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The Story Behind the Popular Musical "Wicked"

“Wicked” is a Broadway musical crafted by Stephen Schwartz. It is inspired by the novel titled “Wicked” written by Gregory Maguire. Maguire’s novel is a reiteration of L. Frank Baum’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and the movie titled “The Wizard of Oz” by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.


Stephen Schwartz, a renowned lyricist, and composer had discovered the novel “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire on vacation, and quickly realized its vast potential for dramatic adaptation. However, Universal Pictures had already obtained the rights from the author, with a plan to produce a live-action movie. In 1998, Schwartz successfully cajoled Maguire to obtain the stage production rights. He also made an “impassioned plea” to Marc Platt, the Universal producer for obtaining permission. Platt was convinced by the pitch and subsequently came on board as the joint producer of the entire project, with David Stone and Universal also joining as producers.

History & Performances 

Joe Mantello and Wayne Cilento were appointed as the director and choreographer, respectively. In October 2003, “Wicked” premiered as a Broadway musical at the Gershwin Theatre, after completing pre-tryouts for Broadway at the Curran Theatre in the earlier parts of the year. The score, lyrics, and content were thoroughly developed through a sequence of reading sessions. Various elements had to be rewritten, while the songs also experienced minor tweaks. The song “Dancing Through Life” was introduced, replacing the original “Which Way is the Party.”

In December 2003, an original cast recording of the opera was released by Universal Music. However, “The Wicked Witch of the East,” and “The Wizard and I, Reprise” were excluded from the recording. Stephen Oremus and James Lynn Abbott were the conductor and music director of this version, while William David Brohn chipped in with orchestrations. In 2005, the recording won the “Best Musical Show Album” at the Grammy Awards. In 2006, it was subsequently certified platinum. In 2007, a German recording was released by the Stuttgart production, with identical arrangements to the Broadway version. In 2008, the Japanese version was released.

The Play

Act I

The Land of Oz is in a celebratory mood. The “Wicked Witch” Elphaba has passed away, and the Ozians rejoice at the news as they discuss Elphaba’s history with Glinda, the “Good Witch.” She narrates how Elphaba’s mother had an affair with an unknown salesman. Elphaba’s father (Governor of Munchkinland) was out of town at that time. During the fling, the salesman had given her a green elixir to drink. Subsequently, the aria “No One Mourns the Wicked” is sung to signify that she gave birth to a baby girl with green-colored skin. Glinda further admits that she and Elphaba were best friends. A chorus “Dear Old Shiz” is performed as a flashback begins showing Elphaba and her sister Nessarose arriving at Shiz University.

Elphaba’s father dislikes her due to her green skin. He is more affectionate towards his younger child, who is physically disabled from a birth defect. As they bid goodbye, Nessarose receives a pair of silver slippers as a gift. Madame Morrible, another witch and the headmistress, takes Nessarose under her tutelage as she is disabled and also the favorite child. Elphaba is asked to be the roommate of the popular and beautiful Galinda. However, she attempts to reunite with her sister using her telekinetic powers and succeeds. The headmistress is impressed and opts to teach her sorcery so that one day she can join the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Elphaba belts out the aria “The Wizard and I,” confirming that it’s her ultimate dream. This creates a rift between Elphaba and Galinda, which they portray through the duet “What Is This Feeling?” Dr. Dillamond, their history teacher, is the only animal professor (a goat) at Shiz University. He faces discrimination every day and is convinced that there is a conspiracy going about to immobilize “animal speech.” He shares this with Elphaba through the duet “Something Bad.”       

Fiyero Tiggular, the Prince of Winkie, arrives at the university to introduce his philosophy of being “happy go lucky” with the students as the chorus “Dancing through life” is performed. He plans an orientation party. Galinda is asked out by Boq, a persistent Munchkin who fancies her. However, she convinces him to accompany Nessarose, clearing her path to partner Fiyero. Nessarose, a loner, is delighted with the fact and starts to fall for him. Galinda further plays a prank on Elphaba, giving her a black witch’s hat for the party. Meanwhile, Madame Morrible invites Galinda to her sorcery class and also gives her a wand, stating that Elphaba insisted on it. As they arrive at the party, Elphaba becomes a laughing stock due to the hat and dances alone in a corner. Galinda immediately regrets her actions and joins Elphaba, and soon, everyone else follows. After the party, the girls become friends and start exchanging secrets. Galinda shares her plan of marrying Fiyero while Elphaba divulges the bottle of green potion belonging to her mother. She further states how her father had given “milk flowers” to his wife to avoid another green-skinned child, which resulted in Nessarose’s disability and her demise. Galinda comforts her friend and plans to give her a makeover as the aria “Popular” is sung in the background.

Soon, Dr. Dillamond is excommunicated. Elphaba wants to help him, but nobody supports her. The replacement history teacher attends the class with a caged and frightened lion cub. She reveals how animals would be confined to cages, so they can never develop speech. Elphaba is furious and involuntarily casts a spell on her everyone, excluding Fiyero. As everyone starts to swirl, she rescues the cub with Fiyero’s help. They even share a light moment before Fiyero leaves after becoming self-conscious. As it starts raining, Elphaba laments how it’s impossible for Fiyero to even like her through the aria “I’m Not That Girl.” Next, Madame Morrible informs her that the Wizard wants to meet her. Elphaba expresses her excitement through the song “The Wizard and I - reprise.”

As she leaves, Fiyero, Galinda, and Nessarose come to wave her goodbye. However, Fiyero seems more inclined towards Elphaba. He even ignores Galinda when she announces that she will change her name to “Glinda” to offer solidarity to Dr. Dillamond. Elphaba feels sorry for her and invites her friend to come along. The girls arrive at Emerald City and spend the day looking around as the aria “One Short Day” is performed. As they meet the Wizard, they are quite amazed and find him to be amicable. The aria “A Sentimental Man” accompanies this scene. The Wizards asks Elphaba to prove herself and instructs her to cast an extremely difficult levitation spell on “Chistery,” his monkey servant. Elphaba succeeds, as the Wizard reveals a cage full of primates, all sprouting wings due to her spell. Elphaba realizes that the Wizard is the main culprit behind animal suppression, and doesn’t harbor any powers. She escapes from the Wizard’s tower and flies away in a broom after casting a spell as the Chorus “Defying Gravity” is sung.

Act II

As time passes, everyone is convinced that Elphaba is the impure “Wicked Witch of the West.” Glinda the Good is now the face of the Wizard’s regime and the nation’s hope against Elphaba as the aria “No One Mourns the Wicked, reprise” depicts. Fiyero has accepted the position as the Captain of the Guard, hoping to find Elphaba. However, he is absolutely incensed at Glinda’s proclamation that Elphaba wants to remain in hiding. He is further irritated when his engagement with Glinda is announced by the scheming Madame Morrible and finally runs away. Glinda, meanwhile, keeps a brave face in front of the public but realizes the price she has to pay for her charmed life as the chorus “Thank Goodness” is performed.

Nessarose became the new governor of Munchkinland after her father passes away. She has also suppressed the Munchkins to entrap Boq. When Elphaba visits her, she refuses to help her sister in rescuing the enslaved animals, complaining she never got any help. Elphaba tries to amend that by enchanting the “silver slippers,” giving her the ability to walk. Nessarose becomes convinced that Boq won’t leave her voluntarily, as she is a “normal” woman again. However, Boq still loves Glinda and tries to escape. Desperate, Nessarose steals Elphaba’s spellbook and tries to force Boq to love her. She mispronounces the spell and shrinks his heart instead. Heartbroken, she becomes more depressed as the trio “The Wicked Witch of the East” is performed. Elphaba casts another spell to save Boq and leaves for the Wizard’s temple to rescue the monkeys. As Boq wakes up, he was disgusted to Nessarose and runs away.

Elphaba faces the Wizard upon returning to the palace, who tries to convince her of his innocence, even offering to restore her reputation through the aria “Wonderful.” But she comes to her senses after seeing her teacher Dr. Dillamond, who has become mute. Fiyero is called with his guards to capture her but instead escapes with her. Glinda is heartbroken by this and sings the aria, “I’m Not That Girl, reprise.” She further suggests that they must spread a fake rumor that Nessarose is in danger, and use her as bait to capture Elphaba.

Subsequently, Madame Morrible unleashes a tornado to kill Nessarose. Fiyero and Elphaba acknowledge their feelings towards each other through the duet “As Long As You’re Mine.” They are soon interrupted as Elphaba realizes her sister is in mortal peril through a vision of the tornado. However, she is too late as Nessarose is crushed by a flying house belonging to Dorothy Gale. She confronts Glinda, after learning that her friend has given away her sister’s ruby slippers to Dorothy. The two further fight over Fiyaro, as the guards arrive to capture Elphaba. Fiyero arrives to save the day, holding Glinda hostage to help his love escape. The guards arrest and torture him instead. Elphaba tries to save him by casting a spell. However, she is disheartened by her limitations and vows to live up to her reputation of being bad, as she sings the aria “No Good Deed.”

Later, an angry mob has gathered against Elphaba, with Boq leading them on the instructions of Madame Morrible. They set out to kill her and destroy “Kiamo Ko,” Fiyero’s family castle in tune to the chorus “March of the Witch Hunters.” Glinda, realizing her mistake, again finds Elphaba, who has taken Dorothy, hostage out of vengeance. She pleads Elphaba to let Dorothy go and warns her against the upcoming menace. The two friends acknowledge their mistakes and embrace each other, saying goodbye through the duet “For Good.” The mob arrives, as Elphaba instructs Glinda to take cover. Dorothy apparently melts Elphaba by throwing a bucket of water on her, leaving only a hat and the green potion at the spot. Glinda registers everything from her hideout in horror. She goes back to Emerald city and confronts the Wizard, who has an identical bottle. The Wizard turns out to be the biological father, the one who had an affair with Elphaba’s mother. Glinda threatens to expose him if he doesn’t leave. The Wizard obliges, and Madame Morrible is sentenced to prison.       

Fiyero has turned into a scarecrow due to Elphaba’s spell. He visits Kiamo Ko and taps the exact spot where Elphaba apparently melted. A trap door is revealed, and Elphaba emerges from beneath. She laments the fact that Glinda will never know the truth. Meanwhile, at Oz, Glinda completes her story and promises to make everything right, as the people rejoice. Fiyero and Elphaba leave Oz forever to the tune of the “Finale.” 

Musical Overview 

The Wicked score is deliberately thematic. It’s not a traditional musical and is more inclined towards a film score. It doesn’t employ new melodies and motifs with a minimum overlap like most musicals, rather integrating a small number of leitmotifs all over. Schwartz also depicts “irony” through his use of motifs, especially in the reprise version of “What is this Feeling?”

There are two distinct themes at play here that encompass the score. There is a rare scenario of Schwartz using an earlier motif, namely “The Survival of St. Joan” for Elphaba's theme. He even used a chord progression he crafted back in 1971, which becomes a major theme of his orchestration. Schwartz has utilized various instruments, constantly switching, which enables him to offer diverse moods using the same melody. He uses heavy percussion in the overture, stretching the tune a bit to create a sense of dread among viewers. He then uses the same chord progression for the romantic number “As Long As You're Mine.” This theme is again used as a base for “No One Mourns the Wicked,” along with its reprise versions.

Schwartz also uses another “Unlimited” theme as another major motif for his score. This theme isn’t registered as a song but makes several appearances as an interlude across various numbers. He further obliterated its origin by positioning it with a “minor key,” creating additional contrast in the musical numbers. A prime example would be “Defying Gravity,” which was originally set in “D-flat major.” He again uses the theme in ‘The Wicked Witch of the East,” albeit, in a major key -a demonstration of his versatility. 

Usage In Popular Culture 

  • Wicked was featured in the episodes of several television shows, namely “The War at Home” and “Brothers & Sisters” and “South Park.”
  • In Season 15 of The Family Guy, “Wicked” is used in a joke in the episode “How The Griffin Stole Christmas.” 
  • Several songs from “Wicked” were featured prominently in the television show “Glee.”
  • In the television show “New Girl,” the protagonist sings “Defying Gravity” and “Popular” on a road trip.  
  • In 2008, John Barrowman, on his UK tour, performed an interpretation of the song titled “The Wizard and I,” renaming it “The Doctor and I.”  
  • In 2009, a clip of the aria “Popular” was used in the movie Zombieland. 
  • Kerry Ellis recorded “I’m not that Girl” for the 5th-anniversary edition of the “Wicked” on Broadway. She had performed the role of Elphaba in the original musical.  
  • In 2011, a dance remix of the song “Defying Gravity” was recorded. 
  • Louise Dearman recorded an acoustic version of the song “Defying Gravity” for her album titled “Here Comes the Sun.” She had performed the role of “Glinda” and “Elphaba” for West End.  
  • Wheatus, an American band, was influenced by “Wicked” in their EP titled “Pop, Songs & Death.”  
  • Various characters and songs from the musical were used as parodies in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Passions,” and “Red Garden.”  
  • “Huge,” the ABC Family television series, had a character wearing a “Shiz University” T-shirt. 
  • “iCarly,” the series on Nickelodeon, mentioned “Wicked” several times.  
  • In “Bring It On - the Musical,” the song titled “Killer Instinct” uses the closing notes of the chorus “No One Mourns the Wicked.”

Schwartz’s score frequently offers a hint of a parody. It’s like combining Broadway’s classic orchestral with modern rock ballads. His lyrics are on point, exuding a cynical yet crisply rhymed vibe. He has successfully portrayed the story as a metaphor, which places a sharp reflection of moral complexity in the contemporary universe. It pops up the age-old question - What does wickedness actually constitute. A pinch of virtue? Can a person be omnipotent and so easily heralded into a higher pedestal? Isn’t the reality much more complex, where exploitation and manipulation still prevail to fit agendas? To each his own.

“Wicked” has been a consistent box office machine for some time now, and it’s a testament to the fact that it is intelligent enough to cater to diverse audiences. There’s enough hint of dark edges to satisfy the adult audience, and also the presence of a cleaner, sumptuous appeal for a family joyride. This underrated and mellifluous production keeps on delivering.


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