Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Wicked.
It’s just been announced that the popular musical Wicked is getting a film adaptation – and I think that sounds like a brilliant idea! Wicked is exactly the kind of musical that should make for a wonderful work of cinema, and it’s amazing in a way that it’s only now, almost twenty years since it made its Broadway debut, that a film adaptation has been greenlit. You’d think it might’ve happened sooner!
I was very fortunate to see Wicked when it came to London’s West End (the name for the city’s theatre district) in 2006. Idina Menzel – better known in recent years for her role as Elsa in Frozen and Frozen II – played the lead role, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen her perform live. There’s something about seeing a musical like Wicked on the stage that really elevates it and makes it incredibly memorable – I miss being able to go to the theatre far more than I miss the cinema sometimes.
We can’t talk about Wicked without at least acknowledging its popular progenitor: the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum’s series of children’s books about Oz had been popular in the early part of the 20th Century, but the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is still what most people bring to mind first when they think about the fantasy setting. The film is an icon of cinema, and is responsible not only for the continued popularity of the setting, but was also hugely influential in the creation of the 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West – upon which the popular musical is loosely based.
If you’re interested in a novel about existentialism and that deals with adult themes like cruelty and the treatment of people who are perceived as “different,” then check out Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a difficult, dense, and occasionally harrowing read – one that’s very different in many ways from the musical that it inspired. But it’s a fascinating look at the concept of a genuine outsider – and takes the Wicked Witch (who its author names Elphaba, in honour of L. Frank Baum) to completely different thematic places. Far from being a one-dimensional cackling villain, she’s given nuance and understandable motivations for behaving the way she does.
I came to the book after having seen the musical – I believe I bought my copy then and there in the theatre – and I was genuinely shocked at the complex themes and adult tone. Wicked is a beautiful musical, but many of the novel’s subtler themes are lost amidst the glitz, glamour, and greasepaint of the stage production.
Given today’s entertainment and media landscape, I feel all but certain that the film adaptation of Wicked will touch on these darker themes. An examination of what it means to be looked down on, mistreated, and pushed to breaking point are all themes which the novel encourages readers to consider, and while they may have felt too dark for a stage play in 2003, for a film in 2021 they feel pitch-perfect. Audiences have come to expect dark deconstructions of classics – and Wicked absolutely fits that mould.
Wicked can also be seen to follow on from Disney productions like Maleficent and Cruella as a film that will make the villain its star. The Wicked Witch of the West is most famous for her villainous role in The Wizard of Oz, but Wicked puts her centre-stage and tells her story through a generally sympathetic – or at least understandable – presentation. It’s a deliberate twist on The Wizard of Oz, flipping the script to show heroes as villains, villains as heroes, and the grubby shades of grey in between both.
Nuance, shades of grey, and supposedly-realistic depictions of individuals are what has driven modern cinema – and modern entertainment in general. Audiences don’t want or expect to see “boring” heroes who are totally perfect and virtuous, nor villains who are purely evil for the sake of it. The ideas that there are two sides to a story, and that which side we root for is entirely dependent on who’s telling the story, are intrinsic to the source material of Wicked – and I’m sure that’s one of the most appealing things about the project to its writers, producers, and director.
The film adaptation will be a musical, so we can expect at least some of the stage production’s classic hits to reappear. Defying Gravity is the show’s standout song, and it closes the first act in the theatre. Encapsulating a sense of individualism, self-reliance, and of course defiance, the powerful ballad sees the Wicked Witch set her choice in stone and fully commit to her rebellion against the Wizard.
Seeing Defying Gravity performed live is something I’ll never forget, and perhaps some folks will say that no cinematic adaptation of that scene could ever live up to its stage equivalent. But I’m more than willing to give it a chance – today’s cinematic visual effects are improving in leaps and bounds, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what a film with a big budget can make of that exceptional moment.
There can be a snobbishness to stage productions and the theatre, and perhaps this should be a longer discussion on another occasion. But as someone whose disability now precludes theatre visits, I get sick to the back teeth of hearing that a stage production is “irreplaceable” and that “one simply must see a production live” to get the best effect. The theatre has been beyond the reach of many people – physically and financially – for a long time, and there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with cinematic adaptations. If anything, Wicked will reach far more people in the weekend after its release as a film than the stage production has been able to in almost twenty years – and bringing such a powerful and beautiful production to more people and spreading art around should be celebrated, not denigrated.
But we’re drifting off-topic, and that discussion may be best saved for a longer article on another occasion.
There have been a number of attempts over the years to return cinema-goers to the Land of Oz. 1985’s Return to Oz was a financial flop – albeit one that has since picked up a bit of a cult following. I personally enjoyed what 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful brought to the table, and that film fared significantly better in financial terms – but wasn’t much of a hit with critics and reviewers. But no title since The Wizard of Oz can be said to have truly succeeded at bringing in audiences to the Land of Oz; Universal Pictures and director John M. Chu are clearly hoping to change that.
Wicked will have a lot of buzz around it simply because of the success of the musical. The stage production is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and aside from closures due to the pandemic has been running continuously since its 2003 inception. A lot of fans of the stage musical – myself included – will be very curious to see what the film adaptation will bring to the table.
The casting of pop music superstar Ariana Grande as Glinda and Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba has also raised a lot of interest. Grande’s name in particular will be a big draw, and while I’m not terribly familiar with her acting work there’s no denying she’s an incredible talent when it comes to singing.
Wicked is one of those projects that you almost feel should have been made already! The source material – both the book and musical – are so great and so genuinely different that it seems like a no-brainer. Apparently the project has been kicked around for some time, languishing for a while in the dreaded “development hell” before being officially greenlit. But now that it’s official, I think it’s absolutely something to look forward to.
There have been some high-profile musical misses in recent years. 2019’s Cats adaptation shows just how badly wrong a film can go, and also proves that big names are no guarantee of success. Cats should be a warning to the producers of Wicked – and a warning to anyone involved in cinema in general, but that’s beside the point! As long as Wicked can avoid the numerous problems and pitfalls which befell Cats… actually scratch that, it’s too low of a bar. Let’s just say that I hope Wicked will be a success!
So that’s all, really. The film is in pre-production and we won’t see it any time soon. But it’s one to keep an eye on – I think it has a lot of potential.
The novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is the copyright of Gregory Maguire and/or HarperCollins. The musical Wicked – including its songs Defying Gravity et al. – is the copyright of Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. The film adaptation of Wicked is the copyright of Universal Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.