Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Gender, Power, and the Megamusical in the Land of Oz. Part 1

3:25 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

I thought I'd try something a little different for this post, something a little more academic. But not dry, I promise! The musical I love best in the world is Wicked, and I've always had a fascination with the world of Oz. As I've grown older and learned more about the story and its contexts over time, I wanted to do some research into the power and gender dynamics in the story. This particular commentary ended up pretty long, so I'm dividing it into sections. (Note: I'll put references at the bottom of each post in case anyone wants to take a look at some of my sources). First up: a character analysis of the ladies of Oz.

Although the original story is named for the fraudulent Wizard, the real action is driven almost entirely by women, from Dorothy’s compassion for her companions to the Wicked Witch of the West’s thirst for revenge. Put simply, “in the land of Oz, women yield all the power” (Boyd 101). In the original Wizard of Oz, both onstage and onscreen, the most powerful people in Oz are Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West (and, to a lesser extent, Dorothy). Even the dead Witch of the East was powerful enough to rule the Munchkins. Magic resides in these women, while the Wizard fears the evil witches and hides behind the (pink, poufy) skirts of the good one. The protagonist and antagonist are both women whose conflicting desires drive the action. By the time Wicked hit Broadway, the land of Oz was explicitly defined by its women; “suddenly, [the story] is about two witches” (Cote 24). 
Original Broadway Cast; (c) Universal
Here, every named female character has magic; this Oz “values unique, singular femininity, honors female friendships, and represents women as socially significant” (Wolf 42). This highlights the fact that men hold only one type of power: political. Without the true power wielded by the women, the Wizard instead is adept at persuasion and manipulation to produce a framework to which the women must conform or face the consequences. Still, every version of Oz is clear on one thing: Women have innate power, while men must either be rescued (like Dorothy’s friends) or resort to lies and manipulation.

In most musical versions of Oz (excepting The Wiz, which hews closer to the original book in this regard), the first witch the audience meets is Glinda the Good. With her “perfect coif, spotless shimmering dress, [and] unutterable beauty” (Cote 55), Glinda is the physical embodiment of goodness and femininity. Although she wields magic, her influence comes about as a result of her beauty and ability to connect with others. The original Glinda was described as the most powerful of the witches, and traditional versions of Oz tend to perpetuate this, as Glinda’s magic (her kiss on Dorothy’s forehead or the magical snow that disables the poppies) regularly overcomes the Wicked Witch’s in direct contests.
The Wizard of Oz (c) MGM
However, Wicked presents a more political Glinda, a frivolous and girly young woman who is also shrewd enough to see, as explained in her signature song “Popular”, how influence is “not about aptitude, it’s the way you’re viewed”. Take a listen:

In fact, this song is the musical representation of her character: bubbly and shallow at first glance, yet shrewd underneath. Glinda is initially too afraid to cease conforming, instead allowing herself to be promoted as “Glinda the Good.” She lives out her “popular” philosophy until she realizes that “in order to create genuine change, she must be true to herself (and to her friend Elphaba)” (Kruse & Prettyman 460). It is Glinda who assumes leadership in the end, along with increased magic when Elphaba bequeaths her the spellbook. Although it is tempting to read this as reinforcing the idea that “nice girls (read pretty and popular) do win” (Kruse & Prettyman 458), it is worth noting that Glinda is left in power but alone, believing those she loves are dead. Yet her power is always greater than she knows; Elphaba gently reminds her that “you can do all I couldn’t do” (Schwartz) to reassure her friend. Glinda thus exemplifies a powerful woman who has more power than she may know and who creates change in a subtler fashion.
Megan Hilty, Broadway cast (c) Universal
Before addressing Glinda’s foil, the Wicked Witch of the West, there are a few other women worth mentioning. One might be surprised to consider Dorothy a powerful female in Oz, considering most of her actions are accidental (i.e. the deaths of both wicked witches). However, she frees her (male) companions, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, and ultimately vanquishes the Witch and “finds her own way home” (Kruse & Prettyman 451). At the end, Glinda tells her that she had the power in her all along, making Dorothy another example of a woman with power greater than she knows. The woman on whom her house falls, the Wicked Witch of the East, only has a significant role in one iteration of the Oz mythology, but is still an interesting character. In the traditional telling, she- like the other good and evil witches- has both magical and political power. Oddly, although we are told that she ruled the Munchkins wickedly, Munchkinland does not seem like a bad place. With its bright colors and lush vegetation, it is actually a direct contrast to the dark, angular realm enslaved by her sister. Wicked adds more depth to the Witch of the East, now a beautiful girl in a wheelchair named Nessarose. Her political power is inherited from her father, not taken forcefully, but she uses that power to manipulate the boy she loves into staying with her, and when that fails, turns in despair to dark magic she can’t control. “Using power is the only thing she knows how to do” (Cote 49), so she uses it to get what she believes she cannot any other way. The pair of jewel-clad feet became a sad tale of insecure woman who clings to power because she has nothing else.
Cassandra Compton, West End, (c) Universal
Unsurprisingly, since it is predominantly a tale of powerful women, Wicked introduces a new character who provides commentary on a different aspect of women and power. Madame Morrible, the kindly headmistress turned conniving villain, is a cautionary tale of power’s ability to corrupt. Although Morrible “commands considerable power in her own right, she chooses to repress those powers in favor of gaining and exercising authority within…the Wizard’s governance” (Kruse & Prettyman 456). Instead of the traditional feminine role of teaching, or even the “true” magic power wielded only by women in this story, she turns to the masculine power domain of “false” power (that is, obtained by manipulation and selfishness) of corrupt political power. This too expresses a feminist message, albeit a cautionary one. Morrible “loses [herself] in the struggle to be valued” (Kruse & Prettyman 456) by politicized, masculinized standards. Power corrupts her, making her turn against her (female) protégée in order to maintain her position of authority with the Wizard. When Morrible is imprisoned at the end of the show, it serves as a dual warning, against women who fail to help other women (a modern hot-button issue, especially for professional women), and against women who abandon the power innate in their femininity in favor of authority rooted in selfishness, lies, and manipulation.

Last but certainly not least among Oz’s powerful women is the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. Since the 1939 film version, the witch “terrorizes and represents through her monstrosity our fear of the evil ‘Other’” (Boyd 102). In this version, the juxtaposition of the Witch and Glinda is both feminist and traditional. It is feminist in that these are the most powerful people in Oz, without question. However, the polar opposites the two witches represent suggest (uncomfortably to our modern perspective) that a woman must either use her power without questioning existing structures (Glinda) or become evil when she strays beyond those bounds (the Wicked Witch). 

Wicked gives this commentary on the power of the “other” a whole new complexity by giving the Witch two things she never had: a name and a musical voice. Giving the Witch a name- Elphaba- humanizes her, and the audience gives her a chance long enough to see “her intelligence, insight, and compassion for the suffering of others” (Kruse & Prettyman 459). Additionally, “song identifies Elphaba as a protagonist, an empowered girl” (Boyd 99), unlike the non-singing and/or screeching nameless witch. Here's her most iconic song:

Elphaba is quickly identified as possessing extraordinary magical power, when, even though she is untrained, she is the only one capable of deciphering the spells in the Grimmerie. Yet she resists the political machinations of the Wizard and becomes the only person powerful enough to be seen as a genuine threat to the status quo in Oz. At this point, a meta-commentary comes into play. In Act 1, Elphaba participates in duets and group numbers and belts out soaring numbers in public settings, most notably her signature “Defying Gravity,” but even her solo “The Wizard and I” is in a public place where others stumble across her while she sings. After she is deemed “wicked,” she is publicly only referred to as “the Wicked Witch,” and she never sings again in a group scene, only in settings when at most one other character hears her. Just like the Witch of old, she is dehumanized by the loss of her name and voice. Despite this, Elphaba does manage a degree of happiness: she fakes her death and runs away with true love Fiyero to find somewhere they can be themselves and where her power will not be vilified. In a single female character, Wicked unites the traits that the original required three men to embody: brains, heart, and courage. She represents the feminist idea of breaking free of traditional, male-dominated structures to forge an entirely new path.

Coming up in Part 2: the male characters and the importance of female friendship

Boyd, Michelle. “Alto on a Broomstick: Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked.” American Music 28, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 97-118.
Cote, David. Wicked: The Grimmerie. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
Kantor, Michael, and Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2004.
Laird, Paul R. Wicked: A Musical Biography. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Kruse, Sharon D., and Sandra Spickard Prettyman. “Women, leadership, and power: Revisiting the Wicked Witch of the West.” Gender and Education 20, no. 5 (September 2008), 451- 464.
Wolf, Stacy. “Wicked Divas and Internet Girl Fans.” Camera Obscura 22 no. 65 (May 2007), 38- 71.