What's the significance of the radical and enduring success of Wicked? It's this: we seem, as a culture, to be more open to different points of view - like that of a wicked witch, for instance.
Put in more philosophical terms: there's an ever-widening postmodern streak tinting the mainstream.
Wicked looks at The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West's perspective. It was published as a novel in 1996, and debuted as a Broadway musical in 2003. The book continues to sell (I commonly encounter it in bookstores, both new and used, and on friends' shelves) and the stage production has won Tony awards, Olivier awards, and set box office records in 2011 and 2012 in New York, London and elsewhere, so it'll certainly keep playing and touring for years to come.
The Witch - whose name is revealed as Elphaba in Wicked - was never anything but evil in the 1939 movie. Green skin, big pointy, warty nose, black hat and cloak, flying broom, spells, awful cackling laugh - she's a villain, through and through, the template for many a Halloween witch costume. When she dies, not only does no one mourn, everyone bursts into song. She was blackhearted and mean and deserved to die, and we're all better off without her. Hooray!
This presentation reveals a very modernist point of view. There are moral absolutes, and you can trust them. Good is good and evil is evil. Who's good? Us. Who's evil? Them. Or in this case: her. And her terrifying screeching flying monkeys!
Wicked (I'll stick to the musical version for this article) presents Elphaba sympathetically. She's friendly and optimistic at the beginning of the play, eager to go to college. She's socially outcast because of her green skin, a condition she was born with, thanks to her mother's having ingested a potion by a traveling salesman. An automatic outsider, Elphaba supports the rights of sentient animals, who are being discriminated against. She demonstrates an unexpected talent for sorcery, and studies it in school, brimming with optimism at the possibility of someday being of service to the Wizard.
Galinda (later to become Glinda, the Good Witch) is snooty, haughty, ambitious, conscious of her beauty and initially not interested in befriending the green outcast. The two eventually travel to the Emerald City together to petition the Wizard for animal rights. They discover he's actually behind the oppression, along with one of their professors. Elphaba escapes on a broom (levitating it with her newly acquired powers), and Glinda stays with the Wizard, becoming a public figure in Oz.
Throughout the play various elements are put into place, and we learn the origin of the flying monkeys, the ruby slippers, and who the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion were before Dorothy (a very minor character in the play) arrives - none of them being what you might have expected. Elphaba, in her continued defiance, is labelled the Wicked Witch of the West by the Wizard as part of his political maneuvering, and the public buys it. To the audience, it's clear there's nothing wicked about her, and we're forced to reexamine what we'd thought of her from the original movie. In fact, we reevaluate everything we'd known about that particular story.
The topsy-turvy-ing of what had previously been considered solid moral ground is very postmodern, like how First Nations people, starting in the 70s, were presented in Westerns as wise and in tune with nature, not at all the scowling, marauding, whooping savages John Wayne blasted off their horses with impunity. In Dances with Wolves, the US Cavalry seems villainous, and Kevin Costner's character chooses a life with the natives instead. This pattern repeats in The New World.
The retelling of a familiar story from a different angle is very postmodern, as in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, looking at Hamlet from the perspective of two minor, practically irrelevant characters, with Hamlet himself only making the occasional appearance.
Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, finding the public quite eager to look at familiar tales from new angles, has gone on to write three other novels that examine the world of Oz from different points of view - those of the Cowardly Lion, Elphaba's son Liir, and her grand-daughter. He's also got one looking at Cinderella from the perspective of one of her ugly step-sisters, and another one retelling Snow White from the Queen's point of view. I'd be very surprised if he stopped there.
But Wicked's success might also be at least partially credited to the fact that it straddles modern and postmodern sensibilities. The upending of moral certainties and reexamining a familiar story are postmodern, but the presentation is quite traditional. There are characters, and a story told in three acts - unlike The Vagina Monologues, for instance, which consists of distinct episodic fragments on a theme instead of a story. Wicked begins with Glinda eulogizing over Elphaba's melted, disappeared body, but from then on, the events are presented chronologically and in about as straight-forward a manner as you can get in the theatre. Songs conform to the conventions of traditional American musical theatre, none is challenging to the ear.
The play isn't conscious of itself as a work of art - no one addresses the audience directly, like the cast of The Vagina Monologues, or the stage manager in Our Town. Animals aren't presented in blatantly non-realistic fashion, like the superb puppets in War Horse or The Lion King, or Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the lead actor portrays a man who wakes up to discover he's literally become a giant dung beetle, but he performs the role without any bug costume whatsoever.
Straddling these two philosophical worlds, Wicked is very digestible to mainstream audiences, for whom the postmodern tropes are interesting and refreshing, and not at all jarring, disturbing or off-puttingly intellectual. In fact, in the novel is a fair bit darker. Ephaba's mother is a bored housewife who has multiple affairs and is an addict. Her father's a fundamentalist preacher, and Elphaba doesn't adopt his hard-line beliefs, making her the family's less favoured daughter. These elements have been deliberately softened (as in, removed) for the stage adaptation.
Gregory Maguire, as it happens, is gay. Elphaba's automatic status as an outsider because of a condition she was born with could easily be interpreted as an analogy for homosexuality - even though the character is heterosexual. The same goes for her championing of sentient animal rights. Again, this symbolism isn't explicit, and therefore the message communicates on a subtle level, threatening no one. And giving voice to a minority point of view, whether gay or wicked, is very postmodern as well. Appropriately enough, two of the original cast members have appeared on Glee - a show that features outsider characters - gay, multiracial, children of two dads, bi-racial marriages and single parents - and has found a strong mainstream audience, much like the wildly successful sitcom Modern Family.
Granted, the total audience for the various productions of Wicked, in their decade-plus on the stage, totals a mere couple of million - a great amount for a play, but a fraction of what a successful movie reaches. But theatre tickets cost a great deal more (a cheap seat for Wicked in New York will run you eighty bucks), so they're not as casually taken in as a movie. For a hit play, the theatre is usually full (especially if that play is breaking box office records), creating a sense of excitement in the audience, with everyone feeling privileged to be there. And emotions are contagious. A packed house laughs, gasps and applauds as one, and the long-term impact of such an experience is considerable.
Wicked has done an extraordinary thing in both challenging the public's perception of a beloved story, and paying reverence to it, all the while taking mainstream audiences along with them as gentle, tip-toeing steps are taken to make anyone question the absolute status of someone considered "wicked" or "good." As in many other instances, a work of art leads the way, and the public sets a foot or two forward unknowingly, on a road they hadn't been aware existed. A swirling, twisting road, made of yellow bricks, perhaps.