The stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
In 1900, Frank Baum published a children’s novel entitled, The Wizard of Oz. In the century and a bit that has followed, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become one of the most highly regarded and bestselling children’s novels of all time. By now, the characters are all fairly familiar with Dorothy and her dog, Toto arriving in Oz because of a tornado only to encounter munchkins, a scarecrow, a cowardly lion and a tin man, along with several witches and the Wizard of Oz, himself. The ruby red slippers that Dorothy finds and that the Wicked Witch of the West covets have taken their places among the most iconic movie props in Hollywood history. When Frank Baum published his book, his story was built upon a foundation of advice for children. This advice centered upon such fundamental things as always believing in yourself and staying true to your friends. But, as time has progressed, The Wizard of Oz book came to symbolize something else…something more grown up in nature. In time, adults came to realize that Frank Baum was also making a political statement with his book. That statement had to do with the nature of politics and of governing and how, as citizens, you shouldn’t always believe what you are being told by your leaders because what you are being told is not always the truth. The Wizard of Oz became a bestselling book. Then, it became an award-winning movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the story of Oz became a musical. This post is about that musical, which came to be called Wicked and how the appearance of truth can be deceptive, as Frank Baum had postulated over a century ago.
The musical, Wicked, is based upon a 1995 book by author Gregory Maguire called, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In his book, Maguire tells the familiar Oz story from the perspective of Elphaba (the real name of the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire’s ability to present the story from the point of view of one of literature’s most famous villains is an important one because it allows us to understand the need for critical thinking with regard to our history and the stories about our lives that we all believe to be true. One of the great truisms regarding our civilization is that its history is written by the victors. A simple example of this in Canada is how, for so many high school students, Canadian history has come to be stories of how people like Champlain and Cartier sailed across the ocean from Europe and conquered the land now known as Canada. Not much is ever said about the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples of this land who would, not surprisingly, take a much different and dimmer view of Champlain and these other explorers and colonizers. So, it has come to be accepted that those in power get to create the narrative by which we view ourselves and those around us who share our stories. Believe me when I tell you that there are whole libraries filled with books about the impact of our cultural stories on the lives of marginalized groups in our society. For the sake of a specific example, I present the story of Wicked.
Wicked’s storyline begins before the arrival of Dorothy and Toto in the Land of Oz. It starts out with the story of a woman who has an affair during which she gleefully drinks a green elixir. Out of this romantic tryst a baby girl is born. However, she was born with green skin. Needless to say, the colour of her skin has a big impact on how she is viewed by others and how she comes to view herself. The baby girl is named Elphaba. As she grows up, she comes in contact with another girl named Galinda. Galinda is everything that Elphaba feels she is not: she is cute, she is socially popular and all of the adults seem to dote upon her. As Elphaba and Galinda grow up together, the world of politics enters their lives in the form of an organized campaign to cage and imprison animals. In the Land of Oz, many animals are endowed with human-like qualities. In Wicked, one of Elphaba’s favourite professors is a goat who, one day, informs the class that his time as their teacher is drawing to a close because of new laws being passed against animals who can speak aloud. Not long after hearing this news, Elphaba’s teacher is replaced. This new teacher starts her first lesson by parading a caged lion cub in front of the class. The lesson being given is all about power and superiority but, to Elphaba, what she sees horrifies her. In her anger, she discovers that she has the ability to cast a spell. In doing so, she is able to put everyone in her class to sleep while she frees the lion cub. But, by doing so, Elphaba comes to the attention of the headmistress of her school who agrees to instruct her in the art of sorcery. Not long after, Elphaba asks that Galinda also be given the same lessons. Elphaba does this in the hope that she and Galinda can become true friends. Galinda agrees but does not view Elphaba with gratitude. Instead, as a “thank you”, she gifts Elphaba with a pointy black hat for her to wear at a party they are all going to. When Elphaba shows up wearing her stylish new hat, she finds herself mocked and ridiculed…which is the first step toward creating her identity as a black-hatted wicked witch. In time, the headmistress tells Elphaba that she believes in her and thinks she is ready to take her concerns about animal rights to the great Wizard of Oz, himself. Elphaba is thrilled and nervous, at the same time. Upon arrival in the Wizard’s palace, Elphaba and Galinda (who has accompanied her) discover what we all know about the Wizard of Oz and that he is just a puffed up phony with no real magical powers nor legal authority. This disillusionment causes Elphaba and Galinda both to see their world differently. Elphaba dedicates herself to opposing the Wizard’s regime and becoming someone who refuses to “play by the rules” that govern her and society. Thus, she becomes a rebel.
At this stage in the musical, Idina Menzel (who played Elphaba) and Kristin Chenoweth (who plays Galinda) sing the song, “Defying Gravity”. This song is designed to be a show-stopper and is packed with many moments in which Menzel, in particular, gets to show off her vocal range. The song depicts a pivotal moment in the lives of both characters. In it, Elphaba declares herself a free person and promises to go out into the world on her own terms. She offers a seat on her broom to her “friend” Galinda but Galinda turns her down and allows Elphaba to defy gravity and fly away. This song ends Act #1. As Act #2 unfolds, we see that Glinda, the Good Witch, as she is now called, has become the public face of those in charge of the Land of Oz. Meanwhile, Elphaba has fled to the west to Munchkinland and is being called The Wicked Witch of the West by those in charge. There are love stories interwoven within this storyline and other plot developments, too. But, everything else that happens in Act #2 leads us to the climax of the story. Because you know the book, you know what happens in the end. Wicked does not alter the ending. But now, because the story of Oz has been told from a different perspective, we are left to wonder if the death of Elphaba is actually the cause for celebration that it has always been portrayed. Wicked asks us, as an audience, to revisit our preconceived ideas about what we believe to be true and re-examine if, in fact, the truth is real. Wicked leads us to question whether Elphaba was actually ever really wicked in the first place and whether her characterization as such was simply a political move by those in power to cause public opinion to sway against someone that they may have viewed as a threat. Conversely, was Glinda the Good Witch actually the good person she was always portrayed as being?
When I was still a teacher, I often led the children through a unit on Fairy Tales. I always found Fairy Tales to be a great way to introduce the elements of story writing to young children. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined beginnings, middles and ends. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined “good” and “evil” characters, too. However, a great thing used to happen as this unit moved along. As we made lists of the various characters who populated these stories, we would divide them up into charts of “good” and “evil” characters. At that point, I would help the kids describe the character traits that helped to make a character “good” or “evil”. If I did my job properly, at some point during this discussion, the kids would realize that most fairy tales are sexist as all get out. Almost all of the heroic characters are Princes and Kings. Almost all the helpless characters in need of being saved are beautiful females. Almost all of the truly nasty characters are strong women. Again, if I played my cards correctly, without having to say anything myself, one of the girls in the class would raise her hand and say, “Hey! Wait a minute!” because she was seeing these stories for what they were for the first time in her life. Because I took the kids through this unit, I always went out of my way to have books in the classroom in which some of the heroes were female (such as Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch or even Hansel and Gretel) or were Black-skinned or that had male characters in non-masculine roles and so on. Unfortunately, our world is far more complex and nuanced than many wish for it to be. But, our discomfort at having our life stories revealed to be false is no reason not to become critical thinkers. Whether it is school curriculum or the leadlines in our local newspapers, on TV or online, it behooves us to question what we are being told by those in positions of authority. As Frank Baum stated over a century ago, be a good friend to others, believe in the strength of your own character and always be willing to pull back the curtain on those in power. That’s what the Wizard of Oz was about. That’s what the musical, Wicked is about. Like it or not, that is what life is about, too.
The link to the video for the song, “Defying Gravity” from the musical, Wicked can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical, Wicked can be found here.
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