Why I Love “Wicked”

I love Wicked -the musical, that is. The book has its charms, too, and was obviously a great inspiration for the show, but it’s the latter that holds the keys to my heart. I’ve seen it three times: once in London in 2008, twice in New York in 2010.

My reasons for loving the show are plentiful; I love the songs, the costumes, the characters, the witticisms. But what I quickly realized while writing this post is that verbalizing why you love something you love isn’t as easy as it seems. So here are some of the reasons I love Wicked, but by no means all of them.

It passes the Bechdel test
Usually applied to movies, the only criteria for the Bechdel test are that it (a) has two women in it (b) who talk to each other (c) about something other than a man. Though Wicked’s two main witches, Elphaba and Glinda, do bicker and fight over the same man (Fiyero), the main focus is on the development of their respective characters as well as their friendship and Fiyero at times seems to be little more than a catalyst for that development. We learn hardly anything about him, other than that he used to be shallow but becomes less so through Elphaba, and that he finally defies the Wizard out of love for her.

Kermit already taught us that it’s not easy being green, and Elphaba proves the point. Set apart as different from the moment of her birth, it’s no wonder that she empathizes with the plight of the increasingly oppressed animals and actively works against the Wizard to free them, even though there once was a time when all she longed for was the Wizard’s recognition. She has a moral center, but is by no means perfect. As her life begins to crumble upon the death of her sister and supposed death of her lover, Elphaba has to ask herself if, with respect to her good deeds, she was “really seeking good, or just seeking attention.” For a while, she becomes cruel and starts living up to the belief of the Ozians that she is in fact “wicked,” which is exemplified by her imprisonment of Dorothy. Finally, she is rescued from this flight into wickedness by Glinda.

In the past, I’ve heard a lot of people argue that though Glinda has a big part in the show, the story is really about Elphaba. I have always disagreed. Though Elphaba’s actions are pivotal to the narrative (indeed, without them there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell), it is Glinda who goes through the biggest changes in character. Apart from her brief wickedness, Elphaba has quite a stable personality. From the beginning she is caring, empathetic, has a strong sense of right and wrong, and aspires to do great things. In the end these things are still true, though she has had to give up her aspirations to greatness. Meanwhile, Glinda both starts and finishes as perky, popular, pretty, and blonde, but she also develops from an uncaring airhead whose main desire is to collect devotees to a woman with a tremendous amount of power and a very clear understanding of her responsibilities in wielding that power. Her development is not instantaneous. Instead, she constantly has to question herself and those around her. At the height of her fame, she wonders about what happens when your dreams come true and you attain happiness:

Getting your dreams it’s strange but it seems a little, well, complicated. There’s a kind of a sort of… cost. There’s a couple of things get… lost. There are bridges you cross you didn’t know you crossed until you crossed.

Happy is what happens when all your dreams come true. Well, isn’t it? Happy is what happens when your dreams come true.

Elphaba and Glinda
Together, Elphaba and Glinda challenge beliefs and assumptions about  female friendship which date back centuries, but are still with us today. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches’ Hammer), written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was published and soon became the “de facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors,” according to the Malleus Maleficarum Online Project. It makes some interesting points about “witches” (a term that is loosely applied to all women who in any way defy patriarchal expectations), but one of the most interesting assertions to this discussion is that “there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman,” especially not when she has been crossed in love.

Elphaba and Glinda show that two very different women, who may not always understand each other but show mutual respect nonetheless, may have a life-changing friendship that isn’t guided by the type of cattiness alluded to by Kramer and Sprenger and still often perpetuated in contemporary popular culture (see Gossip Girl and Beverly Hills, 90210 for obvious examples). At the end of the show, they can both admit they have made mistakes, and they can both be secure in their assertion that they don’t know if they’ve “been changed for the better” but because they knew one another, they “have been changed for good.” In the end, their friendship triumphs over the Wizard’s wicked influences.

There’s room for cynicism
Okay, so I’m a sucker for stories about strong women who don’t just sit around painting each other’s toenails. But I’m also a pessimistic, cynical, glass-half-empty kind of woman, and that part of me can never deal with picture-perfect stories tied up with a bow. From afar, Wicked might seem such a picture-perfect story. Everyone has a (bitter)sweet ending. Elphaba has Fiyero. Glinda is beloved. Madam Morrible and the Wizard are gone. But I only have to go back to the Malleus Maleficarum to be assured that some ideas about women are still held true, up to a point. The “wicked” woman has been eliminated, and the “good” woman is rewarded with the mandate to rule Oz. Kramer and Sprenger did write that it has always been “good women who have saved nations, lands, and cities.”

The songs
It’s amazing what good voices and some good chemistry between leading ladies can do to this musical. I’d like to share with you two of my favorite performances. The first one is Dee Roscioli as Elphaba, performing “No Good Deed” (the song that represents Elphaba’s unravelling and descent into “˜wickedness’). I saw her perform this twice in New York, in a way similar to the depicted performance. You have to skip the first few seconds (the end of the preceding scene), but her riff (just after minute 2) is absolutely spectacular.
Dee Roscioli – No Good Deed

And then there’s “For Good,” the final duet between Glinda and Elphaba. This particular performance is the last one with both original leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Their vocal performance is less than stellar, because it is completely overshadowed by their emotions, but I kind of like it that way. It gives the performance even more depth, in my opinion.
Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel – For Good

How about you? Have you ever seen Wicked? What did you like/dislike about it? Are there any other musicals that have stolen your heart? Let’s talk musical geekery in the comments!

By Nanna Freeman

Anglo-America-loving Dutchie with a grad student twist and a mad dash of self-mockery.

Sometimes I also write things here:

8 replies on “Why I Love “Wicked””

Great post! I saw Wicked on Rush tickets for the first time and my husband fell in love with it (I was already in love just from the music). The next time it came to our area, he got fifth row seats the day they went on sale. He even suggested what we eventually named our puppy in honor of it: Elphaba. And yes, when she’s being crazy, I do say to her “Elphie! Why couldn’t you stay calm for once, instead of flying off the handle!”

I’ve also seen it three times: once in 2008 in London (it was summer, so I don’t know if it was the same cast) and twice in Chicago with different leads each time. The Fiyero in London was kind of … well, Matt Smith-like. I forget his name. The one in Chicago was both times much more like a soap opera star. It made for two very different shows–in the Chicago shows, the actor was clearly cast based on the beginning of the show; in the London one, he was cast for the end (without giving spoilers as to the particular change that goes on with the character through the show; those who’ve seen it will probably get my point).

Anyway. I love the show. The end of Act 1 never fails to bring me to tears even in my memory. It is, and this is @ailanthus_altissima, only loosely based on the book, which I like for different reasons.

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