It Aint Easy Being Green
How Wicked kicked my ass and changed my life
By Rick Levin
I offer but a single piece of evidence to illustrate the overall wrongness of Wicked, the Tony Award-winning 1995 musical that retells The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the witches. Late in the production, a familiar character is introduced and given a sort of creation myth: According to Wicked, the Tin Man was once an actual man with a real beating heart, but the organ was shrunken to nothing by a witchs spell (and spells, as Wicked informs us, cannot be reversed). So here, in a nutshell, we have a metaphor mistaken as literal, in order to explain a myth as back story, which achieves the singular feat of negating the very thing it seeks to explain (or, in medical terms, a lack of humanity becomes a medical condition, which is explained as irreversible and therefore terminal, which means the Tin Man doesnt exist ã which, of course, he didnt, but more on that laterÄ).
This is just one example of the shows fog of confusion. Wicked is slavishly enthralled by The Wizard of Oz, and yet utterly clueless about what makes the original such a timeless classic ã much in the way the vulture is unaware of the majesty of the gazelle upon whose rotting carcass it now feeds. Its almost heroic how consistently and completely Wicked botches things, violating every basic principle of art. The production is bombastic yet belabored, flashy yet flat, over confident and utterly confused. Subplots are dropped. Opportunities missed. Yellow brick roads not taken.
Lacking the courage of your convictions is bad enough, but lacking the intelligence of your ambition is lethal, especially when it comes to art. And before the act comes the idea, and the idea better make sense. For instance, Wickeds leading witches, Elphaba and Glinda, follow the Yellow Brick Road to Oz in order to ask a favor of the Wizard. Its the same trip made by Dorothy and her ragtag band of buddies. But here the similarities dont just end; they erase each other.
Whereas Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow were all seeking in Oz a remedy for something theyd lost, Wickeds witches pound the bricks on a political pilgrimage, seeking redress for a case of animal cruelty. This motivational switcheroo turns a fantastical fable about the magic of self-empowerment into a lame political allegory ã Animal Farm written by an idiot, full of song and dance signifying jack shit. It lacks any of the allegorical beauty and poetic cohesion of the original, because it has the obsession of a stalker instead of the passion of a fan.
Fans celebrate. Stalkers, on the other hand, are monomaniacs driven to possess what they most desire, and so annihilate it. In this sense, philosophically speaking, Wicked is good nor bad, deep nor shallow, because it is something less than art. It is a nullity, a thing stillborn.
In the past, when attempting to explain my critical acumen, Ive often told friends that what I try to do is judge each play by the goals it sets for itself up against that plays realistic ability to achieve those goals, and that the only “bad” reviews I give are for those plays that, for whatever reason, come across as cynical or done in a spirit of bad faith. Thats what criticism should do, I think. The problem with this little formula is that I didnt understand what I meant by “bad faith” ã only that I knew it when I saw it because I felt it in my gut. You know the feeling, a sense that somethings rotten in Denmark. Would a stink by any other name smell so wicked? Its a rhetorical question.
Nietzsche wrote that all great historical figures occur twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The same holds true for great works of art. Toward the end of Wicked, having scrawled a heap of notes, I capped my pen and let my mind drift. It seemed to me that Id hammered out some good ideas. My case against Wicked appeared solid enough.
Then something went haywire.
On stage, one of the characters, gazing up into the balcony section, wondered aloud what that thing in the sky was. Another character pointed out that it looked like a house being swept this way and that by a mighty wind, which, of course, was Dorothy being delivered to Oz by way of tornado. Clever. And then it dawned on me: Everything I found faulty about the play ã one-dimensional, derivative, manipulative, incongruous, incoherent ã could be traced to a single, devastating fallacy in its premise.
There are not, after all, two sides to every story. All of the colorful, mythical magic in The Wizard of Oz is, literally and figuratively, a part of Dorothys dream. She gets bonked on the head, falls unconscious, and her mind creates an alternate universe that is teeming with familiar but slightly askew characters and situations from her life on a Kansas farm. In other words, Dorothys dream is an illusion brought gorgeously to life through the illusion of art, a wonderful thing, but even with illusions there are some rules you just cant break. You cant cheat the cosmos. You cant have your cake and eat it, too.
And you cant retell The Wizard of Oz from a different perspective. There is no different perspective. When you’re making up a story, you can do all sorts of crazy things: you can borrow from history and life and ideas and delusions and dreams, but you cant borrow Dorothys dream; you can only borrow Dorothy. Dorothy is Oz, and Oz is Dorothy. Wicked, in cutting out parts of Oz and making them dance around like paper dolls, commits both murder and theft, in that order. Wicked is malpractice, a case of crummy forensics, an autopsy gone awry.
Think of Ambrose Bierces classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which a Confederate sympathizer is about to be hanged from a railroad bridge. During his fall, the rope breaks and he plunges into the water, evading bullet fire from above and then, once ashore, he makes the long, dangerous, exhausting journey back to his children and wife. “As he runs forward to reach her, he suddenly feels a searing pain in his neck, a white light flashes, and everything goes black.” The mans escape was merely a long daydream he had while falling to his death at the end of a noose. If I were to write a book that turns the Confederate sympathizers neck pain into merely a momentary crick, after which he reaches his wife, hugs her and experiences a full, happy life, I would not be creating some wonderful flight of fancy; I would be telling a lie based on a misunderstanding. I would not be imitating art; I would be defiling and negating it.
Maybe you already understand all of this, but its recent news to me. It feels as though Ive taken a big leap of understanding, and I owe that leap to Wicked. Thank you Wicked. Ive been going back in my mind to all the movies and books and plays that really rubbed me the wrong way, and they all commit a similar crime ã the crime of bad faith. Now that I know precisely what that means to me, it imparts upon me the heaviest of responsibilities. Things just got a little tougher. I cant just throw stuff against the wall to see if it sticks anymore. Now Im forced to be wide-eyed and vigilant. Because, when I think about it, Im as capable of bad faith as anyone.
Wicked continues at the Hult Center through Sunday, May 1; tickets at www.hultcenter.org