I don’t like Wicked.
Oh, the music is great, and I listen to many of the songs all the time (Defying Gravity is one of my go-to running songs), but the story is nothing but one gigantic misfire.
The trouble is that it purports to tell the back story of the Wicked Witch of the West. But it doesn’t. It tells the story of Elphaba; a young woman born with green skin who is ostracized, oppressed, and ultimately accomplishes nothing except landing the cute rich boy and being friends with a brainless popular girl named Glinda. At no point does she even remotely resemble the cunning, powerful, walking nightmare known only as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Now, you may be saying “but that’s the point of the story! That she wasn’t wicked, but only misunderstood!” To which I answer “if that’s the point, then I don’t see the point of it.” Once you strip away her evilness, there’s really nothing very interesting about the Wicked Witch of the West (or, as I suppose we must call her, the “Misunderstood and Innocent Sort-of Witch Who at One Point Makes a Vague Reference to the West”). The attempt to reform her destroys the character. There’s simply no reason to connect the two figures of Elphaba and the Wicked Witch of the West, since they have absolutely nothing to do with one another.
And not only that, but by any standards Elphaba isn’t a very interesting character. She’s certainly nowhere near as captivating, imposing, or impressive as the W³. For one thing, she’s essentially helpless; I don’t think she actually accomplishes a single thing over the whole course of the show, except for some really bitching musical numbers and setting the Cowardly Lion free. The one time she encounters a real threat, she needs to be rescued by her boyfriend. She never defeats the Wizard (here the villain), who just kind of gives up after she’s out of the picture. Moreover, the “plain, unpopular, brainy girl who nevertheless lands the hottest boy in school” isn’t exactly a bold or original character type, and I can’t remember them putting any kind of unique spin on it.
So why do I bring all this up? Is it just to vent my spleen after growling about it for years? Well, partly. But more importantly, it’s to illustrate an important point; that most really interesting characters can’t survive very much reinterpretation. The Wicked Witch of the West can’t be the heroine; not without removing everything that makes her the Wicked Witch. The Joker (despite what Harley Quinn thinks) can’t be a misunderstood innocent without ceasing to be the Joker. The more striking a character is, the less they can be presented as other than what they are.
I have a similar reaction to the many “historical” Jesuses as I have to Wicked: the sense of “well, if that’s all, then what’s the point?” If Jesus were just a moral teacher, or just a political revolutionary, or just a whatever-else, then there really doesn’t seem to be any reason why anyone should have worshiped Him. No one worshiped Socrates, or Seneca, or Solon, or any of the other ancient sages. No one deified any of the hundreds and hundreds of revolutionaries constantly springing up and being put down throughout the Roman Empire. Moreover, all of Jesus’s first disciples were Jews: the very last people who would divinize anyone. The problem, in short, is why, if that’s all He was, did anyone try to portray Him as anything different?
Even of the early Heresies, no one (as far as I am aware) tried to pull the “just a moral teacher” card: they said He was an adopted semi-divine creature, or a spirit with only the appearance of a body, or that He was a divine schizophrenic with two-natures, or any other number of interpretations, but always with the view that He was more than human. The only people who called Him a revolutionary or such like were the Roman authorities who weren’t paying much attention to the actual teachings.
There’s a troubling disconnect here; on the one hand, we have the Church, which worships Jesus, assigns Him the titles of “Son of God” and “Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.” On the other we have the man Jesus Himself. Somehow we have to get from the Jewish man walking about in Israel to the mushrooming community of people who fervently believe that He was God come to Earth and who are willing to go to their deaths rather than deny that belief and argue out the most fiddling and difficult philosophical implications of it over the course of centuries. A mere revolutionary or moral philosopher simply isn’t, well, interesting enough to spark that kind of movement. But the only possible motive for such a movement is that the founders actually believed it to be true. There are precious few interpretations of the figure of Jesus that will account for all these facts (not to mention the fact that this religious movement was explicitly founded on the idea that He died and rose to life again). As a matter of fact, I would say there’s only one: that Jesus was and is just who the Church claims He is. Much like the Wicked Witch of the West, Jesus simply can’t be interpreted any other way without losing everything that makes Him worth talking about in the first place.