a good time. Nessarose challenges Boc, saying that he only asked her out of pity; Boc’s stumbled response (partly to hide from Nessarose that he’s in love with Glinda) assures her, no, no, not all that convincingly. A thrilled Nessarose decides that they deserve each other, and this is their chance; a flustered Boc suggests a dance (partly in a failed attempt to spark Glinda’s jealousy), and then, although she has shown herself able to wheel herself around, proceeds to spin her wheelchair around and around for her.

During the intermission, I looked up wistfully at the bar, wishing I could go there and get a drink.

I couldn’t, because it was accessible only by stairs, and I use a wheelchair.

One of my friends walked up to the bar, got coffee, and returned while I sat sadly in the wheelchair.

(Not at all incidentally, we were not in the seats we had tickets for; the theatre, after seeing me in the wheelchair, moved us to other seating.)

In the second act, Nessarose accuses Elphaba of not caring for her. Elphaba, hurt, uses the Grimoire to transform the Silver Slippers into the Ruby Slippers (using a very clever bit of stagecraft), allowing her sister, finally, to walk. A rejoicing Nessarose assumes that now, she and Boc can finally be happy and together, since the wheelchair has been keeping them apart. She calls for Boc. To Boc’s great credit, he does not suddenly find Nessarose attractive just because she’s out of the chair. Instead, he gleefully announces that now that Nessarose is cured, Nessarose can stop oppressing the Munchkins just to keep him around, since he’s finally free to follow the love of his life—Glinda, of course—and stop her from marrying Figaro. An infuriated and deeply hurt Nessarose leafs through the Grimoire, finding a spell that shrinks his heart. She then begins wailing—well, singing, but it’s meant as wailing—that she can’t possibly bear to have him die and Elphaba has to save him. Alas, Elphaba cannot reverse spells, and so she is forced to turn Boc into the Tin Woodman, a tin creature without a heart.

And then Nessarose gets crushed by a house so that Elphaba can get arrested, but that’s a minor bit.

Hmm.

I flashed back to the Patchwork Girl, cheerful and proud about looking so different; to Handy Mandy, who used her seven hands and freakish looks to stand up against injustice (and Ozma!), to the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, who proudly claimed that their different bodies, seen as disabilities by others, were in fact superior to “meat” bodies, whatever the disadvantages of straw and tin. To the Tin Woodman of Oz, with its thoughtful take on disability, change, and identity, of its oddly more realistic take on what can happen in relationships after a disability. (I say, oddly, because I actually do not expect to find this sort of musing on serious adult romantic relationships in a children’s books.)

Let’s get this clear: the musical tells us that the only reason the tragically beautiful girl in the wheelchair gets asked to the dance is because the popular girl is trying to get rid of an unwanted boyfriend, because, of course, why else would anyone want to go on a date with someone in a wheelchair. And, because she’s in a wheelchair, she has never, ever had any fun before this, because people in wheelchairs don’t have fun. And, when friends, instead of, I don’t know, inviting her along, kindly dump unwanted boyfriend material on tragically beautiful girls in wheelchairs, the tragically beautiful girls are, of course, not rightfully insulted, but deeply grateful. The musical tells that someone will eventually see through the skin of ostracized green girls, giving them hope—but wheelchair girls can only find romance—and troubled romance at that—with the aid of others.

And oddly, none of this does anything to make Nessarose into a sympathetic character; whatever pity might have been roused in the first act—pity, not sympathy—is completely lost in the second.

All this in a musical that elsewhere argues for tolerance.

I realize, of course, that a revisionist Oz would and should question the assumptions in the Oz books—including their remarkable inclusiveness. I realize that even the Oz books themselves sometimes felt short of inclusive goals.

But it’s one thing to question this inclusiveness—as Magurie does—and quite another to blithely ignore it, and slip back into standard disability tropes. Quite another to create a musical where people blithely sing that no one in a wheelchair can ever be happy, that wheelchair users are tragic, pitiful figures. And I cannot even excuse the authors of the musical by saying they had not read further in the Oz series—although I doubt they did; the story of the Tin Woodman, disabled first by a spell and then by a lack of a heart, is right there in the MGM movie and the Maguire book. He even sings a little song about it.

When I discussed this with an able-bodied friend, she suggested that the first act of the musical showed something else—Nessarose playing up her disabilities for sympathy and attention. This may well be true, but it works only because the musical agrees that wheelchairs, and the people in them, by nature, should be pitied. And at that, it works with another problematic narrative of chronic illness: that those with long term illnesses fake or exaggerate their symptoms to gain attention and sympathy.

These can be very dangerous narratives.

To be fair, the musical does remove one of the problematic features of the book: the suggestion that Nessarose is disabled because of her mother’s infidelity—or Elphaba’s green skin. Glinda fiercely and correctly blames medication instead, assuring Elphaba that she is not at fault. And I have already mentioned the positive that Boc does not suddenly find Nessarose beautiful and attractive just because she is finally out of the chair.

But I found the rest of Nessarose’s story deeply painful, to the point where my eyes filled with tears, more than once. Angry tears.

And this is terrible. Because, as I noted, Wicked has a lot to love. I imagine most of you would have a wonderful time at the show—and it’s certainly more entertaining and fun than the novel, if less thoughtful. It has characters that the audience can identify with and love; it has marvelous sets and wondrous stagecraft, a dragon hovering over the stage (which won my little heart). It has real humor, dancing, and some wonderful music, particularly in the Defying Gravity sequence.

But damn it, I wish the show could have admitted that people in wheelchairs have fun too, and don’t need to be objects of pity.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida. She promises that her next planned posts, about books featuring mutated children, will be more cheerful and shorter.

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