Theater – musical theatre in particular – is a genre known more for its artistic craft than its artistic depth. Most people think of musicals as a showcase for fun, catchy songs and fascinating stories. Rarely are they viewed as an opportunity for confrontation or subversion.

And yet, subversion may very well be what musical theatre does best. The Music Man takes aim at small town close-mindedness and legalism, Rent attacks those who sell out their art for the sake of a buck, and Sweeney Todd strikes at the heart of our assumptions about human nature. 

Wicked takes that musical subversion to a new level. The tale of the Wicked Witch of the West (real name: Elphaba) and how she came to gain such a moniker begins with a familiar scene in which all of Oz celebrates her death. The music seems heavy-handed and overbearing, and we quickly learn why: The citizens of Oz declare Elphaba wicked in order to distract from their own problems and injustices.

We understand going into the play that Elphaba is our heroine, but as we learn more we start to realize to what extent Elphaba was determined to do good. Meanwhile the musical plays with that word, “good” in various ways, causing to reconsider not just the way we use the word but the way we think of the concept itself.

The musical nature of the genre is used to demonstrate how horrific concepts can sometimes seem grand and seductive. Frightening or unscrupulous sentiments are sung with catchy, fun melodies. Wistful and exciting tunes describe the nature of hatred that is allowed to run free without limits.

Our admiration for Elphaba only grows as she consistently chooses to do what is truly good in the face of trial, tribulation, and those who claim she is doing evil. Elphaba learns too late, though, that while she may be able to do good, she can’t trust herself (or anyone else) to be good:

One question haunts and hurts
Too much, too much to mention:
Was I really seeking good
Or just seeking attention?
Is that all good deeds are
When looked at with an ice-cold eye?
If that’s all good deeds are
Maybe that’s the reason why
No good deed goes unpunished

Elphaba is onto something. We are a corrupt people, and even the best things we do are wrought with wickedness and selfishness. The tragic tale of the Wicked Witch of the West is the tale of one who is well aware of this concept for herself but unaware that it applies to everyone else as well. 

But the even more tragic tale belongs to Glinda and the citizens of Oz. The citizens spend the bulk of the play distracting themselves from their own wickedness by dehumanizing Elphaba and virtually worshipping Glinda. Glinda, in a desperate attempt to reinforce a lie, ends the play by giving herself a new name: Glinda the Good.

1 Comment

  1. I agree. Wicked was both deep and thought provoking. A play that causes the audience to question the deeper concepts in life, including their own perspectives, deserves commendation. Such plays are rare these days.

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