Wicked’s Gregory Maguire takes on the Brothers Grimm

by Kay Bourne

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 6, 2010

Grimm, Company One's latest production, brings to life seven stories from the early 19th century fairy tales collections by the famous German brothers and does so with a difference. Instead of being literal renderings these stories are re-imagined by some of Boston's best-known playwrights: Melinda Lopez (Sonia Flew), Lydia R. Diamond (Stick Fly, Voyeurs De Venus), Kirsten Greenidge (The Luck Of The Irish), Marcus Gardley (Dance Of The Holy Ghosts), John Kuntz (Salt Girl), and John Adekoje (6 Rounds/6 Lessons).

But by far the contributor with the biggest marquee value isn't a playwright at all: novelist Gregory Maguire is best-known as the author of Wicked and a number of other fictional works in which he re-imagines classic children's stories. Wicked is, of course, a reworking of The Wizard of Oz, offering the Wicked Witch of the West's side of the story. As popular as the novel was, what has made the property a household name is its musical version, which is already one of the most successful stage musicals of all time. In its seventh year on Broadway, it is still one of the highest weekly grosser, and has repeated that success in London, as well as in major American cities where sit-down and touring productions continue to break house records. (The musical returns to Boston's Opera House on September 1, 2010 for a six-week run.)

For Grimm, Maguire took Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and imagines what happened after the story's heroine left with Prince Charming. Called The Seven Stage a Comeback, it follows their quest to be reunited with her. What makes Maguire's contribution different from the other plays in Grimm is that it is used as a framing device with scenes dispersed between the others. Another difference is that unlike the other contributors, Maguire hasn't written a play since he was 8 years old when he provided Sunday night entertainments for his eight brothers and sisters. EDGE spoke with Maguire recently (just as he was to depart to Paris on a vacation) about writing for the stage, his fascination with fairy stories and if Wicked influenced his writing for the stage.

Guilty pleasures

EDGE: Did fairy tales capture your imagination as a child and if so which one(s) in particular?

Gregory Maguire: Since my mother died in childbirth and I was raised by a stepmother (who was anything but wicked) the tropes of fairy tales, which almost always begin that way, had special fascination for me from childhood. I still read them in middle school, though when I took the books from the library I sandwiched them between searing problem novels from the YA section so no one would see my guilty appetite for stories that had both magic and moral consequence in their bones.

EDGE: You impressed me with your sensitivity when you came to The Park School in Brookline to talk to 7th and 8th graders about writing and brought a sample of your writing from that age (rather than something you were currently working on). How do encounters with children inform your writing?

Gregory Maguire: Well, I don't do the school visits anymore, and frankly I talked so much and so fast (as you may remember) that I rarely gave the children time to land a comment. However yours is a good question and one of the reasons I did it was to witness the light that emanates from children as they listen, as they believe and consider or even doubt what they are being told. That light is nutritious and life-repairing. Even if you're not old and jaded and struggling with that pin in your hip, you can enjoy and even cherish the fresh appreciation for life that children come to naturally, and be restored in your own appreciation by their example. So what I took from them was not anything related to story particularly but related to life itself. And some would argue you can only care about story if you care about life, deeply. Though it sounds rather banal to put it down on the computer screen like that. (I specialize in early morning banality.)

A shy boy

EDGE: How did you get involved with Company One which is staging The Seven Stage a Comeback?

Gregory Maguire: Liana Thompson, literary director, got hold of me somehow and invited me to contribute. I am deep in deadlines and ought to have said no, and did say no, but then I remembered I had written a short story about 10 years ago in sort of 18th century high classical verse style, a la Alexander Pope. I dug it up and rendered it more colloquial, in some places, and they thought it would do.

EDGE: Did your experience with the dramatization of Wicked influence you to write for the stage?

Gregory Maguire: Well, I am a shy boy who never dances unless he is asked. So although I had wanted to write for the stage ever since Wicked hit Broadway, I hadn't found the time or inclination. But once asked, I couldn't have been happier to try my hand at it. I would like to try it again, too.

EDGE: Why of all the Grimm fairy tale characters did you choose Snow White or is the Disney movie your take off point?

Gregory Maguire: While I loved the Disney movie as a kid, the various versions of Snow White that predate even the famous Grimm version, which is the one we know best, are darker and more mysterious. There is an Italian version, perhaps from Il Pentamarone (I'm not sure that's the correct spelling but I can't find it on a quick search in my library and can't keep hunting) in which the seven helpers aren't dwarves but seven robbers. Outlaws, outcasts, not much difference, eh? So I tried to concentrate on the ways in which the seven dwarves would have to be alike, and united (unlike in Disney, where they have names) and the ways in which they might be differentiated--really, morally, developmentally differentiated, not just with a single attribute, like a tendency to sneeze, but a deeper identity that might keep them from working in concert for--or against--the ambitions of Snow White herself.

EDGE: Revisiting fairy tales, what surprised you the most about them?

Gregory Maguire: Well, my dear, I have never left them, so I can't say I have been revisiting them.

EDGE: Writing plays you write in real time. Was this a difficult transition for your from novels?

Gregory Maguire: I just finished a novel that has 220,000 words--that is about half the length of Gone With The Wind. So writing a play is truly an exercise in verbal dieting--and it is an exercise that is very good for me to do. I do tend to go on (and I like to read long books too). But one should be able to be brief when required, and playwriting is a necessary corrective to prolixity.

EDGE: What was it like for you seeing "The Seven Stage a Comeback?"

Gregory Maguire: I saw it yesterday for the first and only time, as we leave for vacation today. I confess I had tears in my eyes at the end--good tears, not "oh my gosh it's so @(&*'ed up" tears. The players lent a kind of vigor to the story arc by their physicality, which was just as important to the story (I saw to my astonishment) as anything that they said or did. The staging made use of every inch of a modest space; it was nothing short of magnificent. I have never felt the story of a journey told more convincingly in a theater, ever.

EDGE: Were you surprised by the phenomenal success of Wicked?"

Gregory Maguire: Well, duh. No, let me rewrite that--I don't mean to be impolite. What I mean to say is that no one goes into the arts expecting to make money or to be noticed. I mean, one dreams of it, of course (like the Elaine character in Seinfeld dreaming of meeting John Kennedy Jr.) but one can dream a lot of things that are not going to put mustard on the meat loaf. What has happened with Wicked, in its essence, is that my own rather old-fashioned preoccupation with the childhood question: "can I be good--can I do good--and does it matter if I do or not?" was somehow a deeper question that resonated, once I put it in narrative terms, with a whole subset of the culture. I can't be happier--and yes, I was completely surprised. Previously my readership had been confined exclusively to a small set of cousins from the upper Hudson River valley.

EDGE: Are you involved in the planned for film version?

Gregory Maguire: I have elected to take a distant seat in those proceedings, which is good for my inflatable ego, good for my family, and good for the work that I really need to do--which is write. But I will be involved courteously, I imagine, and no doubt will visit the set and perhaps be allowed to have a walk-on role as a disagreeable Munchkin dentist or someone.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite Grimm fairy tale and why?

Gregory Maguire: My favorite is always the next one I want to think about, and that next one may be Rapunzel. I'm not sure. The story called "The Juniper Tree" is both classic Greek tragedy and Bergman Nordic psychodrama and, depending on how I am feeling, reading it again can make me either want to go back to writing with a new vengeance or ring the Suicide Hotline for help.

EDGE: Is your play suitable for children?

Gregory Maguire: Yes, though I think one or two of the other plays in GRIMM are a bit raw for children.

Grimm continues through August 14 in the Roberts Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont st., Boston's South End. For more info go to www.companyone.org