“It’s a story about witches” was how a father described the hit Broadway musical Wicked to his young daughter as we filed into the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on opening night. I have been fortunate enough to have previously seen Wicked and, while this was the most straightforward way to describe the musical’s premise, it still seemed too simplistic of a summary for one of the most captivating Broadway musicals in recent history.
Wicked tells the story of how a smart, talented, albeit headstrong, young witch, Elphaba Thropp, eventually becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. The evil and sinister witch you are probably familiar with from the classic Hollywood film, The Wizard of Oz.
Even as a young adult, Elphaba’s demeanour is a little on the, uh, abrasive side. The eldest of two daughters, Elphaba has quite the burden to bear. Her father treats her like a nuisance he only tolerates because she can provide support for the youngest daughter, the wheelchair bound Nessarose. Elphaba, who was born with green skin, is blamed for both her sister’s inability to walk and for her mother’s death. While pregnant with Nessarose, their mother ate milk flowers in order to prevent giving birth to another green child. Sadly, the milk flowers forced Nessarose to be born prematurely, causing her birth defect, and facilitated their mother’s death during labour. Much like her father, Nessarose treats Elphaba as a nuisance and to blame her for her physical limitations. Basically, Elphaba’s family sucks.
When Nessarose goes to Shiz University, so does Elphaba. Elphaba’s not necessarily there to get an education but to help her poor fragile sister. Upon arrival, the fellow students are shocked and horrified by Elphaba’s appearance. One student in particular, the popular Galinda Upland (eventually Glinda the Good Witch), makes clear that she thinks Elphaba is unpleasant and intolerable. Well, the feeling is mutual. Unfortunately, there is a miscommunication during orientation and Galinda accidentally volunteers to be roommates with Elphaba. Oops. When it appears as though Galinda has helped Nessarose snag a young suitor, Elphaba begins to change her mind about the roommate she initially disliked and the two eventually become best friends.
While consumed in their own life at Shiz University, chaos and strife is brewing in the land. Elphaba, a bright student and talented witch, is hand-picked to help The Wizard of Oz find peace. When it is discovered that Oz is actually trying to use magic for bad instead of good, Elphaba must decide what is more important, being true to her morals or becoming a powerful apprentice to the Wizard of Oz.
The reason I have seen Wicked so many times is because of its ability to enchant its audience with an array of emotions. The musical is not a tiresome emotional rollercoaster but through its demonstration of joy, humour, sarcasm, anger, and sadness it manages to provide the viewer with an understanding that the best of intentions can always be misunderstood; especially if the best of intentions get in the way of the worst of intentions.
Because of my familiarity, and clear love for the show, I asked my plus one for the evening what she thought of the musical. According to her, the highlights were the song “Popular” and “Defying Gravity”. Since these are my two favourites as well, especially “Popular”, my plus one for the evening and I shall remain friends. I also adore the song “For Good”. This particular song, in its understated delivery, manages to communicate how the short and unlikely, but unmistakably meaningful, friendship between Elphaba and Galinda will have an everlasting effect on both of them.
As a trained vocalist herself, my plus one was incredibly impressed with Kara Linday (Glinda) and Laurel Harris (Elphaba) singing ability. I, too, was impressed with their inspiring voices; both individually and especially when combined. Attention should also be drawn to the vocal talents of Emily Behny (Nessarose) and Lee Slobotkin (Boq). Both actors have remarkable singing voices and, in particular, I was mesmerised whenever Lee Slobotkin’s voice was featured.
Whenever I hear someone say “I don’t like musicals” I usually suggest that they give Wicked a chance because it can challenge the idea of what a musical is supposed to look like. Yes, there is dancing, yes, there is singing but there is also a sweet, but sad, story about the how the choices we make can dramatically affect our paths.