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.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

4 thoughts on “Wicked, the book versus Wicked, the musical”

  1. The musical turns the world of the Wizard of Oz upside down. What was once black is now white, what was white is now black-but the world is still one of black and white. The book does not attempt to villainize Elphaba, or to make her out to be a heroic victim. Maguire’s purpose was to explore the character and history of the Wicked Witch of the West in a way that fits in more closely with the original books and movie. Not to implicate her from all wrongs, but to create a scenario in which a person would be so obsessed with her sister’s red shoes (silver, in the original). And, if the witch did have green skin, how would that affect her upbringing and ultimately the person she became?

  2. Broadway’s Wicked is an amazing, colorful yet dark, and spectacular musical that will have you mesmerized for two hours and thirty minutes. Wicked is a Broadway style adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s best selling novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. For all of you out there who never tired of watching The Wizard of Oz year after year as a child or even as an adult the musical and the book are both great sources for a continuation of your fascination with OZ. Great music is set to a thrilling and captivating group of characters that most Americans can never get enough of. It is something of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz and definitely brings back a glimmer of imagination and childhood in all who see it.

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