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A Black Woman’s Analysis of ‘Wicked’ The Musical: Examining Elphaba’s Story 20 Years Later

“Wicked” resonates particularly strongly with the experiences of Black women.
“Wicked” resonates particularly strongly with the experiences of Black women. By Michelle Liu
By Makayla I. Gathers, Crimson Staff Writer

On Oct. 30, Stephen Schwartz’s thrilling take on the world of Oz celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Broadway premiere. Inspired by Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” the musical “Wicked” is more than just another adaptation of the story of Dorothy — it takes root in the themes of friendship, romance, and power that surround Elphaba, The Wicked Witch of the West. While many people have personal connections to the production and its bright green protagonist, “Wicked” resonates particularly strongly with the experiences of Black women.

Upon first glance, the connections between “Wicked,” Blackness, and womanhood seem obvious — as the premise of the show focuses on a woman who is judged because of the color of her skin, but Schwartz’s world communicates a much deeper and more nuanced truth. In addition to the unwarranted judgment and fear the other characters give Elphaba, the development and realization of her own power and strength in spite of villainization define why this story will relate to many women of color. This interpretation becomes clear through a close breakdown and analysis of the plot.

The opening number kicks off the plot of the show and the central themes that can pertain to gender and race. “No One Mourns the Wicked,” the opening number and Schwartz’s take on “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” not only creates immediate empathy for Elphaba’s character, but it also shows that the celebration of Elphaba’s supposed demise is ironic and even sinister.

For those who have seen “Wicked,” the opening number is chilling, as it begins the show at the end of the timeline, with a scene that would chronologically take place after the resolution of the plot. As The Good Witch Glinda’s soft soprano voice contrasts the sharp shouts of the ensemble, she declares moral claims like “the truth we all believe’ll by and by / outlive a lie,” and “nothing grows for The Wicked / they reap only what they’ve sown.” The audience doesn’t yet know the events that took place to evoke these reflections, but by the end, the contradictions are apparent — as the lyrics describing the “The Wicked” clearly apply to Elphaba the least.

From the top of the show, when Elphaba enters the prestigious Shiz University, she is obviously outnumbered by non-green people. Although their reactions to her skin are dramatized and exaggerated, they parallel the experiences of Black women who have felt overly perceived, especially in predominantly non-Black spaces. In the song “The Wizard and I,” the Shiz University headmistress, Madame Morrible, tokenizes Elphaba’s magical abilities, as she tells her “if you work as you should / you’ll be making good.” This is painfully similar to an instruction many Black women receive: The only way to earn the love and respect from their peers, colleagues, and authority figures is through hard work because as a Black woman, existing is simply not enough.

As Elphaba reflects on the idea that she has to be great, she believes that this power will not come from her own talents but as a result of what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can make her into, even fantasizing that he could “de-greenify” her to match her “good inside.” She feels an urge for belonging, unaware that Morrible and The Wizard don’t have her best interest at heart. The plot surrounding Morrible and The Wizard has strong parallels to real-life institutions and the way Black women are encouraged to assimilate by the way we talk and wear our hair, in exchange for accolades and respect that should already be rightfully ours.

This line of thought also leads to a discussion surrounding the disappointment in once trusted powers and systems. Elphaba, who idolizes The Wizard, soon sees his powerlessness and hopelessness. Additionally, she realizes that to realize her former dream of working with him, she would have to sacrifice her morals. Previously warned by mentor and professor Doctor Dillamond, a talking goat, in “Something Bad,” Elphaba learns that The Wizard and other authority figures are plotting against the animals, attempting to take away their rights to speak, and teach, and preying on their vulnerability to advance their own greedy interests — a story many Black women know all too well.

From here, Elphaba makes a choice, refusing to accept these systems, and she is punished for it. It is the reason Galinda (Glinda’s former name), her ditzy peer, is comically less qualified yet more celebrated — not for her talents, but for her willingness to exist in the mold created for her.

These events lead to the famous climax of the show, “Defying Gravity,” where Elphaba quite literally rises above it all. After disagreeing with Galinda on whether to accept the situation or resist it, Elphaba fully realizes her self worth, singing that she is “through accepting limits / ‘cause someone says they’re so,” and she also testifies that the love she will lose “comes at much too high a cost.” The most powerful moment in the show is electrifying and overwhelming, as it depicts many Black women’s desire in the face of adversity: unapologetically be ourselves while daring the world to stop us.

“Wicked” comes with a bittersweet truth: Like Elphaba proclaims when she sings “and if I’m flying solo / at least I’m flying free,” the journey of self-realization is difficult, lonely, and tiring, but it is worth it. The second act explores this sentiment, as Elphaba — who is now widely hated — navigates being villainized, hunted, and left in an awkward place with someone who was once her closest friend.

The finale resumes the action from the opening number, but with a more somber tone. Elphaba undergoes a metaphorical death, as she kills off the villain the Ozians revered and can freely exist outside of their gaze. The first reading of the resolution can seem depressing, as she experienced so much difficulty, only to narrowly escape without revealing the truth and repairing her reputation. However, as Elphaba is able to walk away, the audience sees Glinda, who represents the world’s role as a bystander, left to reflect on the truth and mourn her friend.

Elphaba was never wicked, and this perspective reveals that the true wicked, who “no one mourns” and who are “lonely,” are those who create and uphold the systemic and institutional harm that relies on the oppression of people of color.

In “Wicked”’s 20 years, the world has “changed for the better” and for worse. We’ve seen the rise of Black women in political, academic, and creative spaces, but we’ve also seen a rise in terror against Black women, especially in the form of misrepresentation, inequitable healthcare, and attacks on our education.

As a Black woman, “Wicked” is more than the beautiful score and mystical spectacle that are apparent on the surface level and excite audiences with every rewatch — the musical provides me with cathartic commentary that evokes self-reflection and motivation to continue defying gravity in my world.

—Staff writer Makayla I. Gathers can be reached at makayla.gathers@thecrimson.com.

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