On Monday, October 29th, NBC celebrated fifteen years of Wicked: The Musical with A Very Wicked Halloween: Celebrating 15 Years on Broadway. Original Broadway stars Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel hosted the evening while screaming, costumed fans cheered for celebrities doing their best covers of the Wicked repertoire. The entire event should be avoided at all costs. None of the singers, including Ariana Grande, Adam Lambert, not even Menzel herself, sounded as if they were given enough time to prepare for the performance. Honestly, I’ve seen more impassioned and well-thought-out high school productions. Wicked deserved better.
The international phenomenon debuted in 2003. I was fourteen and at the very beginning of my high school musical career. Already, the great dramatic musicals of my senior-year-elders had been committed to memory. Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, Little Shop of Horrors, and Thoroughly Modern Millie were frequently belted from the green room behind the stage. A paint-covered boom box, old even then, churned out ballads and rock-infused culture anthems as teens gesticulated wildly, doing their best to perform authentic lives with their limited knowledge.
I was happy to be in the middle of it. Cushioned by music and friendship, the green room remains one of the happiest places in my memory. When Wicked hit, I was bowled over. Fantasy had always been a favorite genre. Gorgeous elves and all-powerful women offered a beautiful respite to the awful existence of hormone-fueled mood swings and bad skin. My best friend Camille and I lavished over the novel by Gregory Maguire.
In it, the Wicked Witch of the West, or Elphaba, is a real freak. Yes, her skin is green and the munchkins are prejudiced as hell. But she’s also kind of feral. At the end of the first chapter, she pees on the floor and smells it. Weird, right? Then her parents physically and emotionally abandon her. Elphaba is a mean bitch, but she earned it.
Then, she’s whisked off to boarding school in the big city. She’s even more of an outcast. Her roommate is the most popular girl in school. Galinda isn’t just a prissy little princess. She’s a force to be reckoned with and Elphaba does not always hold her own. Yes, they become friends. But in the end, outside forces conspire to bring the girls to their Wizard of Oz truths.
Book Elphaba doesn’t run away with Fiero. She doesn’t reveal to Oz all of its prejudices and lies. In short, Elphaba doesn’t win. Her story is a tragic one. This always felt right. Elphaba was abused, abandoned, and left very few options in her life. Like many women, real and fictional, before and after her creation, life wore Elphaba down. It turned her into someone full of hurt and rage.
For obvious reasons, the musical toned down some of the book’s sharper edges. Stephen Schwartz crafted a pop album around a traditional coming-of-age story and placed it inside a fantasy. And it only cost 14 million dollars to do it. Removing the explicit and gory details that made the book seem vivid and alive, Schwartz delivered something easily consumable for the masses. The casting of two of Broadways most distinct vocalists as opposing divas was too delicious for traditional theatergoers to pass up.
In his review of the original Broadway production of Wicked for Variety, Charles Isherwood said, “Wicked is stridently earnest one minute, self-mocking the next; a fantastical allegory about the perils of fascism in one scene, a Nickelodeon special about the importance of inner beauty in another. There are flying monkeys, flying witches, and flying scenery, but the musical itself truly soars only on rare occasions, usually when one of its two marvelously talented leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth, and Idina Menzel, unleashes the kind of vocal magic that needs no supernatural or even technical assistance.”
I agree with Isherwood’s statement that the best moments of Wicked are the vocal performances. This is why the chopped up anniversary special was such a letdown. But I disagree with the mocking tone of Wicked’s wild tonal shifts. Wicked: The Musical was designed for teen girls. When I tried to slip Wicked into that paint-covered boom box fifteen years ago, my senior classmates looked at me as if I was crazy. There were serious musicals, like the ones we listened to, and there was pop music performed on stage.
Winnie Holzman understood the plight of the teen girl as she wrote the book for the Wicked musical. In an interview with Vulture’s Denise Martin on Holzman’s My So Called Life finale, Holzman said, “I loved the whole idea, first of all, of what friendship is. Very often there are people that somehow you don’t know how to declare that you are their friend, but you are their friend. That happens in a lot in high school. And outside of high school. It’s just interesting that you can have a declared friendship where you’re actually not as intimate with that person as you are with the person who you don’t even acknowledge. And that’s who really knows you. I’m just really interested by stuff like that.”
It is easy to see why Holzman was selected to write Wicked. She’s right. Young girls can hold in-depth conversations on politics one minute and be in a crisis of body dysmorphia the next. They can fall in and out of love in a matter of hours. Their worst enemies turn into their best friends and they can juggle the complexities of that dynamic while earning diplomas. A pop-rock soundtrack can be the perfect music to score those adventures.
For Camille and I, first with the novel and later with the stage production, Wicked was an outlet for all things strange and new. The song “For Good” was a karaoke favorite that often brought us to tears. Elphaba’s sexual awakening was spoken of in a flurry of whispers and giggles. We had debates on the morals of Galinda and the responsibilities of eldest sisters. The world of Wicked was like a magic mirror reflecting back two clear paths by which to lead one’s life.
It would be shortsighted to view Wicked as just a musical or just for girls. It’s not just another retelling. For many of us, Wicked was an outlet, a puberty touchstone. A new classic love story. Most importantly, it provided a new hero. Deeply flawed, but with a sound heart. Thrown against rocks, Elphaba was a fighter. In the musical, she one-uped an entire city; in the book, she fought until her last breath. Either way, she was iconic.
Header Image Source: NBC