Who Can Say What Has Changed For the Better? A Look at How "The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" Became the Broadway Hit "Wicked"

Warning: If (like me), you’re new to musical theater and haven’t seen Wicked, this article contains spoilers for both Wicked and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I highly recommend them both, but you’ve been warned.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve fallen in love with Wicked. I saw it when I was around seven or eight with my aunt and one of her coworkers, and as I’ve started to appreciate musical theater more in the past couple of years, it was inevitable that I would return to the play that started it all for me. Last November, my roommate and I took a trip to Portland, and like all good bookworms, we started our getaway at Powell’s bookstore. As soon as we walked into the bookstore, Alexandra pointed to the closest bookshelf and said, “Wicked?” Immediately, I picked up the book, not even entirely sure if it related to my favorite musical. Sure enough, Wicked:The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire is exactly the book that the Wicked musical is based on. I put it in my basket, and a few days later, began reading.

 

I will say, when I started reading the book, I was fairly certain it wasn’t at all related to the musical. Stephen Schwartz more or less took the essence of The Life and Times and popularized it. If you’ve read my article on fanfiction, you know I respect that. When I was done with the book, I remember jokingly telling my friends that Wicked is just The Life and Times fanfic with gay undertones. In a way, that’s true. Schwartz knew exactly what he was implying with lyrics like: “What is this feeling so sudden and new? I felt the moment I laid eyes on you. My pulse is rushing. My head is reeling. My face is flushing, what is this feeling? Fervid as a flame, does it have a name?” And even though this is followed with, “Yes: loathing. Unadulterated loathing,” it’s become a song that younger queer fans cling to in order to find some representation. The further I got into The Life and Times, the more I noticed the drastic differences in the stories. For starters, in The Life and Times, Elphaba and Glinda aren’t all that close. We see them grow very close, very quickly in Wicked where, after Glinda feels guilty about encouraging Elphaba to embarrass herself in front of the entire school, they’re suddenly best friends. In The Life and Times, they have a relationship, but it comes off as two roommates who learn to live with each other and may eventually consider each other good friends, rather than two girls who quickly become best friends.

 

There are far too many differences in the stories for me to go through them all, so instead, I’ll talk about the ones that get to me the most. Wicked was definitely adapted to be a more family-friendly story, and even though we all know what Elphaba and Fiyero are really doing in “As Long As You’re Mine,” younger viewers may not exactly pick up on it. In The Life and Times, nothing is quite as subtle. For starters, in Wicked, Elphaba’s mother has an affair with who we later find out to be the Wizard, and that’s why Elphaba is born with green skin. In The Life and Times, she’s drugged. It’s hazy here with how much consent was given, but there is a moment in the book where she confesses she has no idea who Elphaba’s real father is―she remembers drinking with a man, him suggesting she tries some special elixir, and nine months later, Elphaba was born. Another family-friendly change that was made in Wicked is how the Animals change. In Wicked, they stop talking and revert back to being regular animals. In The Life and Times, when Doctor Dillamond gets too close to discovering why Animals can talk, his throat is slit so he can’t share his knowledge with the rest of Oz. The discovery of the body is a rather gruesome scene, and it drives Elphaba and Glinda’s caretaker into madness. 

 

Even the way some of the characters are presented changes significantly. In Wicked, Glinda is, to put it gently, an airhead. In The Life and Times, she studied her way into Shiz. She’s fantastic at sorcery, particularly interested in architecture, and knows how to deceive people in order to get crucial information out of them. Similarly, Fiyero was not written to be a pretty boy who believes “life’s more painless for the brainless.” He’s a prince. He knows why he’s at Shiz and what he hopes to accomplish after leaving Shiz. The relationship between Glinda and Fiyero is created entirely in Wicked; in The Life and Times, Fiyero has been married since he was around eight years old, though he and his wife are not particularly close or even really interested in each other. In the latter story, Fiyero accidentally finds Elphaba years after they’ve left Shiz, and the two strike up an affair. In this portion of The Life and Times, Elphaba’s character develops. She allows herself to trust Fiyero, even if she won’t tell him what she’s doing with her rebel group. She allows herself to fall deeply in love with him, and she accepts that he loves her too, not despite her green skin and peculiarities, but because of who she is as a person. She allows herself to be vulnerable. Wicked makes it seem as though they decided to run away together on a whim, but that’s not how their story was originally written. They were deeply in love, and when Fiyero is discovered in Elphaba’s home and brutally murdered, Elphaba changes again. She blames herself, and it haunts her. I think Schwartz got the idea to make Fiyero the scarecrow because up to her dying moment, Elphaba hopes that Fiyero might be the scarecrow accompanying Dorothy. He’s not; and just like Fiyero, Elphaba doesn’t get a second chance. When Dorothy douses her with water at the end of The Life and Times, she doesn’t slip into a secret passageway and come out the other end to reunite with Fiyero; she dies. Glinda doesn’t secretly mourn the death of her best friend as she does in Wicked―in fact, a nasty disagreement between the women made it so that they hadn’t spoken since the death of Nessa.

 

It’s hard for me to say if I like Wicked or The Life and Times better, because the stories really are so different. I will say that I’ve loved getting the opportunity to spend time with these characters in such different ways and seeing how their stories can change so much depending on who is writing them. Through studying these stories as closely as I have, I’ve come to appreciate how adaptations can influence the lives of characters and the emotions produced by media consumers. I’m not completely sure why Schwartz made the changes he made―I briefly mentioned a theory or two that I have, and I’m sure as I continue to consume Wicked media, my theories will change and grow. If you’re interested in creating your own theories, Wicked is coming to Seattle June 12th to July 7th, and The Life and Times can probably be found and most bookstores and libraries. As I’ve said before, I’ve loved getting to know these characters in their original context as well as in their adaptations, and I encourage you to seek out their numerous stories and develop your own interests with them.