A Wicked Writer
Novelist Gregory Maguire discusses the political inspiration for the hit musical and how he expects it to fare in an Obama nation.
THEATERMANIA: I know the book was written in 1995, but its parallels to all that has transpired since 9/11 are uncanny. How could you have foreseen all that went down?
GREGORY MAGUIRE: My intention was to write a piece of fiction that would be accessible to a lot of readers because they knew the main characters already. It would be a piece of fiction that would explore, using fictional techniques, the nature and the range of evil -- and of how we come to decide who is bad and who is good. My original thoughts were to write a novel about Hitler, to take a small section of his life and see if I could put into a little parable the different and contradictory theories about how he could have become such a psychopath -- and then come down squarely on the side of none.
TM: So how did it become about the Wizard of Oz instead?
GM: I decided very quickly that I did not have the intellectual cojones, as it were, to master that particular project. And I began to sort of think what would be more comfortable for me, and who else really scared me in childhood -- and scares me today, and therefore I can assume by extension that other people might be equally interested. And really, the Wicked Witch of the West was who I came up with.
GM: Some of my portrayal of the Wizard and some of my understanding about the depths of his villainy was definitely predicated around Richard Nixon and his lying and his cheating and his spying and his plumbers and his attempt to subvert the constitution -- which was happening just as I was becoming politically conscious. Nixon and Watergate was the first time I felt politically cynical. Bush had his own menace but when he got to the White House there were still boots in the mud room left over from former villains that he could try on and fit in quite nicely.
TM: Still, some of the Wizard's lines -- like "The best way to bring people together is to give them a really good enemy" -- sound straight out of the Bush/Cheney playbook, don't they?
GM: Everything the Wizard says is wonderful and creepy and it could also be said about Nixon and to some extent, Ronald Reagan. None of us could know when Bush was elected that he would turn out to have such dictatorial tendencies, or that 9/11 was going to stoke up a certain kind of patriotism that would promote a blindness and muteness among citizens and members of congress -- and also in the press -- and that we would be living under a spell for seven years. But the more that I saw what was happening, the less I believed that Wicked could ever get funded and ever get backers -- because it seemed so antithetical to what I was observing in the country.
TM: Now the country is focusing on the promises of President Obama. And yet, there are currently four American companies of Wicked, not to mention productions in London, Germany, Japan, and Australia. Do you worry the show will lose part of its audience appeal?
GM: Maybe there will be a drying up of interest -- and maybe part of the nourishment was that in some ways it's a finger in the eye of a callous and unthinking administration. Still, the story is about a friendship between two girls, there's no arguing that that is a very appealing aspect of the play and a good argument why people want to see it again and again. And it's not just about young women learning to trust one another and learning the depths of their affection for one another. It's also about women -- or any disenfranchised citizen -- learning their relationship in a system of power, either as collaborators -- the way Glinda becomes -- or as iconoclasts and hermits the way Elphaba becomes.