Popular musical reexamines who’s good, who’s not
As we approach the season of Halloween and All Saints, the subjects of good and evil tend to come up in conversation. But right now many people are caught up in a discussion of those subjects that takes place not in the pulpit, the Sunday school classroom or the chapel, but from the singing and dancing of the musical theater stage.
The musical "Wicked," adapted by Winnie Holzman from the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, has captured the hearts of theatergoers in cities across the country with its whimsical retelling of the Wizard of Oz story, this time from the perspective of the wicked witch.
Since so much of history depends upon who does the telling, it will not give away too much of the plot to tell you that the "wicked" witch turns out to be the hero of this tale, and she’s not so wicked after all. This is a musical that, like our denomination, seeks to uncover the "hidden histories," and make them known.
The story of the musical "Wicked" centers, remarkably, not around a romantic relationship but on a friendship. Two young women begin school together as roommates, one is the beautiful, perky, pink dress wearing, Glinda the "Good;" the other is the outspoken, unpopular, frumpily black-clad Elphaba. These are two wonderful foils for any schoolchild, or any adult who remembers the cliquishness of those days.
Elphaba’s troubles begin with her birth, where the infant’s bright green skin color reveals to her father that he has been cuckolded by a traveling salesmen, and Elphaba grows up feeling hated, different and unloved. Her green skin gains her the taunts of her classmates, including the popularity-pursuing Glinda.
But in the twists and turns of the clever plot, the two young women are both revealed to have more depth of both good and evil than early appearances allow. Glinda, played as a blonde bimbo at the beginning, later reveals the strength of another unforgettable musical character, Evita. And Elphaba, played in the Chicago version by Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer with a rye, angry edge, softens into a complex woman with her own fragile dreams.
This musical rivets children (who are brave enough for a few frightening thunderclaps and scary plot twists) as well as adults. It has all the plot and excitement for the young, but it also provides a harsh social commentary that will leave the adults thinking about more than popularity contests. "Wicked" has a cutting critique that turns our attention to this nation and the world.
In this version of Oz, the wizard (played in Chicago by the remarkable Ben Vereen) is a sentimental dictator, who glossily pleases the pampered class, while he slowly slices away the civil liberties of the rest of society. As the wizard spins out a story of social order and positive thinking, he schemes to silence the talking animals of Oz, and he also hems in the little guys — you guessed it — the Munchkin population. All this happens under the guise of national prosperity and exaggerated threats of evil from the outside.
The people who prosper in this version of Oz are the popular, pretty people who swear allegiance to the land without asking many questions. But those who ask questions, take a stand, or even look different, are labeled "wicked." Elphaba’s later reputation as the wicked witch is explained by the fact that the winners wrote history, and her courage landed her on the losing side of the power struggle in Oz.
In many ways, Elphaba’s character reminded me of why I cherish the values of the United Church of Christ. We are a church that allows people to ask the hard questions, to challenge the status quo. Our church has not always been popular. In fact, when we have taken stands for the oppressed or for the civil liberties of all, other churches have called us "wicked." We seem to strive for a rich texture of opinion in our churches that Elphaba longed for, but that the wizard, whose goal was a lockstep society, could not tolerate.
Finally, in a culture that is obsessed with romantic and sexual relationships, this musical lends all its efforts and attention to the topic of friendship. The romantic intrigue in this show is a refreshingly small sideline. Instead, the long-standing friendship gets the spotlight. In fact, the dramatic duet at the end of the show, which in most musicals is reserved for two lovers, here is sung by the two friends, one to another, as they muse, "I don’t know if I’ve been changed for the better but I know I’ve been changed for good."
The great stories of scripture remind us that friendship can lead us toward God or away from God. Throughout the letters of Paul to the early church are words about the power of friendship to shape and mold us in blessing. Those who cherish Christian community are well aware of the ways in which the Holy Spirit can move through these friendships to change us for God’s good. How wonderful to see friendship celebrated in a secular setting in ways that honor it’s power for good.
If you’re tired of the blood and gore of the Halloween marketing machine, or weary of the finger-pointing that labels one way of thinking good and another evil, "Wicked" may be the intellectual and artistic anecdote you’ve been waiting for. As it sweeps you away in light humor and moving music, it may remind you why you love a church that allows for the kinds of creative questioning that allows the oppressed to speak, the hidden histories to be revealed, and the wicked to be redeemed.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel is the Senior Minister of the First Congregational UCC in Glen Ellyn, Ill.
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