Anyone who’s ever gotten past my academic, Western-art-music exterior knows I have a not-so-secret love for musicals. As my parents can tell you, I’ve been learning soundtracks since I was six and memorized Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat despite not knowing what half the colors on the coat were (because, really, ochre?). I follow a lot of the trends most musical theatergoers do: I was among the first people in my friend group to get into Hamilton, I think Aaron Tveit was fantastic in Next to Normal, I’m considering shelling out for the expensive seats to get a couple friends to see The Lion King next year (because theater is a thing I share with the people I love), and as a high schooler, I fell in love with Wicked. As a fourteen-year-old, it was awesome from the stage design and the flying down to the music. From that perspective, it read as a story of women kicking ass and taking names and kinda-sorta making it work when the rest of the world didn’t agree. The ending probably didn’t make as much sense to me back then, but hey, I was struck dumb by the music and the staging. That didn’t matter.
This past Christmas, among my favorite presents was a pair of tickets to see Wicked’s national tour at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. My partner and I made a night of it: we got good food at a cute café across the street, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new star on the Walk of Fame, and we arrived not long after the doors opened to snag a souvenir and marvel at the inside of the theater. It was easily one of the best nights of my year so far. Eventually, we took our seats, and the performance was stellar. The entire cast was excellent, and I couldn’t. stop. fangirling. because Kara Lindsay, who you might know from the original Broadway cast recording of Newsies, was on as Glinda. (I only put two and two together that she’d be performing the night before, and as my partner can tell you, I was ridiculously excited.)
That said, I cried a lot during the performance. I’m not usually a crier—not for live shows. (Books are another story and I will make no apologies.) When I do cry at a musical, it’s usually tears of joy, like when I heard the opening notes of Hamilton or every single time I see The Lion King. But that night at Wicked, I cried when Elphaba made her first entrance. I cried during “The Wizard And I” at a surprise high note. I cried through a lot of “Defying Gravity.” I sniffled a little during both versions of “I’m Not That Girl” (though those admittedly hit harder in high school when I still felt ugly-duckling-ish). I cried in “No Good Deed” and probably through the entirety of “For Good.” And I didn’t understand why.
It took so long to figure it out, in fact, that it only hit me three months later, toward the end of April. It wasn’t a particularly wild day—my partner was in the other room, gallivanting about the internet, and I was having a mini dance party/pseudo-sing-along in the bedroom. (I’ve been doing this since I was like twelve. I think it’s my mom’s favorite reason that I’ve moved out.) I blared through “Defying Gravity,” as usual, but as I swapped over to “No Good Deed,” my thoughts began to drift a little. How interesting it was, to me, that the perceived outcomes of Elphaba’s magic were entirely dependent on the characters she performed it on. Her laundry list of “failures” really only ended up that way because of how people chose to use their second chances. Nessa used hers to increase her stranglehold on Munchkinland. Boq, apparently, didn’t want to be saved (or couldn’t get over his new body), though Nessa influenced him to a degree that it’s impossible to say what might have happened were things different. Word is out on the flying monkeys, but I’d certainly enjoy an extra pair of wings after I got over how they were put there. And Fiyero, the one person in this mess who’d gone into it already committed to Elphaba, came out of it the same way—madly in love and grateful for her work. The magic, in a sense, turned a mirror on the people it affected, but Elphaba didn’t see this (until maaaaaybe the end of the show). And it meant that when she tried to save Fiyero, the one true, good thing she still had in her life, she believed she’d failed, even though it all worked out in the end. (Y’know . . . mostly.)
That perceived failure, the continued beating-down until you feel like you couldn’t do a thing right anymore if you tried, stayed with me. I jumped back to “The Wizard And I” (as you MT nerds are judging, let’s be clear: Wicked does not need to be listened to chronologically), and I started relating it to the places in my own life where I’d felt as boldly optimistic as Elphaba does in that song. And that’s when I started crying. Again.
The reason, I think, was twofold: first, if you swapped out the whole Wizard of Oz thing and put a jazz club in its place, Wicked looks a lot like my undergraduate experience with all things non-classical. A limited number of gifted women, a system that’s prone to pitting them against each other, and finding a rocky path through it anyway; but also, exceptional women who are controlled at every turn by their teachers, mentors, and idols; a man deciding that a woman will be scorned and punished for daring to voice her own opinions and stand up for injustice; a woman who fights hard, but still falls short and has to leave town to build any semblance of a healthy life for herself. And I sobbed through the tantalizing but so ludicrously out-of-reach lines at the end of “The Wizard And I”—“And so it will be for the rest of my life/And I’ll want nothing else ‘til I die….” Because in a way, it’s very true. If I got the respect and equal opportunity I longed for, I’d be pretty damn happy. I’d have a lot less to worry about every time I stepped out to go to a show or a jam or a hang. I’d get to stop focusing on proving myself and making sure I’m heard, and I’d have a lot more time and energy to use on my art.
And I listen to Elphaba sing those lines, and my heart breaks for her, because once upon a time, that was me. Once upon a time, I was the one who thought that just by being good, I’d have that same respect—maybe even renown. And it’s not just jazz that’s broken my heart in this way; the composition world and the experimental music scene have their own subtle barriers to progress and success. But I’ve never been spurned so thoroughly as I was by those peers of mine who took all my enthusiasm and crushed it between the two and four of a hi-hat.
I wish I could still reach for those things. In some fields, I do. But in others, to borrow from the musical, I’m not that girl. And Wicked doesn’t hit home for the romantic moments or even the poignant Elphaba/Glinda relationship right now (though I’m sure it will again in the future). It’s still a source of strength I intend to draw from, but it’s tinged with something darker that’s maybe always been there but I’m just now seeing. Right now, I’m more of an Act II Elphaba—guarded and depleted enthusiasm, but the same zest for what’s right. But the knowledge of the role I play doesn’t make the burden any lighter. ♦
Thanks for reading! I’m considering doing a couple more posts like this one breaking down critical feminist moments in musicals (though I could probably do a whole bunch of them for WICKED alone). If you like what you read, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.