Whenever I hear the word “musical,” my eyes tend to roll a little. As a self-professed filmbro, a Letterboxd frequenter whose viewing taste at any one time is usually steered by a piece of media’s Rotten Tomatoes score, musicals for so long seemed to me an arduous exercise in storytelling. I have always been an impatient watcher — I want the story, and I want it plainly. Even as a small child, during my family’s trip to New York, I’d pushed (and kicked and screamed) for a trip to the top of the Empire State in lieu of a trip down Broadway to “The Lion King.” A plot purist, I found myself content with plays, movies, and TV shows (sin laugh tracks). The thought of musicals, of sitting through a story that would be interrupted at any moment without warning by a song or number only tangentially related to the plot, seemed not just exhausting, but annoying.
My childish resolve against musicals was only strengthened by all those around me who professed love for them. In my Government and AP US History classes, my teachers would laud the music and plot of “Hamilton,” arguably the most famous musical of our time (or at least the one I’ve heard discussed most frequently, and by a large margin). We’d play excerpts in class, but without the context of what was going on, I felt unaffected by the pithy, punchy lyrics and not-quite-talking songs. Over time, my frustration built. I just didn’t get it. And so, without ever having stepped foot in a theater, without ever having taken a few hours of my day to sit in a vaguely uncomfortable seat and watch the stage break into intricately choreographed dance, my stance on musicals shifted: I wasn’t just neutral — I didn’t like them.
So, when the opportunity arose to see “Wicked” on one of the first nights of its return to Atlanta at the Fox Theatre, I knew I had to take it. I had to cut through the curtain of apprehension – through my book-by-the-cover mindset – to see what a musical was really, truly like. And maybe, by some miracle, I’d find my opinion changed. I got the tickets, blocked off the hours in my Apple calendar, and – after an expensive parking fee – was in front of the iconic lights of the Fox Theatre at 7 pm.
“Wicked,” first performed on Broadway 20 years ago and winning three of its Tony award nominations, takes a new look at an old classic. The name nods to the titular Wicked Witch of The West (aka Elphaba), the intensely green antagonist of the universally beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” Beginning with the birth of Elphaba and following her tortuous journey through school and adulthood, the evilness of Oz’s Elphaba begins to look like one grave misunderstanding.
Sitting down, I had little knowledge of what to expect. I had only seen the poster – the one depicting a white-clad witch (presumably the “Good Witch,” Glinda) whispering in the Wicked Witch’s ear. Upon the show’s beginning, it became clear that “Wicked” was a very different kind of retelling. Elphaba, born seemingly out of wedlock and with fluorescent skin, is bullied relentlessly, yet refuses to allow her mistreatment to affect her care for her disabled sister, Nessarose. When Elphaba and Glinda meet as schoolgirls, their initial hatred melts into friendship and later into a strong platonic love, one that – despite its trials and tribulations, wizards and vexing love triangles – remains unbroken through the musical’s end.
And with the magic of the intricate sets, the meticulous costumes, and, of course, the singing, I was spellbound to the edge of my seat. Olivia Valli – as “Wicked’s” Elphaba – and Celia Hottenstein – as Elphaba’s bright, quite literally bubbly counterpart Glinda – were entrancing. Valli’s voice in the infamous lung-collapsing power ballad “Defying Gravity” swept through the audience with unmitigable power, and the quippy theatrics of Hottenstein in the TikTok-famous “Popular” brought chuckles to even the most unimpressible audience members.
To say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed “Wicked” would understate the grin on my face during intermission, and the even wider one when we stood for the final ovation. The music, written by Stephen Schwartz, is filled with tight rhymes and beautiful leaping melodies, which kept me interested and entertained. The characters, well fleshed out and filled with a nuance absent from the original “Oz,” tugged at my heartstrings.
But my most exciting shock was the depth of “Wicked’s” social commentary. In a time of political scapegoating and fear mongering, with political attacks like the recent anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have swept the Southeast, “Wicked’s” use of the silencing and targeting of the kingdom’s animals (and, in one instance, the scapegoating of the literal goat teacher, Doctor Dillamond) as an allegory for how political elites turn people against each other as a means to amass power and control is more prescient than ever. In the world of Oz, one glimmering in seeming perfection, a fear of and lust for power threaten the lives of its people. It is up to the unrelenting Elphaba and good-hearted Glinda to wrest control from the antagonist’s evil (and magical) hands.
Walking out of “Wicked” into the pizazz and pomp of Fox Theatre at nighttime, I felt that a spell had come over me; or it would be more apt to say one had been lifted. I’d loved it, and my anti-musical mindset had been shattered. The approachability of “Wicked” helped, of course. Everyone is familiar with Oz and its witches, its Emerald City and scarecrow and tin man so deeply ingrained into our collective pop culture psyche that where the plot may be a little amorphous at times, the audience can usually figure it out. Coupled with a sense of regret for my hesitation to engage in musicals sooner was an excitement to see more, especially those that were harder to break into. “Wicked” gave me three hours of continuous enjoyment and a metaphorical broom I needed to travel and glide through the world of musicals for years to come.
VOX teens were invited to the press night performance of “Wicked,” thanks to the generosity of Most Valuable Kids Atlanta and Broadway in Atlanta.