Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Gender, Power, and the Megamusical in the Land of Oz. Part 2

8:07 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

In the first part of this series, we looked at the female characters in Oz and what they symbolize, both on a dramatic and musical level and a theoretical level. Now, let's take a look at these women's relationships and the remarkable (and unusual) use of female friendship to structure the show. But first, just to wrap up the gendered character analysis, let's also take a quick look at the men of Oz, particularly the men of Wicked.

Although the women of Oz invariably hold real power (symbolized by magic), men do have one type: political power. In contrast to the natural power of the witches, the Wizard’s power requires lies and manipulation to exist; “the power of men…is illusory; the power of women is real” (Wolf 42). The original story presents the Wizard as an essentially good-natured, fatherly sort of man with real affection for the citizens of Oz. Although he is in fact a con man who uses illusion to gain and keep power, he means no harm. His lack of power is highlighted in his fear of the witches, who he knows wield power he and his wall of machines cannot match. 
The Wizard of Oz (c) MGM
Wicked, however, turns Oz into a land led by a conniving dictator where “the mistrust of anyone different…victimizes many innocent people” (Boyd 98). In his signature song “Wonderful,” the Wizard sings and dances in a “deliberate pastiche…intentionally manipulative and falsely emotional” (Cote 80) style, symbolizing how his political power is pure, self-serving showmanship. Everything about him looks, sounds, and feels false. Listen to and watch this number closely: you can see the manipulation, an intellectual seduction of sorts to eliminate his more-powerful enemy. 

It is worth mentioning at this point that Fiyero, the other significant male character, is a prince and captain of the guards, giving him political influence. However, he only uses that power once and for a selfless reason: to give Elphaba, who he loves, enough time to escape, no matter what price he might (and does) pay.
Wicked (c) Universal
In the end, the Wizard loses power to a witch (Glinda), emphasizing that false political power, connected to men in the story, is fleeting, while the true power held by women prevails.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Wicked is its use of the friendship between two women to structure the story. Dual leading ladies are incredibly rare in musical theater, and on those few occasions (such as Chicago), the women are pitted against each other. Wicked, on the other hand, “values and makes public the story of lasting love between women” (Wolf 53). Although they start out as opposites, Glinda and Elphaba’s friendship (and conflict) becomes the driving force and most important relationship in the show.

This is represented quite beautifully in the music the witches sing. Initially, Glinda sings in a clear, silvery soprano and Elphaba has a full, strong belt. Over time, as their friendship grows, their ranges begin to meld. Glinda begins to belt, allowing us to hear “the real, private Glinda” (Laird 129) in private moments such as “Popular”; meanwhile Elphaba’s songs climb higher, up to a high F. The most poignant representation of this friendship, both musically and dramatically, comes near the end of the show with the duet “For Good.” 

Every lyric is an emotional “testament to the transformative power of friendship” (Cote 180) as the witches describe how they have been changed by knowing each other. The final verse symbolizes the women as friends and as representations of good and evil. The women switch vocal parts as they sing together, with Glinda singing alto and Elphaba, soprano. “By trading places…[it] reveals not only the strength of their relationship but their interchangeability. Elphaba is not more ‘wicked’ than Glinda; Glinda is not more ‘good’ than Elphaba” (Boyd 113). This may be the most feminist version of Oz in history, as well as one of the most female-driven shows on Broadway.
GIF courtesy show clip

Even more remarkable is how this portrayal of complicated female friendship has had a real effect on the hordes of female fans of the show. Oz has always been a tale intended to impact its audience. The original book was an allegory for early 20th-century American politics and the economic debate about gold versus silver (which is why Dorothy’s shoes, contrary to popular belief, were in fact silver, not ruby). Later, most traditional musical versions such as The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz espouse cozy values of simplicity, family, and home. In the case of Wicked, “the rare theatrical representation of a close friendship between women…supports girls’ relationships with one another”
(Wolf 54).

Instead of subordinating the friendship to their romantic relationships (for example, Laurey and Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, the Pink Ladies in Grease, or, more recently, Tracy and Penny in Hairspray), the show reminds women in the audience how important their female friends are to forming who they are. 

Elphaba sings this directly in “For Good,” saying, “So much of me is made of what I learned from you.” (Schwartz) The witches grow and change because of their friendship. Glinda learns to take responsibility and find her inner strength, while Elphaba gains confidence. Ultimately, “Wicked encourages friendship, loyalty, and love between girls” (Wolf 59), and that is a legacy to be proud of.