Complicated Endings: Redemption for the Wicked Witch of the West
Updated: Feb 24
“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” “I’m not a witch at all. Witches are old and ugly!”
The Wizard of Oz narrative has permeated American popular culture since L. Frank Baum first transported young readers to the magical land of Oz in his 1900 children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.Baum’s fairy tale has grown into an immediately recognizable popular culture icon and in the century since its first publication, the Wizard of Oz tale has been adapted, revised, and reinvented countless times, repeatedly negotiating and recasting the key themes of gender, race, home, and magic within the story. In the scores of revisions and reinventions of Oz over the past one hundred plus years, many details of the story have been changed and challenged, though a few core elements have remained, including the central cast of characters and the recurring themes of gender, race, home, and magic.
In October 2003, the Stephen Schwartz & Winnie Holtzman Musical Wicked opened on Broadway. An adaptation of the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, this musical recasts the iconic character of The Wicked Witch of the West as a protagonist, following her through her college years, early adulthood and ending shortly after Dorothy douses her with water. This musical (and it’s source material) is the most recent Broadway reframing of the beloved 1939 MGM musical film The Wizard of Oz, which is itselfa reframing of the novel by L. Frank Baum. This movie follows Dorothy from Kansas to the strange land of Oz, there she makes new friends: The Scarecrow, The Tinman, and The Cowardly Lion; but she also makes an enemy out of The Wicked Witch of the West.
I will analyze how the image of the Wicked Witch of the West has changed over the years and complicated the good versus evil dichotomy by focusing on the differences and similarities between this character as presented in The Wizard of Oz versus Wicked. I will look at her appearance, both inherent and acquired. Her relationships with other characters in the stories. And her reception, both by her fellow characters as well as the audience.
Oxford defines Heroine as “a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” It goes on to define it as “The chief female character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.” Furthermore, in mythology and folklore, it is “a woman of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose deeds were the subject of ancient Greek myths.”
Wicked’s Elphaba embodies all three of these definitions in some way. She is a noble, well-meaning young woman who regularly puts the needs of the stories other characters before her own. Throughout the course of the play, we see her taking care of her disabled sister, advocating for her roommate to be accepted into a class that she wants to take, advocating for Animal rights, and crusading against a tyrannical government leader. The audience is highly sympathetic with her and has sparked a fan base of empowered young women who have used her as a role model.
In her book The Wizard of Oz as an American Myth, Alissa Burger goes into great detail over the ways in which L. Frank Baum’s original story and its many incarnations serve as an American version of mythology in the same way that Fairy Tales serve this purpose in England and stories of the Gods in Greece. She says, “as the first uniquely American fairy tale, Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz occupies a privileged position of American myth, embodying the character of the nation at the beginning of the twentieth century and ideologically defining the nature of the ideal American citizen as possessing the qualities of adventurousness, empathy, intellect, courage, and the desire for self-improvement.”
Approximately 50 minutes into any production of Wicked, Elphaba and her classmates are presented with a professor who is mistreating a Lion Cub in order to prevent him from learning to become a Sentient Animal. Elphaba argues for his humane handling and in her frustration reveals her superhuman qualities to help him escape.
The Wizard of Oz’s depiction of The Wicked Witch of the West has set the standard for the American understanding of what a witch looks like. Because of Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of this character a standard was set. This version of The Wicked Witch of the West is ugly, possessing green skin, a long-crooked nose, and no concern for make-up. She wears all black – including the iconic pointed witch hat. She flies on a broomstick, can apparat and disparate in a puff of smoke & fire, and has a cackling laugh that will send shivers down your spine.
The American Film Institute lists The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West as the fourth greatest villain of all time. She is said to have struck fear into the hearts of every child since her appearance in 1939 and is the gold standard for the look and behavior of all evil witches after her. This is not a character who we love to hate, this is a character who is universally feared. Likewise, the other characters in the movie seem to fear her just as much as the audience. The only exception seems to be Glinda (who appears to believe that she is more powerful than the Wicked Witch), and her flying monkeys who behave as an obedient pet.
In Wicked, Elphaba is modeled after the 1939 version of the character. She too has green skin, but we learn that this is the result of a birth defect. Despite her verdigris, Elphaba is depicted as an attractive woman, even sexualized at times. She has a perfectly normally shaped nose without any warts, and wears makeup to enhance her features. As in The Wizard of Oz, fashion plays a major role in defining Elphaba’s appearance. In the beginning of the play, she is seen in dark, drab skirts and sweaters, as the play progresses, she is seen in a variety of clothing (even white).
Elphaba’s hat also plays a central role in her use of fashion. Shortly after their first meeting, Glinda offers Elphaba an iconic witch’s hat to wear to a party, intending to embarrass her roommate by making her appear hopelessly out of fashion. However, instead of being mortified, Elphaba reasserts her individuality and confidence taking to the dance floor, where she is soon joined by a repentant Glinda. Elphaba claims the has as a personal signature, a constant staple of her wardrobe that positions her within the culturally recognizable image of the witch. At the end of Act I, Elphaba discovers her ability to fly on a broomstick, from that point on, this seems to be her primary means of transportation; she is never seen coming-and-going in a puff of smoke.
In The Wizard of Oz, we are told to dislike the Wicked Witch of the West before we ever see her. “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glinda asks Dorothy. Dorothy’s response? “Witches are old and ugly!” “Only bad witches are ugly,” Glinda assures us. In the telling of this tale, we are given assurance on no uncertain terms that even in this technicolor landscape, white people are beautiful and good, and not-white people of bad and ugly.
Then the witch shows up: not only is she ugly, but her skin is also green, and she is a strong woman. She immediately demands to know who killed her sister. (This seems like a reasonable request.) From this point on, the crux of the tension between Dorothy and the Witch centers around the fact that Dorothy killed the Witches sister and stole her shoes & Dorothy refuses to give the shoes back.
Given the narrative of today, I wonder how this story would progress if it had been the witch who accidentally killed Dorothy’s sister and stole her shoes. Would she have been given a chance to explain? Could she have been given time to give them back? Would she have lived to see what was at the end of the yellow brick road?
One of the most obvious differences between the two versions of this character lies in the company that she keeps. The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West seems to only be granted the company of an army of Winki Soldiers, another non-white race (who we later learn are enchanted to protect her), and some flying monkeys. When we first meet her, we are aware that Dorothy has just dropped a house on her sister; however, we are given no indication of the type of relationship the two sisters had before the tragedy.
Conversely, Wicked’s Elphaba enjoys a host of friends and close acquaintances. Her best friend from college will become Glinda the good. This is a life-long friendship even when it is forced to be kept secret. She has a passionate romance with another schoolmate, Fiyero, who eventually leaves the Wizard’s army to run away with her at the end of the play. We see a loving and caring relationship between Elphaba and her sister, Nessarose, until they have a falling out shortly before Nessarose’s death. The guilt of having never been able to rekindle this relationship is used to explain the anger at Dorothy taking Nessarose’s shoes. Some other notable relationships include Dr. Dillamond & Madame Morible, professors at the University, and The Wizard of Oz himself before she discovers that he is a bad man.
This character is narratively, as well as visually, coded first and foremost in terms of her difference. Wicked takes on the task decoupling “difference” from “bad” by humanizing her and showing us people who she loves and who love her. In the, nearly, twenty years since the premiere of this musical, there has been a change in perception around who this person known as “The Wicked Witch of the West” is. Alissa Burger writes, “The range of this embrace of the Other is most clearly visible in teen girl’s responses to the musical and their critical engagement as fans and viewers with the characters on stage, a response which, in regard to Broadway musicals, seems to be almost exclusively focused on Wicked.” Theatrical commentator Stacy Wolfe says Elphaba’s awkward outward difference signifies her internal difference and both render her sympathetic to almost all fans; there is a thriving internet community of young women engaging with the musical who arguably feel empowered by the musical and by their relationship to it in embracing the beauty of difference and Otherness represented by Elphaba.
There is a mixed reaction to her among her fellow characters, she has strong friends and allies in Glinda and Fiyero, but the Wizard has labeled her an enemy of the state and many fear or distrust her by the end of the show. In the beginning of the show, she is seen by many as an outcast, but not as wicked or evil. As I discussed earlier, this show is a reimagining of a film that is a reimagining of a book that is widely thought of as the first uniquely American fairy tale, and in it we see lessons to be passed down about proper behavior and who can be an acceptable citizen.
In the near 100 years that have passed since this movie was released, the American public has gone through many changes and understandings. Strong women are now celebrated and equal rights are demanded. A character who was once the embodiment of the Other, a non-white, strong, outspoken woman something at the time to be feared eventually became recast as the heroine of her own story. This revived Wicked Witch is given a real name, we see her suffer losses, fall in and out of love, and struggle to find herself. We root for her, and in the end when we learn that the water didn’t actually kill her the audience cheers with relief and delight.
The Broadway Musical Wicked opened 64 years after the release of The Wizard of Oz to massive crowds accepting this new heroine. Willing to believe that someone labeled different or “Other” could be the hero, could be an advocate for good. Only 5 years after the opening of wicked, two more national figures labeled “Other” were battling for the nomination to be president of the United States. One of those people was a strong woman, the other not white. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that societies willingness to accept “the Other” as a hero coincided with societies willingness to accept “the Other” as our Commander in Chief.
Unfortunately, outside of the narratives told on the stage, the struggle for equality in casting is very real. While on stage, a story is being told that advocates for the voices of the oppressed and encourages political upheaval for the betterment of all people. “Since its opening in 2003, Elphaba has never been played by a black woman full-time in the United States.” After more than a year canceled performances during which the United States and the world has gone through a deep reckoning with our uncomfortable history with racial inequality, on August 25, 2021, it was announced that when they resume performances on September 14, 2021, Elphaba will once again be played by a white woman.
In a show that preaches the importance of inclusion and acceptance, a narrative that tells the story of how difference can be the perfect ingredient for making the world bette,r we continue to see the mistreatment and dismissal of the other. It brings to mind a church who preaches the gloriously inclusive message promised by the Gospel, while only permitting straight white men to preach. This hypocritical messaging plagues our country, our entertainment, our politics, and our faith. And still, it seems the goal is unattainable.
The Wizard of Oz (Metro Goldwyn Mayer presents, 1939).