The Summer of ‘Wicked’
When I had the opportunity to see “Wicked” on Broadway again this summer, I didn’t expect the piece to strike me differently than my previous viewings. My preconceived thought: Once you learn all the lyrics, have a vague awareness of the blocking and have each costume memorized there’s no room for surprise, right? Wrong. “Wicked” is more than a tourist attraction and an entertaining spectacle –– it is a call to action.
I used to leave the Broadway smash hit out of my favorite musical list whenever someone asked. It felt cliché for someone who loves musical theatre as much as I do to admit that my favorite musical isn’t some niche, hipster, singer-songwriter Broadway musical that nobody has ever heard of.
“Wicked” is the story of the land of Oz before Dorothy and the yellow brick road. It follows brazen, emerald skinned Elphaba, an astute, misunderstood young woman sent to boarding school to look after her sister, wheelchair-bound Nessarose. In an unlikely turn of events, she falls into a friendship with bubbly girly-girl Glinda and the two go on a journey together through the world as they know it, working for the world Elphaba hopes Oz will become. “Wicked” is a whirlwind of emotions and manages to land humor, heartbreak, feminism and friendship all within the span of two hours and 45 minutes. It is also the first Broadway show that ever left me speechless — a difficult feat to accomplish.
The first time I saw the show was in 2006 with my mother in Philadelphia. At the age of seven, I’d been exclusively listening to the CD soundtrack since I’d received it for Christmas. We drove to Philadelphia and played the soundtrack twice through on our way there, singing along and swapping roles in our two-woman production. I can’t remember the experience of seeing the show, but I remember walking to the bathroom with my mom after the curtain call. She was sobbing. The piece had emotionally affected my mother, a 33 year old woman, to the point of tears, and I didn’t understand if they stemmed from sadness or from wonder. Afterward, I asked her if I was Elphaba or Glinda, hoping she’d tell me I was the beautiful blonde with the sparkly bubble and pink glittering gowns. Instead, she told me I was Elphaba: smart, fearless, brave and filled with heart. As a seven year old concerned mostly with exterior image, I was disappointed that my mother didn’t see me as the “popular” good witch whom everyone adored.
When I saw it most recently this July, 14 years later, I brought new experiences and pieces of my ever forming identity with me. “Wicked” revealed itself as my favorite musical –– unabashedly, without a shadow of a doubt. In its simplest reading, “Wicked” is about a young girl who does not fit into a society because she looks different than the majority. When you look past the dazzling production numbers, immaculate set and intricate costumes, the plight of Elphaba can be compared to the wider sociopolitical sphere in the United States and our individual stories as well. In the Gershwin theatre this July, in a country where slews of racist, homophobic, xenophobic and sexist things happened just that day, I realized the necessity and urgency under the glamour of this piece of theatre.
“Wicked” is about love, yes, a heterosexual relationship between a cisgender man and a cisgender woman. But it is about more than that. It is about a female friendship, a friendship that pushes itself to the limits and almost flounders more than once. The book is genius as it sets up Elphaba and Glinda to careen into the catty stereotype of fighting over a man, a common trope both on stage and in film. But instead of this man, Fiyero, destroying their relationship and showcasing both leading ladies as airy half shells of female characters, his character is a device in making their friendship a feminist relationship. Glinda urges Fiyero to leave her to be with Elphaba. She does this because she recognizes that her love for Fiyero pales in comparison to her desire for both Elphaba and Fiyero to be happy. Her mature choice to walk away from Fiyero so that her best friend can be happy and pursue her dreams makes her the hero of the story. In Glinda I see my mother, I see all of the female friends who have put me before themselves, I see the women who have become my sisters, who have changed my life for good. Sitting in the theater, watching the show with the lens of modern feminism, I picked up on how powerful and empowering Elphaba and Glinda’s relationship is to me.
The show is entertaining. The songs are catchy. The beauty of the design elements cannot be denied. That is why we keep going back to that same theater — one, three, eight times. But this musical does something that all musical theatre should strive to achieve: It leads the audience to self-reflection and an empowering call to action. Different is okay. If anything, to be different is to be beautiful. And in July, as I sat watching a piece of musical theater I’d nearly memorized, I broke down in tears from sadness, yes, but mostly from wonder.