Use the scroller on the images above of the Wicked Witch of the West to see Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), left, and Julia Murney in “Wicked” (2006).
By Benjamin Soloway | Globe Correspondent
In literature, theater, and film, only the greatest characters have the staying power to captivate the imaginations of generation after generation. Rarer still are old characters who remain prominent in the popular imagination, but who change entirely in how audiences think of them.
Few cultural icons have undergone greater transformations than the Wicked Witch of the West.
She first appeared in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, and again in silent and animated film adaptations. But she rose to true fame in “The Wizard of Oz” film in 1939, played by Margaret Hamilton in the iconic Technicolor musical starring Judy Garland.
For generations, Hamilton's green face terrified children, along with her high-pitched shrieks, her vanishing acts inside puffs of smoke and her threats to that little furball, Toto. Her demise was the scariest act of all, as she melts away after Dorothy douses her with water — a rite of passage for children everywhere into the frightening side of film.
And so it remained until 1995, when Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” provided an alternate narrative. This telling became popular when “Wicked,” a smash-hit musical based on the novel, opened on Broadway in 2003. It’s still running — the 12th-longest running show in Broadway’s history — and the touring company comes to Boston Opera House on Aug. 7.
“Wicked” was by no means the first reimagining of a popular villain. John Gardner famously recast Grendel, a monster from the Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf,” in the novel “Grendel” (1971). But no reinterpretation has taken so strong a hold as that of Elphaba, the smart, principled, green girl in the white world of “Wicked,” who captivates audiences with the other side of the story of Oz and the Wicked Witch. She has become a hero especially to middle and high school-aged fans, who identify with her trouble fitting in and her struggle to balance what’s popular with what’s right.
“You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting!” is a phrase that etches itself indelibly into the minds of “Wizard of Oz” viewers, never to be forgotten. But for better or for worse, it’s songs from “Wicked,” like “Popular” and “Defying Gravity,” that form the face of the character for today’s generation.
Technicolor has given way to CGI, and stage actors soar magically over audiences, but moments like the Wicked Witch melting have almost disappeared from family entertainment, which is too bad. “Wicked” delivers a compelling story, but “The Wizard of Oz” confronts us with a profound feeling that “Wicked” lacks: horror at our own perverse delight in the Witch’s demise.