To be honest, Gregory Maguire said, it was patchouli and funky books that first made him love Schenectady.
The smell of the distinct herb from the Open Door Bookstore on Jay Street drew the “Wicked” author to the city as a young UAlbany student.
“It was a funky sort of counter-culture,” he said of the independent bookstore. “It had arts-and-craftsy things and books that appealed to someone who kind of lived on the margin.”
There, he said, he felt at home.
And so he was eager to return for the opening of “Wicked” at Proctors on Wednesday, beginning with a speech at the library. But he didn’t expect it to feel like home any more.
After all, he graduated in the 1970s. He lives in Massachusetts now and rarely finds himself in the Capital Region.
But as he was driving to Schenectady through a snowstorm Wednesday morning, he was greeted in Albany by a flying witch.
The electronic billboard was just a few blocks from his childhood home in the Pine Hills neighborhood, where Maguire once gazed out of his bedroom window, saw the towers of UAlbany and named them the Emerald City after the city in the land of Oz.
“The witch was more or less hovering over where I had the ideas for the book,” Maguire said.
“There’s an air of homecoming to all this that says to me there’s something true to the line, ‘There’s no place like home.’ ”
He was greeted at the library by a standing-room-only crowd, which included youngsters who had never read his book, parents who admitted to some worries about letting their pre-teens read the dark story and devoted older fans who had already devoured every word.
He won over all of them — even a few skeptics who hadn’t planned to read the book or see the show, such as Eric Kaye of Scotia.
He came just to get his niece’s book signed. His wife and daughter are going to the show, but they bought tickets too late to find three seats together so he agreed to skip it.
After listening to Maguire for half an hour, he was regretting that moment of generosity.
“Now I’m going to read his book,” Kaye said. “It’s his sense of humor.”
The crowd roared with laughter when Maguire sang what he proposed as a better stanza to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” warning that Dorothy should be careful what she wishes for because some dark wishes come true.
“I didn’t have a natural affinity for the underdog, but I always thought Dorothy had a bad rap,” he explained. “If only Dorothy had known to protect herself better . . . she’s wishing for ‘over the rainbow’ and she gets sent to a place crawling with witches.”
And then she gets recruited to become an assassin, he said, highlighting the very slim reasons that the wizard gave for that request.
“Why am I trying to hijack a beloved story?” he said. “The Wicked Witch never gets a microphone.”
He decided that it was only fair to tell the witch’s side.
He told the crowd that he could have had complete control over the script for the Broadway musical but decided to instead approve the writer, composer, lyricist and director and let them build their own work of art.
“That’s how something great gets made,” he said. “I chose intentionally for a backseat role.”
He loves how the musical turned out, he said, but his favorite scene was cut.
So he read it to the crowd, detailing a conversation about what the witch would want if the wizard could give her anything. She wants to wish for forgiveness but instead accidentally ends up saying she wants a soul.
Afterward, his audience lined up to get autographs.
One girl carried a brand-new book that her mother won’t let her read until she’s finished reading her own copy to make sure the content is appropriate for a 12-year-old.
“I’m in the middle of reading it myself. There are some parts that’s questionable for a 12-year-old,” said Rosemarie Mullaney of Niskayuna. “But a lot of it depends on the maturity of the child.”
She’s decided that she’ll discuss the issues raised in the book — which include a terrorist-like rebellion, racism, guilt over accidental murder and several sex scenes — and let her daughter Amanda read the book under her supervision.
Amanda may be a little surprised by the book — she said she loved the original books because of their description of the fantastical land over the rainbow.
But adult fans were thrilled by a more thought-provoking version of Oz.
“It was different,” said Hannah Stenzel of Schenectady. “It was a lot racier than I expected. A lot more danger and intrigue. I loved it.”
Ray Hyam of Schenectady embraced the darker version as well.
“It’s not la-di-dah-di-dah,” he said, dismissing the cheerful songs the Oz characters sing in the original movie as they dance down the Yellow Brick Road.
Plus, he confessed, a small part of him always wanted the witch to win.
“I always root for the underdog. Always,” he said.
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Categories: Schenectady County