When I was a sophomore in high school, my piano instructor told me that she had an extra ticket to go see Wicked The Musical on the weekend. I was beside myself as this was the first opportunity to see a musical being performed professionally on Broadway. The entire time I was invested in the characters and plot of the musical. I was completely awestruck and Wicked quickly became my new favorite musical, so much so that I had to have The Grimmerie for Christmas. This book is filled with behind the scenes knowledge including photos of the original book.
I always look back on that experience fondly as it had enriched my life through the work of Stephen Schwartz who composed the music and Winnie Holzman who wrote the dialogue and lyrics. However, I had no idea what I was watching was in fact a musical about women finding themselves and being comfortable in their own skin.
Wicked is a musical that empowers women and encourages them to find themselves, whoever that might be. Any woman could identify with Elphaba, the strong powerhouse role who struggles with being comfortable in her own skin, or Glinda who is the white skinned, light, dainty, and practically perfect in anyway. In any case, there is a woman to look towards for inspiration in our everyday lives.
The Wicked Witch of the West
Elphaba, who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, is one of the two main female roles of this musical. This musical centers on her story of triumph over her insecurities and her progression into a strong independent witch. It is through her innate ability with magic that she finds ground to stand on. Through Elphaba’s relationship with Glinda, she learns how to be confident in herself and make choices without outside influence.
The audience is introduced to Elphaba as a young, quirky, social outcast that feels like she is a burden on her family. According to the Grimmerie, when she reaches the stage, everyone attending Shiz University stares at Elphaba. This is when she proclaims “What? What are you all looking at?…. yes, I’ve always been green.” This shows Elphaba’s disdain for how she looks. She is not comfortable in her own skin, stating in her own opening number “The Wizard and I” that she wishes for The Wizard to “Degreenify” her.
Later in the musical, Elphaba actually gets her wish to meet with The Wizard. Ultimately, she realizes that he is just a con man from Kansas. This is when Elphaba has to make a choice whether to openly defy The Wizard or to stick by his side. Enter the most popular number in the entire musical, “Defying Gravity”.
“Defying Gravity” is the closing number of the first act. In Michelle Boyd’s doctoral dissertation published in the American Music journal, she writes, “‘Defying Gravity’ reinforces the strength of Elphaba’s character and her determination to remain true to herself.” Elphaba decides to do what she knows is right even though it will hurt her in the long run, she will be cast aside as The Wicked Witch of the West. This open defiance, especially against a man of power (The Wizard), really shows how this musical is pushing Elphaba’s character into a new direction, that she does not need the affirmation of many to feel empowered. She does not need to be “degreenified” to be happy. She can stay true to herself and her beliefs. This is best exemplified when Elphaba exclaims “ “… And nobody in all of OZ, no Wizard that there is or was, is ever going to bring me down!” while riding her broomstick at the top of the stage.
Practically Perfect in Every Way
Glinda is the second major female lead role in Wicked. Her character is the complete opposite of Elphaba as Glinda eventually becomes the Good Witch. The Grimmerie describes Glinda as “ the ideal of golden girlhood – perfectly dressed and poised – to which everyone else aspired…” Stacy Wolf, an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in the Theatre Journal that when the audience first sees Glinda she is “.., made up to look like Billie Burke[The original Glinda from the Movie]… floats down in a steel orb that refers to the bubble in which Glinda enters in the Movie…” Both the Grimmerie and Stacy Wolf describe Glinda as the good girl of this musical, however there are two sides to every coin.
The number titled “Popular” is about how Glinda is going to help Elphaba become more popular at Shiz University. The beginning of this number shows how empathetic Glinda is towards Elphaba’s social ineptitude, “When ever I see someone less fortunate than I… My tender heard tends to start to bleed.” However, Glinda as the popular blonde still has her braggadocio character seep through her empathy in the song titled Popular, “… and let’s face it, who isn’t less fortunate than I?” This number, although it can be seen as the beginning of Elphaba’s and Glinda’s friendship, is just about how popular Glinda is, “… there’s nobody wiser, not when it comes to popular.”
The end of Wicked shows Glinda’s final character development. She is known as Glinda the Good Witch, but that label was not earned. It was given to her by the Wizard in an attempt to degrade Elphaba’s image. However, Glinda and Elphaba have remained as friends throughout the musical. In the ending number, Elphaba gives Galinda the keys to her fight against the Wizard “You can do all I couldn’t do, Glinda… Because now it’s up to you.” Glinda then decides to take Elphapa up on her offer and tells the Wizard to leave OZ, “You’d better get your balloon ready!”
Wicked and Women
Wicked’s leading roles are two women, which is very uncommon in musical theater. When thinking about past musicals, it is hard to find one that puts women into the forefront as much as Wicked does. In contrast, the male roles are mostly supportive and only have a few solo numbers. The men are either the love interest (Fiyero), which is usually a female role, or the villain (The Wizard). In Marinel Cruz’s article from The Inquirer, she speaks with Carly Anderson who plays Glinda in the Milan staging of the musical. Cruz quotes Anderson saying, “It’s led by two strong women—that’s very powerful to watch.” Cruz also quotes Jaueline Hughes, who plays Elphaba in the same staging as Anderson, saying ““There has never been a time in musical theater history when two women are at the helm of a show. It’s really rare.”
The two main characters in Wicked are so vastly different that any woman could identify with some aspect of either character. Whether it be Elphaba’s defiant stance against the Wizard or Glinda’s pink and girly disposition, there is something for the audience to latch on to. In Stacy Wolf’s article from the Theatre Journal, she uses a quote from Eve Ensler to reinforce this idea “‘the story of a complicated relationship between two women, both of whom, in their way, suggest Everywoman.’”
Wicked gives the audience a sense as to what it is like for women in the modern world. Elphaba’s skin color is obviously different than Glinda’s. This immediately marks Elphaba as the social outcast in the musical. However, the more attractive, blonde, white woman finds her way to the top without any recourse. In Michelle Boyd’s article in the American Music journal she writes, “The gentle “white” witch who abides by the rules can now hope to achieve the American dream, but the unassimilable witch, the ambitious witch, and the witch who ‘defies gravity’ still encounter a rocky path ahead of them.” This dichotomy of the two leading female roles shows how there is a wide range of ways that a woman could relate to either character. Of course there is no way that we could categorize a woman as being an Elphaba or a Glinda, but there are characteristics and experiences that each of these characters have which gives a female audience member something to relate to from themselves.
Although the topic of race is not clearly touched upon in the story of Wicked, the musical has racial undertones throughout the musical. Elphaba’s green skin tone immediately sets her apart from everyone around her. Well what if her skin were black? Would that make a difference? No. It would not. Elphaba is challenged throughout the musical with trying to fit in, which is difficult for her due to the fact of her green skin. As previously discussed, she finds confidence in her green skin and actually draws her internal power from her green skin. Just as any african american woman should.
Glinda on the other hand gets everything handed to her. She gets the best room at Shiz, she gets her dream job, and she even gets the love interest… if only for a short time. This really shows how the creators of Wicked thought about race even without mentioning it once throughout the musical. They were aware of it, made it a defining part of these characters to a certain point, and left it at that. The characters show, Elphaba specifically, how a woman of color could find confidence in herself and be comfortable in her own skin tone.
Wicked’s visual portrayal of women is very conservative because of the time period it is set in. Susan Hilferty, who created the costumes for Wicked, still finds a way to make costume changes that reflect each character’s development in the musical. Elphaba transitions from a shy, social outcast into a strong independent witch. Her Wicked Witch of the West costume is more elaborate than her more conservative act one costumes. This shows how Elphaba began to find confidence in herself. Glinda, on the other hand, always wears dresses. Her Glinda the Good costume is again more fanciful than her act one costumes. However her pink dress from act one is a little more salacious, hinting at her playful demeanor. This shows how Glinda progresses from being a quirky girl to a strong confident woman.
When gazing back on my experience in viewing Wicked as a young man I realize that through its use of two female characters as the lead roles and how they progress throughout the story, this musical is reaching out to women to give them something to grasp onto in each character. Elphaba’s strong will and determination even in the face of being called “Wicked” by the Ozians or Glinda’s “golden girl” demeanor give women, and young girls, someone to look up to and identify with. In Stacy Wolf’s article from the Theatre Journal, she states “… a few writers have noted the musical’s feminism or its less vibrant twin, girl power.” Elphaba and Glinda both embody what is Girl Power.