By Louise Rugendyke
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When the musical Wicked made its debut on Broadway in 2003, a particularly brittle New York Times review compared it to “sobfests about female friendship like the movie Beaches” (it also called the show’s heroine a “slinky green babe” – try getting away with that now).
It was meant to be a putdown – Pah! Who’s going to see a musical about something as simple as female friendship? – but what it missed was that Wicked, “the untold story of the witches of Oz”, radically put two women in the lead. And, importantly, they weren’t fighting about men.
Sheridan Adams stars as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the musical Wicked.Credit: Louie Douvis
Instead, it was about friendship, politics, defying expectations and, yes, gravity, as audiences thrilled at the tale of Elphaba – the smart, green-skinned outcast – and her friend Glinda – the bubbly blonde, popular one. The box office blew up and awards followed – three Tony Awards and a Grammy for the cast recording. It’s now the fourth-longest running show on Broadway, with a two-part film in production. Talk about a sobfest …
The musical’s success on Broadway and later the West End was pegged to one group: women and, in particular, tween and teenage girls, who took up Elphaba’s signature song, Defying Gravity, with gusto (“something has changed within me, something is not the same, I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game”).
The New York Times pondered that it was “an early sign of the cultural clout – which is to say buying power – of a generation of girls (and now women) whose desire to see, and read, and sing along with stories about female empowerment has become a snowballing trend”. The Guardian reported the same phenomenon in London. “It is striking how many audience members are young women. Teenage Wicked fans – and there are many – are notorious for camping outside the theatre for tickets and turning up dressed as witches.”
It even piqued the interest of one academic, with Princeton professor Stacy Wolf writing about it in her book Changed for Better: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical. “Wicked’s blockbuster success is all the more remarkable … because the musical is about two women and their relationship.”
Now, 15 years after it first opened in Australia, Wicked returns to Sydney at a time when that female buying power and clout is again at an all-time high. Yep, we’re talking Barbie, Taylor Swift and even the Matildas.
“At this current cultural moment, people just aren’t ashamed any more [of their passions],” says the University of Sydney’s Dr Georgia Carroll, a pop culture expert who has just completed a PhD in sociology (she jokes it’s a PhD in Taylor Swift).
Taylor Swift covers similar territory in her songwriting as Wicked. Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
“We’re excited to wear all pink and see Barbie, we’re excited to dress up and see Taylor Swift. And we’re seeing the numbers of people doing it, and it’s that sheer scale that’s really helping it. Because it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me’ and we’ve crashed Ticketek and sold-out sessions of Barbie. It’s that feeling of communal celebration.
“And even the Matildas – that’s a different kind of celebration but it’s girl power and strong female friendship.”
Carroll says the themes in Wicked are still relevant today – you only have to look at the songwriting of Swift, who has made a career out of defying those same expectations.
“Wicked taps into the same type of universal themes that Taylor Swift does – about finding your own identity, finding your friendships, overcoming and kind of realising I can go out and do this big thing,” says Carroll.
“That’s why Wicked still resonates and is still touring after all these years, and is still so big. And Taylor Swift, she’s singing about the same universal themes, and now with her re-recordings [Swift has been re-recording her albums after her former record label sold her back catalogue], it’s that same thing, ‘It doesn’t matter what you think of me. I’m out doing these amazing things’.”
For Sheridan Adams – who plays Elphaba in the new Sydney season, with Courtney Monsma as Glinda – it was the misunderstood Elphaba who she looked up to as a teenager.
“I love how headstrong she is,” says Adams. “She responds in a way that is so authentic to her. And it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It doesn’t matter what consequences might come from that.
Courtney Monsma (middle), who plays Glinda, rehearses with the Wicked ensemble.Credit: David Hooley
“In the beginning, she acts from a place of protection and trauma, and it comes from a place of being very guarded. And then as the show goes on, she finds a friend and a way to open herself up to friendship and a way to open herself up to love.”
That Wicked has become a hit with young women is even more surprising when you consider its origins. It’s adapted from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, who was influenced by his upbringing during the Vietnam War.
“I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, when boys I knew were being sent to kill the Wicked Witch of the Vietcong, by [US President Richard] Nixon, who wouldn’t come out of the White House and who wouldn’t answer questions,” Maguire told the New York Times after the musical opened.
Maguire said he was always got “a little testy” when people simply called Wicked a “retelling of The Wizard of Oz” and it was instead a consideration of another life – that of Elphaba, who turned the anxiety over her appearance into action against the evil Wizard of Oz.
“There are all these conversations about evil and political terrorism, and also about martyrdom,” he told the Times. “What is worth living for and what is worth dying for, and what coin is worth spending in order to improve the lot of anyone, yourself or somebody else.”
For the musical’s writer Winnie Holzman – who also wrote the cult teen series My So-Called Life, starring a young Claire Danes and Jared Leto – she never set out to make a show that strictly appealed to tweens and teenage girls but she is proud they have taken it to heart.
“These two young women at the centre of the story, what they do is they come into their own power, each individually in different ways,” says Holzman. “And they step into the role of leader in different ways. They find the courage within themselves to speak truth to power and they are guided by what is truly wicked and what is truly good.
“And ultimately, that’s the story – what is truly wicked, what is truly good – not just what appears to be wicked, or what someone tells you is wicked, but what’s actually wicked and what’s actually good.
“So when you have these two young women struggling with this and ultimately finding [their paths] but in their own very different ways, it’s inspiring for young women to see that and see that neither of the young women we depict on stage are perfect. They both make mistakes, and do things that could be construed as wrong.”
The last word on this “sobfest”, though, should go to Adams, who spends an hour before each performance being covered head to toe in thick green make-up.
“There’s nothing wrong with loving pink and being a girly girl,” she says. “And the one thing Elphaba loves about Glinda is that she is authentically herself as well. There’s no pretence, there’s no hiding, everything that she says is her truth. And that’s what Elphaba really gravitates towards. There’s nothing wrong with being a Glinda or an Elphaba, as long as you are who you are.”
Wicked is now playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
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