The Trouble With Wicked
My husband and I went to see Wicked over Christmas break. It’s a big, baroque spectacle of a musical, with soaring songs, intricate sets, and steampunky costumes in a Venetian palette. What sets it apart from other Broadway juggernauts like Phantom of the Opera are its attempts at political commentary. Wicked sends a valuable message about accepting moral ambiguity and not blindly following those in power; the problem is that it grafts these messages too clunkily onto a crowd-pleasing template, making for an entertaining but less than intellectually satisfying experience.
The most clever thing Wicked does is to overturn all your childhood perceptions. In its opening song, citizens of Oz, grateful that the Wicked Witch of the West has been killed, sing:
No one mourns the wicked,
No one lays a lily on their grave,
The good man scorns the wicked,
Through their lives our children learn
What we miss when we misbehave.
The “children” they’re singing about, we come to learn as the play progresses, are us: Americans who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz. From that movie—which, before the age of VCRs, DVDs, and TiVo, used to appear on television as a once-yearly event—we learned that “only bad witches are ugly,” that villains are absolute, and that it is perfectly safe for teenage girls to enlist the help of random grown men they meet on the road.
But Wicked’s message is that such a binary view of good and evil is only suitable for children. When adults adopt it, the musical implies, the consequences can be devastating.
In Wicked’s Oz, the Wizard is a dictator, the talking animals a persecuted minority, and the Tin Man a McCarthyite finger-pointer. The Witch of the West, Elphaba, is a would-be reformer used as a scapegoat by the Wizard when she resists his plans, and Glinda’s no longer a “good witch” but a spin doctor for the powers that be.
It can be disconcerting to see beloved characters acting in cruel ways: the Tin Man, for example, sings, “I’m glad I’m heartless / I’ll be heartless killing her [Elphaba],” but it’s thought-provoking, too. What other “truths” about people and values, the musical forces us to ask, do we accept without examination? And who sold us on these “truths,” and for what purpose?
As the Wizard himself sings in one particularly clever song, “Wonderful,”
A man’s called a traitor,
A rich man’s a thief,
Is one a crusader,
Or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist.
Sadly, though, Wicked doesn’t always make its points so cunningly. At times it’s downright anvilicious; ironically, its message that “good” and “evil” aren’t always the absolutes they appear to be is drummed into the audience’s heads in an awfully moralistic fashion. Consider the song titles alone, for example: “No One Mourns The Wicked,” “No Good Deed,” “Something Bad,” “Thank Goodness,” “For Good.” (As a former resident of Southeastern Massachusetts, I was holding out for a song called “Wicked Good,” but, alas, it was not to be.)
Elphaba’s unexpected survival also weakens the play’s impact. Had she been offed by the Wizard and his coterie, she could have become a martyr to principle. Instead, the play’s authors opt for a wishy-washy, feel-good ending in which Elphaba, apparently melted by Dorothy and presumed dead, escapes to freedom with her lover, Fiyero. By doing so, they sell out their audience, whom they don’t believe tough enough to accept the harsh consequences that often arise when people stand up to power in the real world.
Regime Change Comes to Oz: Wicked and the Bush Administration
Though Wicked at times gestures towards Nazi Germany (through its scapegoated and persecuted minority, the talking animals) and racial discrimination (Elphaba is shunned because of her skin color), for the most part its targets are generic: corrupt officials, mercenary famemongers, and a frightened and closeminded populace. Still, it’s hard not to see some parallels to the war on terror: the musical, which premiered in 2003, was developed in the early 2000’s, during the early days of the war, and Glinda even drops the phrase “regime change” when the Witch of the East is killed.
To begin with, Oz is a realm governed by fear, in which rumors gain currency with frightening speed. “I hear she has an extra eye that always stays awake,” one citizen sings of Elphaba, and then another joins in, and another:
I hear she can shed her skin
As easily as a snake
I hear her soul is so unclean
Pure water can melt her!
From there it’s but a short step to: Please! Somebody melt her! And it’s the Wizard and his spin doctor, Madam Morrible, who step in to reassure everyone that the Wicked Witch will be dealt with. Meanwhile, they’re taking away the rights of the Talking Animals, banning them from teaching, and, finally, speaking. Elphaba morphs from a single woman to an embodiment of Evil itself, one who must be eradicated for the realm to regain a state of Edenic purity.
Sound familiar? The creators of Wicked, I believe, are not criticizing the war on terror so much as the morality-play rhetoric and symbolism underlying it. The terrorists may indeed by “wicked” (and what’s a better example of black-and-white moral thinking than Jihadism?), and should be stopped, but by painting them as “evil” and ourselves as “good,” we can fail to take a close, critical view of them and the leaders we count on to protect us.
It’s All About Popular: Sarah Palin as Glinda
And, though the authors couldn’t have foreseen the rise of Sarah Palin back in 2000 or so, they must have shared a wry chuckle or two over Palin’s resemblance to Glinda. A celebrated beauty, Glinda is beloved wherever she goes, owing solely to her looks and charm. She is almost utterly lacking in talent or intellect, but that matters to her far less than popularity. As she tells Elphaba,
Think of celebrated heads of state
Or ‘specially great communicators:
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!
They were popular!
It’s all about popular.
Glinda becomes so addicted to popularity that she can’t bear to let it out of her grip, even when that means joining forces with people she knows to be corrupt. In one particularly underhanded and catty move, she sells out Elphaba—her erstwhile “best friend”—to the Wizard because Fiyero has chosen Elphaba over her.
With a better script, Wicked would have been Glinda’s tragedy as much as it almost was Elphaba’s. For Glinda does become self-aware by the play’s close. She’s less happy to spread the Wizard’s lies than she is afraid not to, lest she lose her adoring public. As she mollifies the Munchkins with assurances that the Wizard has everything under control, one can almost hear her thinking, “This isn’t right, but if I speak out, then they won’t like me anymore.” That basic desire to be liked is what humanizes Glinda, transforming her from the ditzy comic relief into a sympathetic character.
But the play goes too far in trying to vindicate Glinda. After Elphaba’s “death,” Glinda tries to redeem her friend’s reputation — but doesn’t try so hard that she’d get herself in trouble with the Wizard. Despite being so weenie and weasely, she gets to end the play on a soaring duet in which she and Elphaba proclaim, “Because I knew you / I have been changed for the better / I have been changed for good.” Schmaltz, once again, wins out over substance.
I don’t know what goes on in Sarah Palin’s head, and so I can’t say whether she believes some of the more inflammatory things she says, but I see her as a Glinda: someone who’s in love with popularity and will hold onto it at any cost. Palin’s been blessed with good looks, charisma, and a gift for coining phrases that resonate with her base. When I hear her spouting rhetoric about “death panels” or Obama’s “palling around with terrorists,” I look at her winks and smirks and think, “There’s no way she can really buy that tripe,” partly because I don’t believe that Bump-It-covered head has ever held an idea in its life, and partly out of an inborn suspicion that all politicians*, of whatever party, are glib hucksters. Palin’s speeches are conglomerations of catch phrases, unfettered by logic or even grammar; they say nothing, except for the fact that she all too often has no idea what she’s talking about. But as long as she manages to push the right buttons — maverick! homespun hockey mom! Obama=the end of America! — she remains popular.
Does doubt ever creep into her mind, as it did for Glinda, making her think that maybe her irresponsible statements are causing harm, or, failing that, that maybe she shouldn’t be blathering on about subjects she knows nothing about? There’s been no sign of it so far, but one can always hope.
* For the record, I don’t think Obama cares nearly as much about hope, change, or health care reform as he does the awesomeness of one Barack H. Obama.