It has now been 26 years since novelist Gregory Maguire first suggested that some are born evil, some reach for evil, and some, like the green-skinned wicked witch of the West, saw their evil identity as their being. unfairly imposed like a bucket of burns. blot up the water.
Maguire, author of 40 fiction books that often envision classic storytelling stories like “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” took a moment in Denver last week to consider the sad and continuing resonance of his 1995 breakthrough “Wicked “, which inspired the fifth longest-running musical in Broadway history.
“In fact, I intended and hoped that the book’s engagement with the issue of evil would become evident and that we would have passed it by now,” Maguire said on Wednesday as a featured guest of the venerable. Pen & Podium series at the University of Denver.
“And guess what? We don’t. And so this is the kind of story that, for better or worse, continues to have meaning for readers.
While the musical his book spawned is pure glamor and a show in the grand tradition of Broadway, Maguire’s expansive novel is a much more complex political allegory that hints at everything from Hitler’s Germany to Richard Nixon through the first Bush administration.
In fact, the words “Wicked” and “Hitler” are quite similar, Maguire pointed out to me in a previous interview. Both have two syllables and six letters, two of which are in common. So if one were to infer a connection between the title of his book and the world’s most vilified villain of the last century, “it was no accident,” said Maguire.
Long before Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman reinvented Maguire’s novel for the stage, critics praised the book for its more in-depth commentary on the out-of-control superpowers – of the human race. Maguire was living in England when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991 and he came across a headline that read: “Saddam Hussein: The Next Hitler?”
“I was surprised to see my pulse quicken for military action, even though I had been a Vietnam War protester with a credit card,” he told me. “Something about the way the story was presented in the British press made me stop and think that maybe there is a just war. After all, Thomas Aquinas said yes. And if there was ever an argument for going to war, even for pacifists and Quakers, it could certainly be done for WWII.
“But I have come to understand that this single word ‘Hitler’ is not in itself a moral argument for military action. It’s just a word. It’s an incendiary word, and it’s a word you can’t even talk about, in a sense, because it’s so powerful and so real. But you cannot know that Saddam Hussein is the next Hitler. I thought, “How can I be so persuaded that I justify military action with one little word?” So I became very interested in our human response to chauvinism.
In Maguire’s book, Oz is a place that has gone horribly wrong, and if there is one figure of Hitler, it is the “wonderful” wizard himself. The yellow brick road was built by Munchkin slaves, the flying monkeys are the result of animal experiments, and Oz is populated by a class society of oppressed animals. Scholars have equated these animals with Hitler’s Jewish victims, with Maguire’s blessing.
The novel has sold over 5 million copies, 80% of which since the musical bowed in 2003. The story is now widely viewed through this lens as a feel-good friendship between two. very different independent women. But at its root remains the uplifting tale planted by Maguire of what happens when we, as a society, decide to label anyone who deviates from the norm as evil. Like Elphaba, whose only crime (at first) was to be of a different color. (Note: Maguire’s first inspiration for green, we learned on Wednesday, was… drum roll… Canadian country pop singer kd lang!)
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least, say, Salem. A sure-fire way to bring Americans together has always been to go out and find ourselves a good enemy. And if we don’t have one, we’ll make one. The difference between now and, say, September 11, is that the enemy we make today is our neighbor. Or our Facebook friend from another political persuasion. Today, the enemy is us.
Maguire, a storyteller as natural on stage as on paper, captivated audiences Wednesday by telling his own story of melancholy origin for moderator Jeff Neuman. Maguire’s mother died after giving birth, leaving him raised by a strict journalist, overwhelmed with grief and ill-equipped. “It was a hotbed of trauma and terror,” said Maguire, who was sent to an orphanage but was eventually picked up by his father when he remarried. But her parents, terrified of the dangers lurking behind their front door, rarely let children pass the porch.
“They wouldn’t let us ride our bikes until we were 16,” said Maguire, “and we were only allowed to watch TV for half an hour a week, determined by a majority vote”. (Usually “Gilligan’s Island.”)
Maguire turned to his imagination to escape, writing and illustrating hundreds of perilous adventure stories with fun titles such as “The Hotel Bomb” and “Phillip In Trouble”. “My survival strategy was ‘write or die’,” Maguire said. “I needed to be myself, and the best way I knew to be myself was to make up stories about people who could survive all kinds of things.” By the time he graduated from high school, Maguire had long surpassed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule to master a complex skill.
It was the day Maguire turned 39 – a year older than his mother when she died in childbirth – that he decided to write the book that would change his fate. The book that would dare to wonder if the most iconic face of evil in all of the canon of American literature was born evil – or has simply finally accepted the title already long given by those around it.
“People who claim they are bad are usually no worse than the rest of us,” Maguire writes in “Wicked”. “These are the people who claim to be good, or anyway better than the rest of us, to be wary of.”
Maguire’s latest book is called “The Brides of Maracoor”, a three-part series featuring Elphaba’s granddaughter, Green-skinned Rain. But even 26 years later, there’s no doubt which book remains his favorite. It was “Wicked”, which gave Maguire enough financial security to adopt her three children from overseas.
“Without the success of ‘Wicked’ I wouldn’t have the family I have, which is the most important thing in my life,” Maguire told Neuman on Wednesday. “I was able to do for these three motherless children what my father and my second mother had done for me, which is to give me the family with which I was not naturally born.”
Denver Gazette art columnist John Moore is an award-winning journalist who was named one of American Theater Magazine’s 10 Most Influential Theater Critics. He now produces freelance journalism through his own business, Moore Media. He initially interviewed Gregory Maguire in 2005.
Pen and podium / Coming soon
When: Monday, November 15, 7:30 p.m.
· Guest guest: Susan Orlean, journalist and author, “The Orchid Thief”
Where: Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver
Tickets: 303-871-7720 or penandpodium.com
Hollywood has invited Gregory Maguire for a film adaptation of “Wicked” since its release in 1995. It was composer Stephen Schwartz who convinced Maguire to wait until he could first turn the story into a Broadway musical which has now been viewed by over 40 million worldwide. It took a long time to convince. But as soon as Schwartz introduced the title of his opening song – “No One Mourns the Wicked” – Maguire got hooked.
“With those five words, he sealed the deal because he proved to me that he knew why I had written the book,” Maguire said. “That we demonize those with whom we disagree in order to give ourselves the moral right to pick up stones and clubs against them.” “
After crises, starts, creative changes and a pandemic, a film version is finally in the works. It will be directed by Jon M. Chu, who directed the recent adaptation of “In the Heights”.
– John Moore