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Before seeing the Broadway musical “Wicked” for the 25th time, Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel “Wicked,” was in the lobby of the Gershwin Theater last month persuading people not to read it. Granted, the people were 9, 10 and 13, and Maguire was telling their respective mothers that the book could be “a destination read for freshman year in college.” But when he saw the girls’ hangdog faces, he conceded that, if their mothers read it first and approved, they might try it at 16 instead.
That’s because “Wicked,” the novel, has no shortage of sex or politics. An intricately imagined expansion of L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz,” it leaves Dorothy in the dust to tell the story of Elphaba (the name is a play on Baum’s), a girl born green who grows up to be an intellectual activist and, eventually, the Wicked Witch of the West. Despite dabbling in terrorism and adultery, she may not, it turns out, be wicked after all. Maguire describes her socially awkward years at college, where her roommate is a blond social-climber who becomes Glinda, the witch of the north. Their unlikely friendship aside, Glinda still manages to get between Elphaba and those coveted magic slippers.
“Wicked,” the musical, opened in October 2003 and, despite its elaborate physical production, is a vastly pared-down version of the novel. Elphaba, the misfit whose moral and emotional journey quickly became a magnet for girls and the women who drive them, helped the show overcome decidedly mixed reviews and turn into a megahit. Since “Wicked” opened, the Broadway production and three national companies have taken in nearly $500 million, and last Christmas, the show set the all-time record for a weekly gross in London’s West End.
Perhaps to balance the musical’s aggressive merchandising — a full hour before show time vendors sell everything from jewelry to golf balls emblazoned with “Defying Gravity,” the title of Elphaba’s anthem.