Last week I saw the touring production of Wicked, my all-time favorite musical. I’ve loved Wicked since I first heard the soundtrack in 2004 as a 14-year-old. This was the third time I’d seen it performed live and this time I noticed something different, something unexpected.
I’m going to be focusing on the character arc of the two leads, Elphaba and Glinda. So, I’m not giving a synopsis of the plot, but Wikipedia has a pretty good one.
When I was in seventh grade my teacher showed us The Long Walk Home, which is about the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. After the movie was over Mr. Scott asked the students who the main character was. The majority of us answered Odessa Cotter, because the story was mainly told through her POV and she was in more scenes. But he countered that the main character is the person who changes the most over the course of the story. While Odessa may have been on screen more, she never truly changed her beliefs, while Miriam Thompson’s whole attitude toward civil rights reverses over the course of the movie.
Last week I had the same realization about Wicked. I had always placed Elphaba as the main character. However, now I see Glinda as the main character due to her amount of change, and Elphaba’s lack of it.
**Before I dive into my analysis, I want to say that I still love Elphaba and always will. As a teen outcast myself I identified with her greatly and drew strength from her courage and bravery. **
At the Beginning
Elphaba is a very intelligent woman who stands up for what she believes in regardless of how it might affect her social standing. Though she doesn’t like being an outcast she’s learned to wear it as a kind of armor. Yes, she wants to be accepted, she wants to have friends, but she doesn’t ever compromise her own beliefs to do so. None of these qualities ever change throughout the entire play. Nor, does she gain them due to the events of the play, she has them from the start.
Glinda, on the other hand, begins at a much different position than where she ends up. At the beginning all she wants is fame. But over the course of her journey she learns that fame is hallow, to care about others not just herself, and that following the Wizard blindly causes pain to the community.
In the End
At the end of the play Glinda runs to Elphaba telling her she’s ready to speak the truth to the people of Oz, regardless of the effect it has on her social standing. This sacrifice is something she never would have done at the beginning of the play.
Where Glinda has completed her arc and is now ready to join the fight against the Wizard, Elphaba has given up. She chooses to run away with Fiyero, the boy she loves, and vows never to return to Oz. I suppose learning to give up is a character arc, but it’s not one I’d necessarily want to emulate. Plus, it’s not entirely clear why she gives up.
What is the change inside her that makes her even able to walk away? She’s been fighting the Wizard over the rights of the discriminated for years no matter the cost to herself, and then she’s suddenly just willing to walk away from it all? Why? It’s never really explained.
For … Good?
In their final song together, For Good, Elphaba and Glinda sing about how their friendship has changed them, how they’ve learned from each other. I’ve listened to this song (my favorite of the show) hundreds of times, and I don’t know why I never realized it before, but the learning only happened one way.
If Glinda had not met Elphaba she would have lived a blissfully ignorant life as Speaker of Oz. If Elphaba had not met Glinda, she would have been exactly the same person.
Some might argue that without Glinda, Elphaba wouldn’t have ended up with Fiyero, but I disagree. Fiyero started falling for Elphaba when she stole the lion cub, which was an act that came from her, not anything to do with Glinda. Plus, if that’s the only argument, that’s saying that Elphaba’s entire arc of change is about getting the guy, which would be a terrible arc.
Ultimately, there is nothing Elphaba does in Act II that she would not have done in Act I, whereas with Glenda there are many examples of change.
My new interpretation hasn’t zapped the enjoyment for the show, merely changed it. I’ll never go back to looking at it the same way as before, but isn’t that the cool thing about art? That even though the songs are the same, the script, the costumes, all of it has stayed exactly the same, something different can be seen within.
And who know? Maybe when I see it again, five or six years from now, I’ll find another, new way to look at it.
Wicked is playing at the Buell Theater in Denver until June 9th.