It has been more than four years since Wicked began to wow audiences and win awards. I saw it for the second time two weeks ago in Rochester, New York, taking the kids this time. On the way out, I told them the bad news: They may have to wait forty years to see another show this good.
People who live in the New York City area have already had plenty of opportunity to see the show, which is nice: there should be some compensating benefits for people who live in the New York City area. But after four years, I know many non-New Yorkers who would love this show but have barely heard of it. It is for those people that I offer the following thoughts on what makes this musical so great.
First, a spoiler alert: I’m not going to give anything away in this post, but I can’t vouch for the comments. If you’re planning to see the show, consider yourself warned.
Now then, for anyone unfamiliar with the story, it is a Grendel-like retelling of the story we know from the 1939 Oscar-winning “Wizard of Oz.” But this new version opens where the 1939 film ended — with a huge public celebration of the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. But then, as Glinda the Good Witch converses with the adoring crowd, some questions emerge: Is it true that Glinda and the Wicked Witch were friends? Are people born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? What is wickedness anyway? And the story is then told from the beginning; from the birth of Elpheba (for that is the Wicked Witch’s given name), through her college days, when she was thrown together with Glinda and they became (accidentally) roommates and (improbably) friends. (There are obvious parallels here to my relationship with Tim Peach.)
Some may think they detect the odor of relativism in this meditation on the nature of wickedness. That is an impression that receives some support in the way the lyrics repeatedly play on common English phrases that include the word “good,” such as “for good,” “thank goodness,” and “goodness knows.” And some characters embrace that relativism. Others embrace ignorance or apathy. But in the end, there can be no doubt of the moral judgments we are invited to make about these characters. Thus, the point seems to be not that goodness and wickedness are “all in which label / is able to persist” (as the Wizard sings), but rather that we face three recurrent practical limitations in making our moral judgments:
- The fallibility of popular opinion. People are frequently wrong not just about their evaluations of good and evil but even about basic facts. Indeed, people are often actively deceived, particularly by those who govern or those who wish to inspire good opinion of themselves. A few years ago I read the rather unwieldy novel on which the show is based, and it seems to me that this theme of popular fallibility and government deception is almost entirely new in the musical version. It is brilliantly executed, informing virtually every song and every scene in which the chorus appears. I would have to watch the whole show again to check this, but I would not be surprised if the chorus is wrong about absolutely everything in the entire show.
- The gap between intention and execution. Burns said it long ago: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” Even when we mean well, the consequences may fall well short of our intentions. And conversely, even acts undertaken from spite (or lust, or pride, or . . . ) may bring about consequences that make our actions appear kind to the outside observer. The show’s plot offers numerous examples, quite skillfully woven together. There is also a subtheme here, namely that the corrupting influence of power — whether political or magical– makes it particularly likely that we will fail to “make good” on our good intentions when we are attempting to change the course of other people’s lives.
- The opacity of other people’s motives. We typically judge others by evaluating their objective conduct from the outside. But even if we are correctly apprised of the objective facts and circumstances, we typically ignore the intention gap — that is we assume that others must have intended exactly what result they brought about when in fact the result is rarely fully foreseen and the intention is rarely perfectly executed. C.S. Lewis makes brilliant use of this in The Screwtape Letters as well. The difference here is that we get to watch some of the characters learn this for themselves, looking self-critically at the way they have judged others.
Lest anyone think the show is a philosophy lecture, I should add that its philosophical depth does not in any way interfere with its musical quality. The lyrics are really very smart, and in particular the rhymes are unbelievable. Here is the Wizard in “Wonderful”:
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
And here is Glinda in “Popular”:
Don’t be offended by my frank analysis;
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sis-
ter and adviser,
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to
Popular . . .
Thanks to commercial success of all this artistry, Wicked now runs continuously in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. There is also a touring show that is certain to be somewhere near you soon. Please go. You owe it to yourself.