You know a musical brand is strong when you you can refer to the music / songs within it and people instantly know the name of the musical. In the case of Wicked, the best known song Defying Gravity exemplifies the peak of the protagonist’s journey. As always, spoiler alert!
Wicked compared to the Wizard of Oz
Wicked follows the background story to the already well-known character – the Wicked Witch of the West, from Frank L Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This literary classic from 1900 helped to propel Baum’s world of Oz into the minds of kids all over the world. In the original storyline, Dorothy was the protagonist – innocent and the heroine who defeated the big bad – encapsulated in the Wicked Witch of the West.
We should acknowledge the artistic influence of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) live-action adaptation of the story. It has been said that Margaret Hamilton’s green depiction of Elphaba aka the Wicked Witch of the West was given a whole backstory. Indeed, much about Wicked inverts our understanding of the traditional Wizard of Oz story and characters. The biggest difference is that in Wicked, we can identify with Elphaba.
Consider – particularly as a child watching the Wizard of Oz, MGM reinforced the whole stereotype for villians versus good guys. Glinda was all pink and pretty whereas the Wicked Witch was ugly. In Wicked, Galinda (her former name) and Elphaba were instead best friends. In Wicked we see Elphaba was largely misunderstood and her tragic journey led to the creation of most of the characters we love from the Wizard of Oz – Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.
Defying Gravity: Wicked Encapsulated
To understand the full context of the song, you need to understand Elphaba’s journey up until that point (the song closes the first act of the show). Elphaba had grown up being resented and avoided by people due to her green skin.
She hoped to meet and work for the Wizard, a very revered figure in Oz, who she idealized; she was sure he would see beyond her outward appearance and acknowledge her true potential in magic. Then the rest of the world would accept her too.
Along the way, she made an unlikely and initially uneasy friendship with her schoolmate and roommate Galinda/simplfieid to Glinda - the popular girl who was the model citizen in Oz. She also formed a strong friendship with her professor, Dr. Dillamond, an Animal (talking animal) who told her that Animals everywhere are losing their power of speech for some unknown reason. Being an outcast her whole life, she deeply sympathized with their plight.
When Elphaba finally met the Wizard, she soon learnt that he was a powerless fraud who only utilized the power of press and branding to reach and maintain his current position of leadership. More importantly, he was also the one behind the suppression of Animals.
The song Defying Gravity is the culmination of her experiences, relationships, and self-discovery. Just before the song starts, Elphaba released the Wizard’s enslaved monkeys who became the famous flying monkeys and the Wizard’s press secretary spread the news that Elphaba was ‘wicked’.
Friendship sacrificed for convictions
The song opens with the two friends getting snippy with each other (a part too often left out by covers!). Glinda wanted Elphie to keep low and not revolt against the Wizard, for she knew it would be hard and even endanger her dear friend’s life. Meanwhile, Elphaba was disappointed that Glinda was content to feign ignorance despite having learned everything just like Elphie did.
Glinda asked Elphaba to reconsider, to remember that all she wanted was to work with the Wizard. In return, Elphaba pleaded her case. After all she learned, she could not and would not stay silent and submit to Oz’s and the Wizard’s unjust rule. She could not go back to the life she had before. Though she knew it was rife with uncertainty and danger, she decided she would take the risk for the sake of justice.
In this way, it is testament to Elphaba’s conviction, for she would leave everyone she knew and loved. The best friends agreed to disagree, knowing they couldn’t change each other’s minds. The sad thing is, they understood each other. So there was only one thing Elphaba and Glinda could do - wish each other the best in their chosen life.
Defying Gravity is an anthem of empowerment and standing up for what you believe in. Themes within the song reflect the entirety of Wicked – it is better to be true to yourself instead of trying to conform to societal pressure.
Lessons from Wicked: An application for believers
A parallel can be drawn between the need for authenticity and morality as exemplified by Elphaba, and the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. The standards of moral behaviour are elevated, and God sees our heart and knows our motivation.
Perception versus reality is also a good reminder from Wicked. Let us not put on masks of perfect and hide our faults as we outwardly pursue righteousness, at least without balancing our efforts to maintain purity, morality and authenticity. The greater sin is not in being declared Wicked (like Elphaba), but in accepting appearances of goodness. Let us ensure our understanding of what is truly good aligns with the Bible.
Nic Lee works by day as a Business Analyst Consultant whilst, outside of business hours, maintains an IT support & website services business. He volunteers with 89.9 LightFM (Christian Community Radio). Nic has served for over twenty years in his local church, in worship, technology consulting, life group leading and event management.