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Wicked Retrospective: A Shiz University 20th-Year Reunion

By Michelle Liu
By Asha M. Khurana, Contributing Writer

Stephen Schwartz’s hit musical “Wicked” just turned 20, so it is officially time to revisit the Shiz campus.

In “Wicked,” the timeline opens with the arrival of two young witches in training, Elphaba and Galinda (Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth), to Shiz University, where they begin their relationship as unlikely friends. The first act of the musical is grounded in the setting of the university. Offering a motley cast of characters, teen spirit, and love triangles, Shiz centers the musical firmly in adolescent self-discovery.

As “Wicked” moves out of its own teenage years, solidifying the show as a timeless classic, the college backdrop continues to captivate audiences of all ages. Young viewers will continue to be swept away by the excitement and freedom of Elphaba’s college experience, while older viewers may watch “Wicked” and fondly reminisce on their own college days. The audience that constantly renews itself through two decades of Wicked’s history is young adults, undergoing their own college transformation alongside Elphaba. “Wicked” tackles classic college issues with grace and humor, masterfully creating a narrative that still feels fresh 20 years after its premiere.

Elphaba and Galinda arrive to Shiz University to a college fight song not all that different from “Fair Harvard”: “Dear Old Shiz” references “Hallowed halls and vine-draped walls” that place the characters in any number of East Coast liberal arts schools. Sonically, the tune is a classic alma mater, stately and formal, providing the jaunty contemporary narrative against a backdrop of tradition and status quo. This makes social issues like Elphaba’s greenness all the more weighty, as she battles these issues at an institution that may value tradition more than belonging.

The narrative that unfolds at Shiz resonates with college students in 2003 and 2023 alike. Elphaba and Galinda share their first moment of college drama in “What Is This Feeling,” in which the ever-pertinent issue of roommate troubles plagues witches just as it peeves college students. To open the song, the girls address their parents, vowing to put their roommate issues on the back burner with the explanation, “For I know that’s how you’d want me to respond.” Schwartz cleverly touches on the very true phenomenon of young college students consulting their parents’ morals as they make their first independent decisions.

“What Is This Feeling” then launches into a verbal jousting match between Elphaba and Galinda as they find increasingly specific and humorous ways to articulate their mutual hatred. Citing “every little trait,” they embody the worst case scenario of a roommate relationship: one in which the close quarters of dormitory living magnify the habits of each roommate to an intolerable degree. Every audience member has heard a roommate horror story — or perhaps they have one of their own. The challenge of sharing a living space is incredibly human, serving “Wicked”’s greater contemporary relatability.

Shortly after the roommate spat, Schwartz introduces Fiyero (Norbert Leo Butz), a roguishly handsome prince who unveils a new college archetype. In “Dancing Through Life,” Fiyero offers audiences a slew of his personal life lessons. The audience, however, can take or leave this advice: Fiyero touts the pleasure of “the unexamined life,” saying “those who don’t try never look foolish.” Fiyero asks where the fun happens, and Galinda responds by leading him to the Shiz late-night haunt. As the song progresses, the staging explodes into a whimsical whirlwind of bicycles and ribbons, enveloping audiences in the joy that comes with Fiyero’s way of life.

Schwartz uses “Dancing Through Life” to simulate the genuine temptation of leading a life without meaning. Ironically, this night of fun is the foundation of a genuine and rich friendship between Elphaba and Galinda. Fiyero’s archetype, the proponent of a shallow yet fun life, remains morally ambiguous: Fiyero’s presence does not serve the world, but the joy that unfolds as a result of his personality can unintentionally provoke meaningful ripples in the lives of those around him. This query may engage young adult audiences to think about their relationships with Fiyero-like characters. Communities that encompass both living and learning ask students to explore their profound academic interests alongside their personal social development, prompting some students to consider living Fiyero’s “unexamined life.”

Such shallowness remains the question in “Popular.” In one of the show’s most well-known numbers, Galinda gives Elphaba a physical and social makeover. Elphaba’s reluctance towards this transformation prompts Galinda to comment on the success of high profile individuals: “Think of celebrated heads of state or especially great communicators / Did they have brains or knowledge? Don't make me laugh! / They were popular!” This notion of success as a product of popularity speaks to an age-old discussion of college networking. Again speaking to a question on the mind of college students worldwide, “Wicked” humorously addresses the balance between street smarts and book smarts.

At this point, the plot of “Wicked” takes on twists and turns that pull the narrative away from Shiz. However, the college experience still remains the foundation of almost all of the relationships depicted in the show. As long as institutional living and learning exists, “Wicked” will still speak to the experiences of college students in a touching and hilarious way. Audiences from all walks of life can expect to hold “Wicked” dear for many decades to come.

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