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The Evolution of the Wicked Witch of the West


1900: The original book.   The Wicked Witch is born.

Lyman Frank Baum (L. Frank Baum) wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 (its original title was "The Emerald City").   It introduces the character of The Wicked Witch of the West.   The description of her is quite hideous, including the fact that she has only one eye.

Baum went on to write more than 40 other books about Oz.   He died in 1919; he never saw the famous Judy Garland movie.   His last Oz novel, Glinda of Oz, was published after he died.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a rather strange, bloodthirsty book, with a tone that's much too "dark" for modern-day children.   It contains the following exchange between Dorothy and the Wizard:

"Well," said the Head [the Wizard], "I will give you my answer. You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return. In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets. If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first. Help me and I will help you."

"What must I do?" asked the girl.

"Kill the Wicked Witch of the West," answered Oz.

"But I cannot!" exclaimed Dorothy, greatly surprised.

Dorothy does, in fact, eventually kill the Wicked Witch (accidentally) ... after the Witch has captured her and enslaved her, forcing her to do housework (surely a fate worse than death, yes?).   Dorothy throws a bucket of water on her, but not to put out a fire:

[Dorothy], seeing she had lost one of her pretty shoes, grew angry, and said to the Witch, "Give me back my shoe!"

"I will not," retorted the Witch, "for it is now my shoe, and not yours."

"You are a wicked creature!" cried Dorothy. "You have no right to take my shoe from me."

"I shall keep it, just the same," said the Witch, laughing at her, "and someday I shall get the other one from you, too."

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Instantly the wicked woman gave a loud cry of fear, and then, as Dorothy looked at her in wonder, the Witch began to shrink and fall away.

"See what you have done!" she screamed. "In a minute I shall melt away."

"I'm very sorry, indeed," said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes.

"Didn't you know water would be the end of me?" asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice.

"Of course not," answered Dorothy. "How should I?"


1939: The MGM movie.

In 1939, the movie "The Wizard of Oz" (the word "wonderful" was dropped from the title) was released.   It was directed by Victor Fleming (he was the third or fourth director; the first few were fired).   At the time of its release, it as the most expensive movie ever made.

The Wicked Witch of the West was played by Margaret Hamilton.   The original idea for the movie witch was that she would be glamorous and sexy, and would be played by Gale Sondergaard wearing a black sequinned dress.

But ultimately they opted for an ugly, cackling, green-skinned hag.

When the producer changed his mind, and told Ms. Sondergaard that the witch would be ugly, Ms. Sondergaard quit.   She told the studio that she wouldn't "play ugly."

Margaret Hamilton said of the role, "I don't look on it as any great shakes of acting.   It's not subtle or restrained."

This is the most familiar image of the Wicked Witch of the West: hook-nosed, evil, wearing a pointed hat, and flying around on a broomstick.

Of the ten major actors in the movie (not counting, for instance, munchkins and flying monkeys), the lowest-paid was Terry, the dog who portrayed Toto.   The second-lowest-paid actor was Judy Garland.

L. Frank Baum never saw the movie; he died before Judy Garland was even born.

The actors spent five weeks shooting a dance scene ("The Jitterbug") which was cut from the final release of the movie.

The Cowardly Lion's costume was made from a real lion's skin.

In February 2008, the pointy witch's hat worn by Ms. Hamilton in the movie sold at auction for $208,000.00.


1995: The Gregory Maguire novel.

In 1995, Gregory Maguire wrote Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.   It was his first novel for adults.   He gives the Wicked Witch a name: Elphaba, from the initials of author L. Frank Baum.   Dorothy is only a minor character in this book.   Elphaba is born with green skin, to everyone's surprise, and the very first thing she does is bite off someone's finger.   The Wicked Witch of the East, Elphaba's sister (Nessarose), is born without arms.

Elphaba meets Glinda (then known as Galinda) at college ... where they are roommates.   They despise each other at first, not even speaking to each other for the first few weeks, and then they gradually become friends.


2003: The Broadway musical.

Stephen Schwartz has written several musicals, including Godspell (1970).   On October 30, 2003, his musical Wicked ("So Much Happened Before Dorothy Dropped In"), based loosely on Gregory Maguire's novel, opened at the Gershwin Theater on Broadway (it had already "previewed" in San Francisco).   It won three Tony awards in 2004 (Idina Menzel [Elphaba] for best actress in a musical, Eugene Lee for best scenic designer, and Susan Hilferty for best costume designer).   In December 2006, the soundtrack album went platinum.

The show opens with the death of the Wicked Witch ("Let us rejoicify that goodness could subdue the wicked workings of you-know-who ..."), and her story is then told in flashback form.   Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, turns out to be a very complex character.

After Elphaba and Glinda become friends, there's a hilarious number in which Glinda does a makeover of Elphaba.   Glinda sings the song "Popular," which includes this line: "Don't be offended by my frank analysis/Think of it as personality dialysis."

The point of the story seems to be: Maybe the things that people call "wicked" turn out not to be wicked after all ... just misunderstood.   And maybe the things that people call "good" are actually wicked.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first onstage musical version of the story.   The first one was done in 1903, and it was a hit for several years.


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