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Sep 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he’s covering up. He’s had his fun and he’s guilty. And men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells. – Charles Halloway from Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

On my way to a meeting in Carytown the other day, I happened by the Landmark Theater where they are publicizing the upcoming production of Wicked. Having worked with numerous youth orchestras, I am acquainted with the music for this musical as it is popular with students; however, I have never really bothered to read the libretto, or text, for the musical until recently. The story is based on a book by Gregory Maguire entitled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. As I am a huge fan of opera, I guess I have always looked condescendingly upon musical theater, but after reading the story of the musical Wicked, and listening to the music and recordings of it, I am now ready to take a new look at this genre, and specifically this musical.

Musical theater is probably known more for its artistic craft than its artistic depth. Most people think of musicals as just having some catchy songs along with a quasi-interesting and quirky story. Rarely are they viewed as an opportunity for confrontation or subversion; and yet, subversion may very well be what musical theater does best. The Music Man looks at small town close-mindedness and legalism; Rent attacks those who sell out their art for the sake of a quick buck, and Sweeney Todd takes aims at the heart of our assumptions about human nature. But in Wicked, we find a musical that takes this subversion to a new level.

The tale of the Wicked Witch of the West (her real name is Elphaba) and how she came to gain such a moniker begins with a familiar scene in which all of Oz celebrates her death. The music seems heavy-handed and overbearing, and we quickly learn why: the citizens of Oz declare Elphaba wicked in order to distract from their own problems and injustices. They then spend the rest of the musical distracting themselves from their own wickedness by dehumanizing Elphaba, and virtually worshipping Glinda (who by the end, in a desperate attempt to reinforce a lie, gives herself a new name: Glinda the Good).

We understand going into the musical that Elphaba is our heroine, but as we learn more we start to realize to what extent Elphaba was determined to do good. Meanwhile the musical plays with that word “good” in various ways, causing us to reconsider not just the way we use the word, but the way we think of the concept itself. Even the music is used to demonstrate how horrific concepts can sometimes seem grand and seductive, as frightening and unscrupulous sentiments are sung with catchy, fun melodies. These wistful and exciting tunes describe the nature of hatred that is allowed to run free without limits.

Our admiration for Elphaba only grows as she consistently chooses to do what is truly good in the face of trial, tribulation, and those who claim she is doing evil. Elphaba learns too late, though, that while she may be able to do good, she can’t trust herself (or anyone else) to be good:

One question haunts and hurts
Too much, too much to mention:
Was I really seeking good
Or just seeking attention?
Is that all good deeds are
When looked at with an ice-cold eye?
If that’s all good deeds are
Maybe that’s the reason why
No good deed goes unpunished
No Good Deed from Wicked

I believe Elphaba is realizing a hard truth here. We are a corrupt people, and even the best things we do are wrought with wickedness and selfishness. The tragic tale of the Wicked Witch of the West is the tale of one who is well aware of this concept for herself, but unaware that it applies to everyone else as well. We’re all sinful. And sin isn’t just something that we do, but who we are. We’re born into it. The Bible declares that sin is a universal problem, and it is because of this problem that we need a savior. It is within this context that the Bible declares, “Jesus saves sinners,” and presents Jesus as the salvation of God. The Bible says that we are all dead in our trespasses and sins and that it is God who makes us alive together with Christ. God, in his sovereign mercy, is the one who quickens people and causes them to be born again, enabling us to see and savor and embrace our true savior, Jesus Christ.

Now Jesus is not presented as the “savior” in Wicked; however, Elphaba is presented as a Christ figure. In the book, Elphaba actually walks on water when she first saves Chistery, similar to Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33. Also, the bucketful of water that kills her in the end is referred to as a “kind of baptism.” Elphaba’s ultimate goal was to end the Wizard’s oppression of Oz, and she only succeeded in that goal through dying. Upon her death, the Wizard leaves and Oz is “saved.”

Elphaba’s resurrection has yet to be seen within the series of books, but even here, in the midst of sometimes campy dialogue and over-the-top acting; here in the midst of wooden scenes and people bursting into song at the drop of a hat, the heart of the gospel rises up in the midst of the fantastical. Sacrifice wins even in a movie predicated by deceit and lies. Once again, because of a silly musical, I find myself reminded that we are fallen beings in need of a savior; lost and sinful people in need of salvation.

Wicked will be at the Landmark Theater beginning October 5th through October 16th, and tickets are available here.




September 26 2011 Reply

Fantastic write-up and reflections, Shelby. I like how you’ve drawn out the gospel implications of Wicked. Now I really want to go see this musical. Maybe one day you’ll do a post to tell me something about opera that would make me want to go see it.


September 27 2011 Reply

Ok, I’ll let that remark about musical theater slide since it appears you’ve seen the error of your ways. Nice post. I was hoping to catch Wicked on this tour, but we’ll see….

Sarah Barker

September 27 2011 Reply

Once again a thought-provoking article, thank you Shelby. I’m a huge fan of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” so the title caught my eye. I’m also a fan of musical theatre, but totally understand your bias towards opera. If you haven’t already, you should check out “Into the Woods” as it isn’t too campy for reflection – I have it for the borrowing, just ask.

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