The Power of Wicked‘s Evergrowing Legacy

Wicked opened on Broadway on Halloween Eve 2003, just a few years into my tenure as music and theater critic at USA Today. I arrived at a press preview filled with hopeful anticipation, having grown up loving Stephen Schwartz’s lushly melodic scores for Godspell and Pippin and The Baker’s Wife, and I did not leave disappointed. “This is the most complete, and completely satisfying, new musical I’ve come across in a long time,” I wrote in my review.

Ten years later, I returned to the production to write an article commemorating that anniversary, this time with my 6-year-old daughter in tow. She was enchanted by the show, of course, as legions of kids and teenagers have been, but the truly revelatory experience was mine. Another decade of life — encompassing marriage, motherhood, political change, the evolution and (in a few cases) dissolution of friendships — enabled me to appreciate the wit and poignance of Schwartz’s lyrics and Winnie Holzman’s libretto in ways I hadn’t the first time. Moments that had initially put a lump in my throat — when Elphaba realizes she’s being groomed to serve a sinister regime that advocates animal cruelty, or her final reconciliation and parting with Glinda, sealed with such bittersweet beauty in the song “For Good” — now left me fully in tears.

This ability to tell stories and forge emotional connections that grow richer over time is a gift shared by two traditions that shaped Schwartz as a young writer: classic musical theater, and the singer/songwriter movement that nurtured the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. Echoes of the latter influence can certainly be heard in Wicked’s introspective, exquisitely lovelorn ballad “I’m Not That Girl,” while the playful and sweeping theatricality Schwartz learned from giants such as his early creative partner Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, and Jule Styne, and their collaborating lyricists inform contemporary standards such as the comic tour de force “Popular” and the roof-raising “Defying Gravity,” now as popular a showcase for belters as Styne and Bob Merrill’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” or Schwartz’s own “Meadowlark,” from The Baker’s Wife.

McKenzie Kurtz, Alyssa Fox, and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.
McKenzie Kurtz, Alyssa Fox, and the cast of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Holzman signed on to team with Schwartz in adapting Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, after earning acclaim for her work on the hit TV series My So-Called Life and thirtysomething, which followed characters at pivotal stages — approaching young adulthood and fumbling toward early middle age, respectively — with humor and compassion. Maguire’s book had revisited L. Frank Baum’s accounts of Oz — best known, at that point, for having inspired a beloved 1939 film starring a young Judy Garland — from the perspective of that movie’s heavy, turning the green-skinned villainess into a more nuanced and sympathetic character. Holzman steered Schwartz toward focusing on the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda, introduced at the beginning as Galinda, who would also become a more complicated and recognizably human witch.

In the process, the creators gave musical theater, and pop culture, two of its most engaging, challenging, and iconic female characters in recent history. Just as earlier generations of diverse talents found complementary heroines in Guys and Dolls’s Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide — the first a straight-laced ingénue bearing hidden depths of sensuality, the other a nightclub dancer who longs for domestic stability — performers now had another pair of female characters who defied stereotypes and superficial judgment. In Wicked, though, the focus was not on their romantic adventures and foibles with the male leads they would eventually marry, but on their own love story, that of a friendship so strong that neither a corrupt wizard nor a young man who fancies them both (the freewheeling Fiyero) can diminish it.

Since being introduced by Kristin Chenoweth, whose rangy soprano and comedic savvy proved perfectly suited to Glinda, and Idina Menzel, who earned a Tony Award for her soaring (literally and figuratively) portrait of Elphaba, the roles have been launching pads or notable vehicles for some of today’s leading stage stars, among them Annaleigh Ashford, Shoshana Bean, Stephanie J. Block, Eden Espinosa, Megan Hilty, Caissie Levy, Lindsay Mendez, and Jennifer Laura Thompson. That’s not counting the many who have performed the parts on various tours of the United States and U.K., and in numerous other productions around the world.

In the eagerly awaited screen adaptation of Wicked — being filmed in two parts, with the first movie due for release on Thanksgiving Eve 2024 — Glinda will be portrayed by pop star and Broadway alumna Ariana Grande, with Tony winner and Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo playing Elphaba. When the original Glinda was asked about this casting in an interview featured on Entertainment Tonight, Chenoweth responded, “I’m going to get to watch two women I know soar,” adding she was sure Grande would “step so beautifully into my shoes. I’m so excited for her; she’s gonna put her own stamp on it.”

Which is really what Wicked has been encouraging women and girls, and everyone who sees it, to do for 20 years: to let ourselves be led to those who help us most to grow, while also finding and embracing what makes each of us unique. It has left its own inimitable stamp — for good.

This essay is included in Decca Broadway’s upcoming 20th anniversary edition of the “Wicked” Original Broadway Cast Recording. Use this exclusive Broadway Direct link (through October 28th) for early pre-order access before the general public. Quantities are extremely limited so order now!

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