This was the long-run hit of the decade, a show that has run continuously with no sign of stopping and seems likely to become an old-guard classic of the future. Because of this widespread appeal, and because it seems to appeal especially to relatively young audiences, the show has attracted some sneers from both the snobs who automatically disdain anything popular, and the fanbase of the rather sordid Gregory Maguire novel on which the show is extremely loosely based.
But the show has undeniably earned its success. Firstly, it has what is probably the best book of the decade. Winnie Holzman’s libretto for the show is, first and foremost, a genuinely moving and involving drama with interesting and complex characters and real emotional power. But it is also a brilliantly creative play on the original Wizard of Oz, with many clever surprises and twists built into it, as well as several subtle nuances in the writing that only become visible with repeat viewings and close examination of the material.
Like most shows with books that outshine their scores (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum, 1776, Into The Woods), Wicked’s score was rather underrated when it was new. But its quality has won out, its best numbers even doing some hit-tune business thanks to their use on Glee. The bulk of the score is in a vein influenced by the ‘pop opera’ genre. The best-remembered numbers are the thrilling anthem “Defying Gravity” and the amazingly moving duet “For Good”.
But the show also features other fine ballads such as the wistful “I’m Not That Girl” and the ravishing “As Long As You’re Mine”, and other strong anthems, including the yearning “The Wizard and I” and the searing “No Good Deed”. There are also strong comedy moments, with the satirical “Popular” and the bitingly cynical “Wonderful” featuring some of Stephen Schwartz’s wittiest lyrics.
Add to that one of the decade’s best opening numbers, “No-One Mourns the Wicked”, and the soaring ensemble “Dancing Through Life”, and you’ve got one of the best scores of the decade. This isn’t Stephen Schwartz’s best score (that honor probably goes to the Seventies cult flop The Baker’s Wife), but it will very likely prove to be his most enduring legacy.
And those who claim the musical is simply a Disney version of the material aren’t looking closely enough. The show’s book is full of dark elements that are slightly hidden so that they only reveal their darkness when you think about them: the fact that all the Emerald City denizens are wearing fur or feathers; the fate of Dr. Dillamond, which is horrifying enough in itself and clearly involved some sort of physical or psychological torture; Elphaba’s period of ‘evil’ following “No Good Deed”, which we don’t see much of in the musical but during which she presumably did all the things we saw her do in The Wizard of Oz, including repeatedly trying to murder Dorothy and her friends; or just the question of how culpable Glinda really is in the Wizard’s plans, how much she really knew while serving as his propaganda minister, and what she really did during the off-stage period between the acts.
True, the musical is less dark than the original novel, but most major wars are less dark than the Wicked novel, so that’s not a good standard for comparison. Besides, Wicked has virtually nothing in common with its source material beyond the basic premise and a few of the characters’ names, so I see it as completely unrelated, an original ‘suggested’ by Maguire’s idea. In any case, this is a masterpiece for our times and one of the two or three best musicals of the decade, and the naysayers will gradually die out as it takes its place on the shortlist of immortal musical-theater masterpieces.