The first time I saw Wicked, it was 2005, and my high school musical’s cast, crew, and a passel of chaperones had come to New York to see the sights—including the still relatively new show. We sat in the very last row of the very last balcony, and I cried like a baby at the end. (I still do, even just listening to the soundtrack.)
Time passed, and a million fairy tale retellings, Ozian and otherwise, came and went, inundating movies, books, television, and comics. But no matter how these stories ebbed and flowed in popularity, Wicked has stayed strong and stayed open, belting out its loving but revisionist history of L. Frank Baum’s fairytale world eight times a week at the Gershwin Theatre in New York. However, I haven’t seen the show in years, and the last time I saw it was with the national tour, rather than the Broadway version. So when a good friend came to visit me in NYC a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to go see the show, her treat, I was delighted to agree. I was surprised to find, however, that despite the show’s age, it seems more relevant now than ever.
For those of you who don’t know, Wicked is a revisionist spin on Oz, pre-Dorothy, based on the book of the same name by Gregory Maguire. (In this rare case, I wholeheartedly recommend the adaptation over the book.) It follows the Wicked Witch of the West, who, before being so named, was simply a college freshman named Elphaba Thropp. Wicked’s Oz doesn’t naturally have skin-color-based discrimination (and the show has always been cast almost entirely colorblind), but Elphaba’s green skin is considered unnatural and a mark that there must be something wrong with her. She is assigned to room with privileged socialite Galinda Upland, who is horrified to be forced to associate in any way with the green-skinned Elphaba. Galinda is doubly shocked when Elphaba displays substantial magical talent, scoring a coveted position with school headmistress Madam Morrible for one-on-one training.
Morrible is the first person in Elphaba’s life who has looked at her powers as something special and good, and Elphaba allows herself to dream of meeting the Wizard who rules Oz and helping him to make Oz a better place. Maybe if she can help him enough, and prove herself to him, he’ll use his powers to change her skin color so she can live a normal life. And there’s plenty to help with: she sees the way the Animals at her school—the capital A denotes sentience—have been treated as second class citizens more and more lately, and is desperate to bring a stop to discrimination against them. She’s shocked when her history professor, a goat named Dillamond, confides in her that repression of Animals is widespread throughout Oz and, as a result of their being told to shut their mouths and learn their places, Animals are losing their powers of speech and sentience altogether.
Galinda and Elphaba finally learn to get along and become close friends. However, their friendship is interrupted by none other than the Wizard himself. The two girls travel to the Emerald City to meet him at his request, only to discover that he’s a terrible sham, with no magical power of his own. He wants to use Elphaba’s unparalleled power for his own gain, to shape Oz in his image. Elphaba, horrified, rejects him and his offer of an alliance, the one thing she’d dreamt about for years. She goes on the run and begs Galinda to join her, but her friend decides to stay behind.
Now a fugitive whose only crime is challenging the Wizard’s ill-gotten authority, Elphaba eventually holes up in a castle in the west of Oz. However, the Wizard’s lies have poisoned the people against her, and he sends the newly-arrived Dorothy on a quest to kill her. The young Kansan interloper douses Elphie with water, putting an end to all her “beautiful wickedness”, as it were, and the misled countryfolk rejoice at her downfall. Galinda, caught in the crosshairs of being both Elphaba’s best friend and a powerful figure still at the mercy of Ozian respectability politics, mourns the loss of her friend while the country celebrates.
I have always loved Wicked’s message of enduring female friendship. To get personal again, my best friendship in the world started out as an emnity in a very similar way to Elphaba and Galinda’s: she was a popular girl, new to the class; I was a super awkward but very bright teacher’s pet. I was the first person she had ever met who read Goblet of Fire faster than her, and she was pissed that she wasn’t the fastest reader she knew anymore, so she immediately decided she disliked me. (It was fifth grade. These things counted for something.) However, a teacher forced us to sit in the same cluster of desks next to each other, and eventually we grew to be friends. Now, fifteen years later, I still talk to her almost every day. We got matching non-compliant tattoos last year to celebrate our friendaversary.
I may have related to Wicked particularly hard because of my personal experiences, but I think it’s something that many women can relate to. Wicked doesn’t pretend that friendships are without anger or jealousy, fights or differences; rather, it accepts that those are a part of any relationship and that overcoming them and growing past them together is what makes a friendship really strong. However, that’s not what struck me the most about Wicked on rewatching it in this, the year of our Lord, 2017. In the years between now and the last time I actually saw the musical, I’d forgotten exactly how political it was. This is probably because I’ve always deeply disliked the Wizard, and therefore when I listen to the soundtrack I tend to skip over his songs in favor of belting out “No Good Deed” or weeping along with “For Good”.
However, as I mentioned at the beginning, this musical seems more relevant to a modern audience than I imagine it ever was during its Bush-era debut. (In fact, the musical was critically panned when it first came out.) In today’s political atmosphere, the parallels write themselves, and fast. A literal witch hunt of the most powerful woman in the country, led by a man with no real magical gift? Egged on by people whose problems were their own fault, but were easier to lay at the feet of a scapegoat? A highly skilled woman whose platform was based on helping the marginalized, who is demonized on the word of a demagogic, constantly lying leader so full of himself he put the word Wonderful in his own title?
Suddenly I’m here, respected, worshiped, even
just because the folks in Oz
needed someone to believe in.
Does it surprise you, I got hooked,
and all too soon.
What can I say?
I got carried away, and not just by balloon.
Wonderful, they called me wonderful,
So I said, “Wonderful, if you insist….”
When Elphaba retorts that he lied to the people of Oz to get into power, he simply shrugs it off: “Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true – we call it ‘history’.” The opening number, “No One Mourns the Wicked” offers the history of Elphaba’s birth and childhood through the skewed lens of the hateful crowd, eerily reflecting our new era of #alternativefacts, with Galinda even delivering the line “the truth we all believe will by and by, outlive a lie, for you and I.”
The musical has a bittersweet end; Elphaba doesn’t die, but she does stage her death and go into exile, never to be seen or heard from in Oz again. In light of the comparisons I’ve made, the musical becomes less a guideline to resistance in Trump’s America and more of a weirdly prescient allegory for the Clinton campaign and Hillary’s subsequent retreat into relatively anonymous private life. Pre-election, Wicked could have been a dire warning to the country of how this kind of Trumpian, showmanship-centric down-punching chicanery can overwhelm a populace; post-election, I found it a useful outlet to help me genuinely mourn, having been too constantly anxious and on edge with each passing nomination and executive order to allow myself the luxury of a good cry.
Aside from being a great story, Wicked is thus also proof yet again that the author is dead, and that art can—is both allowed to, and should—mean different things to different people at different times. If you haven’t revisited your Wicked Original Broadway Cast Recording in a while, I encourage you to pull it out (or, if you’re in New York, queue up at the TKTS booth and see if you can snag a discount ticket). You might also be surprised at how the different themes of a story can hit you differently over time.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!