I saw the musical, “Wicked” yesterday with my daughter.   It tells the story of the Wizard of Oz but from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was highly enjoyable as visual spectacle and as musical presentation but its story is nevertheless disturbing. 

The retelling of the Oz story, where the wicked witch is no longer wicked and the wizard is closer to evil, where the motivations of Glinda the Good, the tin man, the lion, the scarecrow and others are highly suspect turns the moral order of my youth upside down.

Indeed, one of the main themes in this version is that there is much moral “greyness” in the universe but that this makes people uncomfortable, that people need a black and white framework to feel secure.

But isn’t that message of moral uncertainty actually one we see all around us?  Aren’t we taught by our media, by our popular culture and by our leaders that there is no absolute right and wrong?  I find that we as a society are more comfortable now with the moral greyness message.  That is precisely why “Wicked” and other such productions are so popular.

It is more of challenge to us now to be told that there is in fact a clear dividing line between good and evil and that you can be on the wrong side of the line because of the choices you make.  It is this “moral” message that makes us feel uncomfortable not the “everything is relative” message which permeates our culture. 

I enjoyed the musical as a fantasy and as an alternate way of viewing what happened in the Oz story.   But I find myself disliking its moral stance and the easy way it dismisses the need for moral clarity. 

But even here, the story in the musical is a cheat.  Glinda the Good (now truly good as the story makes clear) becomes the ruler, replacing the corrupt Wizard; the evil and power hungry assistant to the Wizard is arrested and thrown into prison; and of course, the misunderstood Wicked Witch and scarecrow run off together and “live happily ever after” somewhere or other.  

While decrying all the conventions and the moral framework that sustained the previous version of the story, this version nevertheless relies on the same moral stereotypes in order to give comfort to its audience at the conclusion.

If the values have not really changed, have we done more than simply replaced one power by another?  How will Glinda be different from the Wizard in a universe that still punishes those who are presented as truly evil and rewards those who are presented to the audience as good?  After all, even in this universe, the Wizard is presented as a man with a desire to please and do good, corrupted by power.

So while the Wizard and other characters like to play with the relativity of the notion of doing good and evil (as the Wicked Witch sings, “No good deed goes unpunished.”), Elphaba (the Witch) at one point takes an absolute stand against the promotion of fear of animals.  She is seemingly the only one to have an absolute internal moral sense and it is she who rebels against the authority and power of the Wizard.   Glinda at first tries to ignore and then rationalize his obviously evil actions partly because it serves her own interest and partly because she wants everyone to get along.

What the play shows us eventually, however, is that even well intentioned actions seeking the highest good can have negative consequences.  The Witch protects the lion only to have him grow up hating her because her protectiveness has made him a coward.   Her generosity to her sister can not repair the years of her sister’s suffering and blaming her for her deformities.  Her attempt to save Boq turns him into the tin man who resents what she has done to him, despite the fact that it actually saved his life.  At the end of it all, as she becomes aware of how even well meaning action can have terrible effects, the Witch abandons the public stance against evil and seeks to hide away with her lover to cultivate her own garden.  Given her character, it is hard to see how she will succeed.

In the universe of this musical, it is inevitable that Glinda’s well meaning attempts at being good will go wrong or have unforeseen and unintended evil effects.  The witch will again be provoked to use her power to change the world.

I guess, someone should write the sequel.