Wicked, the book versus Wicked, the musical

What I’ve discovered in my circle is that people who read the book first, prefer the book.

Reprinted from my Times Union blog.

My wife and I went to see the musical Wicked at the Thursday afternoon matinee on November 8, right after it opened, at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. We had not seen it before in any iteration, not at Proctors a couple of years before, or on Broadway. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the music, aside from Defying Gravity.

All in all, it was WONDERFUL. The performers were great, and the element that really impressed me was lighting. Michael Eck’s review is about right, though I obviously can’t speak to how much it may become dated.

My wife met me at the theater. She was driving from work with little time to spare, so I took the bus – the 905, for you locals – to Schenectady. I had left the book I had been reading, an autobiography of Walter Cronkite, at work, and I needed a distraction. I grabbed my copy of Wicked, the book written by Gregory Maguire. In fact, it was a copy signed by the author, to me, which I purchased from him at a Friends of the Albany Public Library event in April 2006.

I got about an eighth of the way through the book, and then I saw the musical, then I finished the book. Probably not recommended. These are very different animals. Wicked the book is grimmer, grimier, more sexually explicit, more about political intrigue and musings about religion.

I’m not talking about minor differences of interpretation. The musical’s book by Winnie Holzman resembles the book by Maguire in only minor ways. Elphaba, who Jaquandor describes here, is green; she has a distant father, a deceased mother, a sister Nessarose with cool shoes, and a secret romance. Almost everything else you THINK you know from one source will be negated by the other source. Characters are merged, characters who die in the book are pivotal in the music, relations are changed, and a whole lot of characters in the book never make it to the stage at all. Religion and politics, and what’s going on with the Animals, are central to the book, more peripheral to the musical.

For a spoiler-free analysis, go HERE. If you want analysis with specified spoiler alerts, look HERE. And if you like spoilers galore, go HERE.

What I’ve discovered in my circle is that people who read the book first, prefer the book. People who saw the musical first either really dislike the book, or can’t get through it. In fact, one said, the best thing, or even the only good thing, about the book is that it generated the musical. There’s a level of violence and sex in the Maguire book some found disturbing. For me, the extra characters left me a bit confused, and honestly, a tad bored in the middle – where is this GOING? – though it mostly made sense at the end.

There is a “reader’s group guide” at the back of the book. Question 1 notes that “Wicked derives some of its power from the popularity of the source material. Does meeting up with familiar characters and famous fictional situations require more patience and effort on the part of the reader or less?” I say “yes”, both. In particular, the musical is even more beholden to the classic film than the book.

I’m curious what others who both read the book and saw the musical think about each. In particular, I wonder if the order they experienced the media matters.