Think Wicked the musical isn’t feminist? Let it go.
Went to see Wicked the musical. Loved it. Loved the costumes, the staging, the wickedly witchy leads, the feminist message. Loved it. End of.
It’s rare that a West End / Broadway musical gets everyone talking about feminism, but that’s what Wicked has done ever since it was first performed in 2003 in New York’s Gerswhin theatre.
Imagine a reworking of the Wizard of Oz story, set just a bit before and a bit after Dorothy’s arrival in Oz (not that you’ll ever get to see her, though you’ll enjoy the smart references to her throughout).
The action centres on Elphaba (the ‘Wicked’ Witch of the West) and Glinda (the ‘Good’ witch of the South), two enthusiastic students who take very different career pathways. Popular Glinda yearns to be successful at magic, but her talent lies more in social manipulation and leadership. Fiery green outsider Elphaba has no idea she’s possessed of such a natural magical talent (or an equally powerful passion for animal rights) until she enrolls in Shiz academy as her sister Nessarose’s helper.
Glinda: I’m pretty and everyone loves me and I’ve got all the best lines
Elphaba and Glinda are forced to room together at the academy as hate-at-first-sight enemies (cue ‘what is this feeling?’, a song with lyrics echoing all those pink-and-yellow french fancy musical duets, except the ‘feeling’ is loathing.) Over time, the girls become staunch allies who support and accept each other and put each other’s interests first, including when it comes to love. Amazing.
This isn’t about ‘which witch do you love and which do you hate’, as if you’re going through the faces in an old yearbook. There’s no way anyone watching the show is going to hate fiery green Elphaba just because she loves learning and speaking her mind. She’s just like all of us in our school years – worried we’re disgusting freaks and resigned to feeling like everyone will find out about it and hate us. Those feelings never quite go away after school, either – so most of us never stop having a little bit of Elphie in us, deep inside. She’s a total hero.
Shock horror – we’re also not going to hate Glinda, even though she’s popular and manipulative and highly invested in getting her ego massaged on a regular basis. In fact, even though she might seem ‘shallow’ on the outside, she gives up more than anyone else does in the play. She’s also a total hero.
Self-empowerment, considering someone else’s needs as well as your own, building and strengthening your moral compass, standing up to ‘the man’… it’s all here. Wicked’s empowering message is sprinkled on you like musical confetti and you’ll love it.
Elphaba: I’m better at magic and you might relate to me and I’ll probably make you cry a bit
The main problem you could throw at Wicked (if you were really mean and wanted to) is that it’s terribly fun and occasionally described as “silly frivolity” with a popularity among teenage girls that “borders on the religious” by people who love art and critical theory and having everything all proper. But that says more about the critics than the show. What’s wrong with a musical that’s fun, has a strong message AND appeals to teenage girls? Is any one of these three things bad? Is any one of them like, not good, or not what superior people do, or something? Do superior people have something against teenage girls?
When our roving reporter went to see the show, they took a pic for some young people waiting just outside, as it happens. And they were great. They wore matching suits and dickie-bows with more than a hint of empowerment and looked totally happy to be going to see a great show together. You know what? That’s not silly frivolity. That’s just rad.
Wicked is rad, and so are the teenage girls going to see it.
Coming away from the show, one of the loveliest things about it is its non-binary approach to social perception and ethics, and its handling of actions, intentions and consequences. And yet it manages to wrap up a whole bunch of powerful messages in an awesome lights, staging, costumes and sound package with flying monkeys…
L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz, the man behind the emerald curtain, preferred style to substance. It seems, however, that Wicked the musical benefits from both.
If you’ve thrilled to the visuals of the Harry Potter films and enjoyed the Disney feminism of ‘Frozen’, and you STILL haven’t seen Wicked, there’s still time to drop a little ‘defying gravity’ into your ‘let it go’.