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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Meta: The Evolution of Glinda and Elphaba

This is probably only the twelfth or so time that I've mentioned going to see Wicked in Sydney last month, but now at last I have something more substantial to say about it. After watching the stage musical it struck me just how much L. Frank Baum's original story has been reconfigured, reshaped and restructured since its publication in 1900, especially regarding the Good Witch of the South and the Wicked Witch of the West.

The gradual change is reminiscent of our treatment of the Robin Hood legends. They began as an oral tradition in which Robin Hood was originally a serf and/or a rather dark figure of folklore. Anonymous balladeers shifted the action from Barnesdale Forest in York to Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Friar Tuck and Maid Marian were late additions, included to counter the pagan influences of the old tales. The Elizabethan upperclass appropriated and reimagined him as one of their own: the Earl of Huntingdon who willingly gave up his wealth and title in order to fight for justice.

The old songs and folktales eventually gave way to the printed word, each new writer changing, adding or expanding various components of the stories. Sir Walter Scott popularized the idea of setting the story in the time of King Richard and Prince John; later writers took this further and made Robin a Crusader who fought in the Holy Land only to return home and find corruption had flourished in the King's absence.

The 1938 film brought Guy of Gisborne to the fore as one of Robin's more dangerous enemies. In the 1980s, Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood introduced the idea of a Saracen as part of the outlaw band, a trend that has continued into most subsequent adaptations. Most recently, the character has appeared in rather questionable circumstances on both Doctor Who and Once Upon a Time.

My point in sharing all this is to illustrate that a similar phenomenon has occurred over time with The Wizard of Oz. As each generation goes by, more new content is grafted to Baum's books until it's near-impossible to separate the content of the adaptations from the original story. The Broadway musical is based on Gregory Maguire's novel, which was inspired by the 1939 MGM film, which was adapted from L. Frank Baum's original book, which was drawn (at least in part) from traditional fairy tales. All four versions of the story have their roots in the same watering hole, but each one is drastically different.

But one thing remains the same. Despite all the revisions and variations of the story that have saturated popular culture, each one is structured (to some extent) around and between two poles: the Good Witch and the Evil Witch – the women we now know as Elphaba and Glinda.

Out of simple curiosity, I want to track the evolution of these two characters from start to finish; from book to stage musical. Moving through the compendium of Oz-related material, it's fascinating to see the progress of these two women, and how the years have shaped them.



The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Reading Baum's original book after a childhood of immersion in various other takes on his material – namely the 1939 film – can come as quite a shock. The famous adaptation starring Judy Garland has had a profound impact on how we visualize this story, and many of its most memorable and iconic elements are unique to the film. Finding them changed or absent in the book can be rather jarring.

And as it happens, Baum's book is strange. Extremely strange. Like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, those other quintessential children's fantasy books of the era, there is an underlying "scatter" to the narrative and world-building that demonstrates the relative newness of children's literature as a genre, and its shift from didacticism to pure entertainment. Peter Pan is the most structured of the three, but Baum most resembles Lewis Carroll in regards to story content. One gets the sense that each of them just made things up as they went along, throwing in anything that caught their fancy.

But whereas Alice simply wandered about, Dorothy is at least given direction and a goal: to find the tools she needs to return home. This takes her to the Emerald City, to the Wicked Witch's castle, and finally to Glinda's castle in the south. Yup, it's not until the book's final chapters that Dorothy meets Glinda, the Witch of the South. The Witch she meets on first arriving in Oz is the unnamed Good Witch of the North, described very differently than what the movie presents her as:

The little woman's hat was white, and she wore a white gown that hung in plaits from her shoulders; over it were sprinkled little stars that glistened in the sun like diamonds ... her face was covered with wrinkles, her hair was nearly white, and she walked rather stiffly.


It is she that gives Dorothy the silver (not ruby) slippers that belonged to the dead Witch of the East, bestows on her a kiss of protection, and sends her to seek advice from the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. And that's it. Having given Dorothy shoes, protection and a direction, she disappears from the story completely.

It's not until well after the demise of the Wicked Witch of the West and the exposure of the Wizard of Oz as a fraud that Dorothy eventually meets Glinda. She's described as the most powerful of all the Witches, and she dwells in Quadling country to the south. From her Dorothy learns how to use the silver slippers to return to Kansas (she must tap the heels three times, no chanting of "there's no place like home" required).

Here the Witch's appearance is a little bit closer to what the film depicts:

She was both beautiful and young to their eyes. Her hair was a rich red in colour and fell in flowing ringlets over her shoulders. Her dress was pure white; but her eyes were blue and they looked kindly upon the little girl.

The colour red is significant, all the more so since she's described as sitting on "a throne of rubies." Perhaps the most interesting thing about Baum's rendering of Oz is that it's divided into four distinct parts, each one specifically colour-coded. Munchkinland (east) is blue, Quadling Country (south) is red, Gillikin (north) is green and the land of Winkies (west) is yellow. The inhabitants of each one wear their respective colour and paint their homes and fences accordingly.

And so when it comes to the Wicked Witch of the West, her trademark green skin is nowhere to be found.  If anything, she's affiliated with the colour yellow, living as she does in what's described as a Yellow Castle in the Yellow Land of the West. Also missing is her broomstick, pointed hat and high-pitched cackle.

She appears for the first time approximately half-way through the story, sending out three contingents of wild animals (wolves, crows and bees) to dispose of Dorothy and her friends as they approach. After the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion deal with these creatures, she resorts to the enslaved Winkies and then the Winged Monkeys, who bring Dorothy and the Lion to the Castle to serve as slaves.

Intimidated by the protective kiss on Dorothy's forehead and the silver slippers on her feet, the Witch puts Dorothy to work as a scullery maid. When she finally manages to trick Dorothy out of one of the slippers, the little girl is so angry that she grabs a nearby bucket of water to throw over her. You know what happens next, and the Witch's part in this story comes to an end. It's over and done within in a single chapter.

That such a memorable cinematic villain could be developed out of such a perfunctory character is quite astounding (though perhaps it's that very lack of distinction that gave Margaret Hamilton the creative wriggle-room she needed to make the part her own), for even the details that Baum does give on the Witch's power and personality are erased in the film.

She is described as having only one eye, "as powerful as a telescope" and she carries an umbrella with her instead of a broomstick, something that indicates her aversion to water. She uses a silver whistle and golden cap to summon her minions, and is also something of a coward: "the Witch was much too afraid of the dark to go into Dorothy's room at night to take off the shoes".

Like I said before, often it feels like Baum just throws whatever he fancies into the mix.

So the two (or rather, three) Witches are not so much characters as they are plot-points; guides and obstacles situated along the course of Dorothy's journey back home. To be frank, they're not particularly interesting either. Their appearances are brief and their personalities flat, without even the vivid character design they were given in the film to recommend them.

All things considered, it's not really an auspicious beginning for the amount of characterization that follows.

The Wizard of Oz 1939

Undoubtedly the most popular take on Baum's story is this: MGM's big screen movie adaptation starring Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke. It's surprisingly loyal to the source material, with most of the changes based on omission rather than expansion, understandable enough considering the book is filled with subplots that simply couldn't be conceptualized for film or which had to be cut for time.

The book for example, continues for seven more chapters after the Wicked Witch's demise and the Wizard's departure in his hot-air balloon, detailing Dorothy's journey to Glinda in the south (involving hostile trees, a china city, a monstrous spider, and the Hammer-Heads – strange creatures with elongated necks that use their heads as weapons). The book also has more backstory, including how the Tin Man became tin and where the Winged Monkeys came from, as well as scenes that had to be condensed in the film, such as each member of Dorothy's group entering the Wizard's chamber separately, and each one seeing him in a different form.

But it is the original aspects of the film that have marched straight into pop-culture imagination and set up permanent residence there: the framing device that depicts the entire adventure as Dorothy's dream, the songs (particularly Somewhere Over The Rainbow), the sepia/colour shift as Dorothy enters Munchkinland, Glinda's transportation bubble, the change from silver slippers to ruby ones (to make the most of "glorious Technicolour") and of course, all those oft-quoted lines:

I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Ding dong, the Witch is dead!

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!

Ooh, what a world, what a world.  

And you and you and you... and you were there!

There's no place like home.

Out of all these additions and modifications, the most interesting thing the film does is to enlarge the roles of Glinda and the Wicked Witch, changing them from minor characters to bold embodiments of Good and Bad, pitted against one another other and regularly interacting with Dorothy over the course of her journey. 

The visual design of Glinda and the Witch is all about making a striking contrast, with the colour-coding of the book adjusted from yellow and red to black/green and white/pink, a dramatic shift in appearance that becomes the most memorable thing about each character.

Glinda's costume every little girl's fantasy dress: it's shiny, sparkly, and is as big as a wedding cake. Her accruements (crown and wand) look like they're made of spun sugar and iridescent cellophane. Her infamous line to Dorothy: "only evil witches are ugly," belies the fact that she looks and sounds more like a Fairy Princess than a Good Witch.


As graceful and pretty and harmless as the bubble she arrives in, Billie Burke's performance is one of perfect composure and confidence. Despite her initial confusion over whether Dorothy is a good witch or a bad witch, she soon assumes the role of all-knowing mystical guide, who gives Dorothy information, guidance, and a direct path home (eventually at least; by the end it becomes apparent that she was trolling Dorothy for the entire length of the film by withholding information about the power of the ruby slippers).

As her opponent is Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, decked out in black robes and pointed hat, speeding across the sky on her broomstick. Such features all have precedence in the depiction of evil witches throughout history, but (as far as I'm aware) the green skin is an invention of the film. Chosen because of its otherworldly shade, as well as how good it looked in Technicolour, Maggie Hamilton's skin – the colour of envy and putrescence – is what began our tradition of depicting cartoon witches in shades of green.

But it's really down to the actress that we owe our longstanding fascination with the Witch: the high voice, the grasping fingers, the most famous evil cackle of all time.



The film also ensures that each woman has a far more active part to play in Dorothy's story. As I said above, the film version of Glinda is a Composite Character of the elderly white-clad Witch of the North and the red-haired Witch of the South (Billie Burke gets the title/clothing of the former and the hair/name of the latter). But to combine the two characters into one creates an immediate plot hole: that though Baum's Witch of the North had no idea of the power of the silver slippers, the film's Glinda knows all along that Dorothy has the ability to return home.

Naturally this involves a far bit of scrambling to explain why Film Glinda doesn't immediately send Dorothy back to Kansas. They resort to the usual It's The Journey that Counts and You Had to Find Out on Your Own line of reasoning, suggesting that Glinda felt Dorothy didn't deserve to go home without first learning to appreciate her family. Glinda is practically omniscient in this regard, especially as she acts as something of a guardian angel over the course of Dorothy's journey, most notably in reversing the effects of the sleep-inducing poppy field with a magical snow fall after the Wicked Witch curses it (in the book the poppies are naturally soporific and Dorothy is rescued through the help of the Queen of the Field Mice).

The Witch too is a far more regular fixture in Dorothy's travails. In the book she appears for that single chapter, sending her Winged Monkeys to capture Dorothy, enslaving her in the hopes of getting her hands on the shoes, and duly perishing when water is thrown on her. Her role is significantly expanded on in the film: she appears in a billow of red smoke in the midst of the Munchkinland celebrations, threatens Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, enchants the poppies to put her into an eternal sleep, rides her broomstick to the Emerald City to write "Surrender Dorothy" in the sky, and finally holds the girl captive after Dorothy and friends approach her castle at the behest of the Wizard.

By having the Witch pursue Dorothy throughout Oz, spurred on by her desire for the ruby slippers, she becomes a much more prominent and compelling adversary.

It's interesting then that a villain with such energy and panache is simply an extension of Dorothy's subconscious fear of her neighbour Mrs Gulch (as the framing device would imply). This middle-aged woman is a thoroughly unpleasant person, for whether or not her claims about Toto's viciousness are true, she intimidates the Gale family into giving up Dorothy's beloved dog so that it might be destroyed. Auntie Em also makes a point of saying she's wealthy and owns half the town – clearly with enough influence to get a permit from the Sheriff to take Toto away.

While the farmhands and Professor Marvel are all accurate reflections of their Oz counterparts (Marvel's charlatanism, Hunk's clumsiness and common sense, Zeke's bravery in the face of fear, and Hickory's... er – well, he gets a line about becoming a statue), the Witch is an exaggeration of Mrs Gulch, magnifying her maliciousness and greed. More than any other character, her dual role is made clear when Dorothy actually sees her transform inside the twister from a woman on a bicycle to a witch on her broom, complete with that immortal theme music. 

And what makes this doubly interesting is that Glinda is the only significant character in Oz not to have a real-world counterpart. A possible option would have been to use Auntie Em in both roles (she at least fits the description of the North Witch) but that connection isn't made. Maybe she's meant to represent Dorothy's missing (and presumably deceased) mother?

It's as mysterious as Frank Morgan playing the roles of the gatekeeper, carriage driver and guard as well as the Wizard, something that threw me through a loop when I was a child, assuming that the Wizard was roaming around in disguise.

But what the film really brings to the two (technically three) characters is to turn them from mere points of a compass to vivid archetypes of Good and Bad. Their striking visual design and added involvement in the film's plot made them potent symbols that could be explored, subverted and deconstructed over the ensuing years.

Interim

In the fifty-six years between the release of the MGM film and the publication of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, the popularity of both the book and film continued, with Baum going on to write fourteen more Oz books, which were supplemented by novelties such as sheet music, postcards and pins. After his death, various ghost-writers took over the series for dozens upon dozens more instalments.

Following the MGM film were several other attempts to capitalize on the Oz magic. It's been adapted into a Japanese anime series, a stage musical, a Muppet movie, a series of comic books, and (as I recall) a cartoon series in the 80s that focused on the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion as the main characters. Geoff Ryman's Was and Philip Jose Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz are both novels that deconstruct the material, and in 1985 Disney released the dark and interesting (though somewhat ill-advised) Return to Oz.

More recently, the Syfy Channel aired Tin Man (2007) a steampunk miniseries set in Oz, followed by Disney trying again with the release of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), a film that explored the background of the Wizard. Once Upon a Time has inevitably tackled the subject matter, making an explicit link between greenness and envy in their portrayal of the Wicked Witch.

And I didn't realize it until recently, but a computer game that I played when I was a child (the fourth in the King's Quest series) was based around the conflict between two fairies, one good, one bad. They each bore a striking physical resemblance to the Good and Wicked Witch (one has a white gown and a name that starts with G, the other green skin, black gown and winged minions) and the evil one even directly references the Wicked Witch of the West as she dies.

Suffice to say, the story is everywhere. There has been no real "surge" in Oz-related stuff, just a steady fascination with it over the years. Unlike England's Neverland or Wonderland, Oz is distinctly America's fairyland, filled as it is with scarecrows, cornfields and new-fangled tin men. Yet there are still some remnants of the Old World, such as lions and witches and queens, making the whole thing a bit of a muddle but simultaneously a perfect mirror to the imaginative culture that was forming in 1900s America – fresh and innovative, but not yet ready to break all ties to the past.

And it's that dichotomy between old and new, tradition and technology, good and bad, which makes Oz a perfect breeding ground for revisionist retellings.

Wicked: The Live and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Published in 1995, Maguire's book not only inspired the musical, but also kick-started to some degree the sympathetic treatment of villains throughout Hollywood. You can draw a straight line from this book to the likes of Shrek the Third, Megamind, Maleficent, and other stories that seek to redeem, explain or just plain excuse the wicked actions of various iconic villains.

The novel, for all intents and purposes, is a prequel and a character study. A prequel to what though – the book or the film? Glinda and the Witch are so different in each one that the novel would change drastically depending on which one Maguire chose to adapt. As it happens, he cherry-picks from both: though Baum's book is used as the backdrop for Maguire's story, two aspects of the film shape the characterizations of its two main characters: the Witch's green skin and the combination of the North and South Witches into one.

So for a mind saturated in the film, it can be a mild challenge to read Wicked and recall that the Witch does not stalk Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City, and that she and Glinda do not have an on-going feud over the course of the adventure.

Furthermore, anyone who comes to the book out of love for the musical is in for a nasty shock. Though the musical had its fair share of sorrow, it's generally a very light and comedic production that focuses on the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda. Maguire's novel is filled with violence, sex, murder and grotesquery, delving into the question of what makes a human being evil and whether or not they can escape their preordained fate. There's probably a bigger gap between Maguire's novel and the musical than there is between Baum's story and the MGM film.

As a prequel to Baum's story, Maguire is extremely careful in making sure the main events of the two books are consistent. He provides details and reasons behind the Witch's green skin, her acquisition of magical power, her wolves, crows and bees, her broomstick and pointed hat, her residency in the castle to the West and how she (in Baum's words) "drove the Wizard out". There is exploration of the four countries and their cultures that Baum only mentions in passing, such as the red-skinned Quadlings and the blue-clothed Munchkins.

Maguire even expands the roles of characters such as Boq who had such an insignificant role in Baum's story you'd be forgiven for thinking he's an original character. But nope – there he is in Baum's story:

Dorothy ate a hearty supper and was waited upon by the rich Munchkin himself, whose name was Boq... When she had tired of watching the dancing, Boq led her into the house, where he have her a room with a pretty bed in it.

Likewise, Maguire accurately retells the Tin Man's backstory, this time from the point-of-view of the Wicked Witch of the East and the greedy Munchkin woman who wants to keep the Tin Man's beloved indentured at her house.

It all correlates so precisely that it's something of a surprise when Maguire jettisons the backstory of the Winged Monkeys (here the Witch grafts wings onto ordinary monkeys; in the book Baum explained that they were natural creatures who had to be servants to whoever is in possession of a Golden Cap), and forgets about the single detail Baum provided on the Witch's appearance: that she only has one eye.

And then of course, there's his portrayal of the Wizard. As in Maleficent, a film that turned the character of King Stefan into a villain partly to prop up its titular character, it would seem that you cannot explore or redeem a traditionally evil character without shifting an otherwise heroic character into their place. No longer the jovial huckster of book and screen, Maguire's Wizard is a tyrannical despot who partakes in implied rape, the persecution of talking Animals and the imprisonment/torture of children. Even the reason behind his presence in Oz has been changed – not because of a freak storm, but due to his hunt for a magical tome that will grant him power. When he gives up on his search, he instead decides to rule Emerald City, build the Yellow Brick Road, send mining companies into Quadling Country, and spread the religion of unionism. Yikes.

But naturally, Maguire's most important contribution to the Oz-related canon is his portrayal of the Witch – or as he calls her: Elphaba. It's a name that is derived from the original author's initials: L.F.B. and is a name now intrinsically linked to Baum's nameless character. Other adaptations have tried to name the Witch – Theodora and Zelena are two other options – but I doubt any will stick quite the way Elphaba has.

Wicked details Elphaba's life from infancy all the way to her adulthood and death at the hands of Dorothy Gale, giving that fateful meeting a huge amount of build-up and so lending the story an air of tragedy as Elphaba struggles to understand herself and her own thwarted efforts to change the world around her. She is born to missionary parents with bright green skin and sharp teeth, a rather monstrous little creature that no one quite knows what to do with. Her parents think she's some sort of punishment or accident, but as her Nanny thinks to herself, she's "as green as sin; not an ugly colour... just not a human colour."

She grows into an awkward and anti-social young woman who attends Shim University, where she meets pretty debutante Galinda (in one of the clumsier "so that's how that happened" moments of the story, Galinda's name is eventually changed to Glinda in memory of a deceased teacher who couldn't pronounce it properly). With discrimination against self-aware Animals happening all over the city, Elphaba finds her passion in fighting the Wizard's regime, eventually abandoning the school and joining the resistance movement. 

But her life is typified by futility. She tries to assassinate one of the Wizard's powerful followers, only for her to abort the mission when a flock of school children get in the way. She seeks forgiveness for adultery from the wife of her deceased lover Fiyero, only for the woman to reject any attempt to broach the subject. She frees several talking Animals from captivity, only for them to be utterly thankless and convinced that they'll be recaptured in a matter of days. She tries to rescue an innocent family from imprisonment and execution but is unable to locate them in time. She commits murder only a few seconds after her victim has passed away, and nobody really cares about it anyway.

Her entire life's work – her passion, her integrity, her beliefs – culminates in nothing but abject failure. It's pretty grim stuff, especially given her final encounter with Dorothy (again, Maguire tinkers with the original text a little in the way the "accidental murder" ultimately goes down).

As an aside, I love the way Maguire describes Elphaba, with phrases like: "she sat down with a graceless fromp", or "she didn't curl up – she was too bony to curl – but she jack-knifed herself nearer to herself". He also deals with the genuine difficulties a woman would face if she was allergic to water, describing the lengths Elphaba goes to in protecting herself from the rain and how she washes herself with oil to keep herself clean. She's so evocative that Glinda almost feels like an afterthought.

Unlike the musical, which elevated Glinda to the role of Deuteragonist, the novel isn't quite as interested in her, concentrating on her point-of view for only one portion of the book, and not giving her any particular sense of closure by the end of it.

If Elphaba is "wicked", in the sense that she has a surly disposition, rejects society's expectations to fight against a corrupt regime, and has an affair with a married man, then Glinda's portrayal of goodness is to be found in her physical beauty and conformity to the norm. Glinda projects a façade of sweetness and wholesomeness, highlighting the difference between active goodness and mere harmlessness. She has a perchance for gossip and a rather devious mind behind her lovely manners, but the conscience that is steadily drawn out by Elphaba's passion for justice is cut-short after their initial meeting with the Wizard and Elphaba's decision to strike out on her on.

Glinda eventually becomes the "ambassador of peace" that Shiz Headmistress Madame Morrible planned for her; a figurehead who works for the advancement of the Wizard's regime. She is obedient and charming, but ultimately as frothy as the dress she wears: "under that skirt there must be a bustle the size of the dome of Saint Florix... there were sequins and furbelows and a sort of History of Oz, it seemed, stitched in trapunto in six or seven ovoid panels all around the skirting." Her way of honouring the death of her professor (a talking Goat who was murdered by the establishment) is to change her name from Galinda to merely Glinda; a gesture that sums her up perfectly. Elphaba's efforts to do good may be futile, but Glinda's are utterly meaningless.

***
Maguire's novel (as the title would suggest) is concerned with the definition of the word "wicked", and by proxy – goodness. "Wicked" is not a word that has the exact same meaning as "evil" or even "bad". For about five seconds in the early 90s it was synonymous with "cool", but for a while now it's been considered an archaic term. For example, we wouldn't use to it admonish a child. We might tell them to "be good" or "don't be naughty", but we would never use the word "wicked" in such a capacity.

My pedantry over this terminology is to demonstrate that there are different degrees of good and bad apparent in our vocabulary. To be bad is not the same as being evil, just as being nice is not the same as being good. Baum's original story associates good with gift-giving and evil with hoarding, which is quite unlike the more extreme conflicts usually found in fantasy tales which pit good against evil, angels against demons, heaven against hell.

Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch is not a character I'd call "diabolical" in the same way (for example) that the animated Maleficent is. You certainly can't imagine the Wicked Witch calling herself "the mistress of all evil" or declaring herself aligned with "all the powers of hell" as Maleficent does. Instead, the Wicked Witch personifies nastiness rather than pure evil.

Of course, she does in fact do some rather appalling things over the course of the MGM film, perhaps most sadistically in lobbing fireballs at the Scarecrow. Yet for the most part she is a creature of threats rather than overt attacks (in turning over the giant hourglass she informs Dorothy "this is how long you've got left to be alive", before promptly leaving the room and giving the girl ample opportunity to escape). She's terrifying enough for children, though on closer inspection she is ultimately more bark than bite.

This portrayal of the two Witches as helpful and wicked (as opposed to the more polarising good and evil) in the earlier versions of the story is what allows the later ones to explore each character's humanity. Maguire seems well aware of the idiosyncrasy of the word "wicked" when he renders Glinda and Elphaba each with their own strengths and foibles. (Just compare them to Maleficent, a character so purely evil in the original film that screenwriter Linda Woolverton had to totally invert the moral underpinnings of the story in order to make a heroine out of her).

So Maguire's influence on Oz and all its permeations was to flesh out Elphaba and Glinda (to a lesser extent), posit that they had a shared history together, and portray them not as enemies so much as foils.  It sets the stage – no pun intended – for what the musical choses to do with their relationship, and though it goes in a very different direction from the novel, the characters are no longer the cyphers of the book or the archetypes of the film. They are both people.

Wicked: The Musical

And so we come at last to the musical, which first premiered in 2003, and has since eclipsed the novel in popularity, just as the film overtook Baum's original story.

I saw Wicked at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, sitting behind a whole line of school children. It sounds like a seating disaster, but they were on their best behaviour (at least till an eagle-eyed teacher noticed two of them getting a bit too friendly and shifted the entire row so she could plonk herself down between them) and – just as importantly – they were short.

The show is big on spectacle, and there were more than a few "oohs" from the audience: Glinda arriving in her giant bubble, the flying of the Winged Monkeys, the green lights in Emerald City – but the heart of the show lies with Glinda and Elphaba, their rivalry and friendship, and how each one is changed by the other. All things considered, Wicked was a strange book to adapt into a stage production, and one can't help but feel that it came to fruition due to the fact that Oz and musicals are intrinsically linked.

Like the novel, it is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, detailing the school years of Elphaba and Glinda before it eventually links into the events of Baum's book. Maguire's rudimentary character beats are in place: Elphaba is a social outcast, Glinda is the popular girl, the Wizard is a much darker figure of corruption and persecution, Fiyero is the handsome love interest.

But the musical only takes the barest outline of Maguire's novel to shape a much more family-palatable tale (Doctor Dillamond isn't murdered, Madame Morrible eventually meets justice, and Elphaba and Fiyero actually survive). It also makes a few odder changes: Fiyero ultimately becomes the Scarecrow and Boq becomes the Tin Man, twists that weren't in Maguire's novel and which (needless to say) do not mesh at all with Baum's original story. It remains unclear how these two individuals could have possibly accompanied Dorothy to the Emerald City when you take into account their activities over the course of the musical.

Yet despite the musical ditching most of the political/social/ethical discourse of the book, it does at least keep intact the smear campaign that the Wizard and Madame Morrible mount to ruin Elphaba's reputation. It's they that cast her as a villain in order to hide their own crimes, forcing her to fake her own death and leave Oz to start a new life elsewhere.


And it's Elphaba and Glinda that remain front and centre of the show, along with an inevitable love triangle with Fiyero (okay, it's not so bad – but still). And with Glinda bumped up to co-lead alongside Elphaba and their relationship put at the forefront of the story, we finally reach the end of their development.

Elphaba is very much as she is in Maguire's book; perhaps not quite as off-putting, but still prickly and surly, all the better to protect herself from the stares of those around her and the favouritism her father shows her younger sister Nessarose (no longer armless but in a wheelchair). But there's little to say about Elphaba. Her characterization doesn't stray far from Maguire's portrayal, though she is softened a little when it comes to some of the morally ambiguous actions she takes at the end of the book.

As in Maguire's novel, she's passionate and vulnerable, brave and compassionate. Glinda on the other hand is depicted as a true Valley Girl: image-conscious, self-absorbed, and more than a little ditzy (after telling Dorothy to stay on the Yellow Brick Road she frets: "I'm so bad at giving directions"). Put her next to Cher from Clueless and you won't see much of a difference.


But then that's what character development is for. When Fiyero enters the scene (still a prince, as in the book, but now a fun-loving playboy), Glinda quickly snatches him up – as is her right as Most Popular Girl to snag Most Eligible Guy. Fiyero eventually proves himself to have hidden depths when he becomes attracted to Elphaba's integrity, but it's Glinda who makes the first gesture of friendship, when (after tricking Elphaba into wearing a hideous pointed hat) realizes that the green-skinned girl is trying awfully hard not to care what other people think of her and alleviates her embarrassment on the dance floor by joining her.

It's a gesture of remorse and compassion that finally makes Glinda good in the eyes of the audience. Yet though she eventually gets the chance to oust Madame Morrible from power and shoulder the responsibility of political reform in Oz, there's still a bittersweet ending in store considering Glinda ends the show believing that her best friend and ex-fiancé are dead. And hanging over both her and Elphaba's heads is the idea that if only both had worked together when they had the chance, corruption wouldn't have been able to gain a foothold in the Emerald City.

But I'll finish this segment with a quote from Gregory Maguire, retelling his experiences at the conclusion of the Wicked premiere in 2003 and his personal feelings about the character of Elphaba:

I sat near Idina Menzel and listened as people approached her. It seemed every third person in line needed a hug or a hankie when they got to Idina. But the woman I remember best was a veiled woman from someplace in the Mid-East. In a heavy accent she said, "I am an immigrant and have lived here for seven years. In all this time I have never seen myself portrayed anywhere in American culture until now." That woman, too, is Elphaba.

***
So there you have it. Over the course of one hundred (and three) years, Glinda the Good and the otherwise nameless Wicked Witch of the West have gone from bland plot-points to three-dimensional characters that carry both light and darkness inside them. When you consider their original appearances in Baum's book, it's astounding to contemplate that they've grown into such striking images of Goodness and Wickedness that a substantial branch of the Oz franchise is now devoted to their deconstruction.  In fact, one could almost say there's been a total subversion of their original roles, going from pure good (Glinda) and wicked (the Witch) to what's better described as "shallow" (Glinda) and "deep" (Elphaba).

It feels all part and parcel of the changing attitudes toward how we currently define and depict good and evil. In one of my oft-quoted insights from Agatha Christie:

Davy Jones arriving from his locker in clouds of smoke! Trap doors and windows that exuded the infernal powers of evil, challenging and defying a Good Fairy Diamond, or some such name, who in turned waved an inadequate looking wand and recited hopeful platitudes as to the ultimate triumph of good in a flat voice. It came to me that evil was, perhaps, always more impressive than good.

And sure enough, though MGM's Glinda is powerful and beautiful, it's clearly the Witch who is the showier, more memorable character. Of late, goodness has often been equated with dullness, whilst wickedness is either the result of some sort of misunderstanding or justified by the story itself. The proliferation of tropes such as Sympathy for the Devil, Draco in Leather Pants, Evil is Cool and Magnificent Bastard certainly helps, and this mentality extends into Maguire's Wicked, where the "good" people are shallow, superficial, silly or secretly corrupt, and the "wicked" are intelligent, intense and intriguing. Wickedness is the new goodness, or so it would seem, for in both book and musical our sympathy is meant to lie with Elphaba, not Glinda.

Or is it? On researching for this piece I found this review from a theatre critic, and I'll admit it made me laugh:

Despite the green skin, Elphaba is a bizarrely colorless role, all furrowed-brow sincerity and expansive power ballads. Ms. Menzel miraculously finds the commanding presence in the plainness of her part, and she opens up her voice in flashy ways that should be required study for all future contestants on ''American Idol.''

But even such committed intensity is no match for Ms. Chenoweth's variety. Though this petite, even-featured blonde would seem to have a set and familiar persona, it's amazing how she keeps metamorphosing before your eyes and ears.

Her vividness creates a balance problem, since ''Wicked'' is nominally Elphaba's story. Surely the show's creators didn't mean for audiences to root so ardently for a terminally superficial party girl, even before her political rehabilitation.

It reminds me of the response to The Princess and the Frog in which Charlotte was designed as a silly, flighty foil to the hardworking Tiana, only for many people (rather unfortunately given the race of the girls in question) to openly prefer Charlotte. Perhaps we're all just contrarians at heart, determined to empathize with the fictional characters we're meant to despise.

Or maybe it's just what this anonymous user called the Inexplicable Popularity Lottery, which makes about as much sense as anything else.

Will we ever make up our minds on what constitutes good and bad? Probably not, as the subsequent portrayals of Glinda and Elphaba demonstrate that our attitudes are constantly changing, our sympathies ever shifting. Good and Evil's battle over hearts and minds (or at least fandom popularity) continues, and in this case it plays out over the portrayal of two very different women.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Rebecca, I think Glinda may have been the Good Witch Of The South in the original rather than the North... Wicked sounds a lot of fun, though, and well worth the trip to Sydney.

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    1. Yes, in Baum's book Glinda definitely belongs in the south. In the MGM film they made her Witch of the North, and she's generally been considered that ever since.

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