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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seeing Wicked, Doing Good: a Reaction

I’ve spent the last few weeks in a state of Ozmania. After listening to the soundtrack for years, I finally got to see a performance of the musical Wicked this May (two performances actually, you can’t see Wicked just once). Since then I have been enamored of all things Oz. I’d seen the film in the past, but it was never a favorite. I read and enjoyed Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. And above all I have listened to the original cast recording of Wicked countless times. However, none of this ever led me to any of Baum’s fourteen Oz books.

Wicked (both the novel and the musical it is based on) is the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
from the other side of the street. Maguire’s reimaging of the original Oz story is darker and much more adult than Baum’s classic. Wicked is the story of Elphaba, the daughter of the Munchkin mayor who is born mysteriously green. She has grown up as an outcast, too different and frightening to be accepted in society, making her a character that is quick to see the injustice in her world. The wizard of this story is not the kindly savior of Oz we have come to expect but a power mad tyrant piggybacking off of the talents of others. The good witch Glinda may be the character that has changed the least – I never trust goody-two-shoes characters and Maguire makes an excellent argument here for why it is best not to. The novel (and musical) is also peopled with a whole host of new characters from a love interest for the witches to a political ring of talking animals.

This is not your childhood version of Oz. Wicked is about the incomprehensible dichotomy of good and evil. Maguire, by creating a revisionist satire of a beloved children’s story, forces us to question our very morality. In all of our actions is it intentionality or results that matter? If I am wicked for the sake of a great cause am I truly Wicked? If my best intentions lead to grave results is it by mistake or design? The brilliance of the novel is in pitting often selfish actions of Glinda the Good against those of the crusader of justice Elfaba the Wicked. It the same old cliché, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

All of this grand satirizing and moral thinking had me finally looking back to Baum’s novels. I read a lot of literature aimed at children and much of it is written with a greater message. Kid’s lit is full of “teachable moments.” I decided that by only coming to Baum through Judy Garland I was missing out on some of his lessons. Finally I took the time to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I was so surprised.

The first thing I learned was that Baum himself did not intend to moralize. As Baum writes in his introduction, “the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” The greatest thing about this book is how fun it is. It is all absurdity and adventures and all around great fun. I regret that I haven’t been recommending it to kids for ages! But I will definitely start now. The overall theme of this book is simply to believe in yourself, which speaks so greatly to every imagining of the Oz story. From Dorothy to Elfaba, believing in yourself is a steadfast point toward doing Good.

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