It's no secret that Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is one of the biggest commercial successes on Broadway in recent history. After all, it's been running on the Great White Way for the past fifteen years with no end in sight. And yet, sometimes I think academics can be hard on commercial hits, perhaps because of that very success - the idea being that if a show is "popular" (Popular. Wicked. Get it?) then it has little to no academic merit. The score must be shallow, they argue, and the characters superficial. The plot must be plagued with holes. And while in some cases, that may be true (Looking at you, Cats), I think Wicked deserves more of our respect. To my mind, Wicked is a nearly perfect book musical.
What is a book musical? Well, scholars have written scores of articles and books on this very subject. We don't have the time to go into it in too much depth here, but simply speaking, a book musical is one with a tight, formulaic structure and fully integrated songs. (The opposite of this would be a concept musical - Assassins for instance.) My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The King and I - these are all book musicals. It's a form that was perfected by the composers and librettists of the mid-20th century. Think Rodgers and Hammerstein.
There are certain markers of a book musical, easily recognizable benchmarks through which we can better understand the flow of the plot and the development of characters. These benchmarks include moments such as the "I Want" song, the conditional love song, etc. Think of it as a formula. (Jack Viertel breaks it all down fantastically in his book The Secret Life of the American Musical for those of you interested in a little extra credit reading. 1) Wicked, although it appeared on the scene much later than the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, those pioneers of the integrated musical, is a solid representation of the book musical form. Let's take a look at one way in which Wicked adheres to the template of a standard book musical, and how that ultimately enhances our understanding of a particular character and her development within the show.
Idina Menzel sings "The Wizard and I" on the original Broadway Cast Recording of Wicked.
"The Wizard and I" falls early in Act I of Schwartz's Wicked, filling the slot of the "I Want" song. In a book musical, the "I Want" is a crucial moment - the moment in which we truly get to know our protagonist. Who is this person? What does she desire? And do we as the audience care enough to want to sit in the theatre for the next two hours and witness her attempts to attain the goal she has set for herself?
In Wicked, Elphaba's wants are pretty straightforward. As a woman who has spent her entire life as an outsider, she is looking for recognition. This is made clear in the following lyrics:
Once I'm with the Wizard
My whole life will change.
'Cause once you're with the Wizard
No one thinks you're strange.
No father is not proud of you,
No sister acts ashamed,
And all of Oz has to love you
When by the Wizard you're acclaimed!
Later in the song, she expresses a secondary wish - that the Wizard will one day "de-greenify" her. Elphaba believes that her green skin is the source of her problems and the main impediment in her quest for love and admiration. Contemplating this idea of eventual de-greenification, she sings, "Of course that's not important to me," but we of course know that it is important to her. Hugely important. The idea of being normal means everything to Elphaba.
So Elphaba's wants are well-established in "The Wizard and I," but what about her needs? You see, what a character wants and what a character needs are not always the same thing. Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls announces defiantly that she knows exactly what she wants, and even goes so far as to declare that her envisioned man with the "strong, steady voice" and "those feet on the ground" will be just what she needs. But Sarah is wrong. She doesn't need steadiness, but rather a man like Sky who will challenge her. If a show has good bones, then its characters will have primary goals and secondary goals, wants and needs. In the most interesting shows, the character won't be able to identify those needs (cough, cough, Elphaba), and the tension of the plot will arise from the process of discovery as the character slowly lets go of the things she thinks she wants in order to embrace what she truly needs. This is the case in Wicked and it is beautifully illustrated in the second act.
In Act II, Schwartz has written a number for the Wizard called "Wonderful." In some ways, "Wonderful" feels like a throwaway song. It's a vehicle for the actor who plays the Wizard, giving him a second chance to appear on the stage, and perhaps enabling the producers to get a bigger "name" for the role. After all, the Wizard makes so few appearances in Wicked that without a second act number it would be a pretty thankless part. Listening to the cast album, "Wonderful" certainly comes across as underwhelming, dare I say insignificant, in the midst of all the power ballads and showstoppers, but I would argue that "Wonderful" actually plays a pretty important role in the overall structure of the show, for in "Wonderful" Elphaba is offered everything she has ever wanted.
Joel Grey sings "Wonderful" on the original Broadway Cast Recording of Wicked.
Listen to the lyrics at this crucial juncture of the show:
At long, long last receive your due, long overdue, Elphaba.
The most celebrated are the rehabilitated.
There'll be such a whoop-de-doo.
A celebration throughout Oz that's all to do with you.
If it sounds familiar, it's because Schwartz is harkening back to Elphaba's "I Want" moment. Remember? All the way back in Act I, Elphaba sings:
It sounds truly crazy, and true the vision's hazy,
But I swear someday there'll be
A celebration throughout Oz that's all to do with me!
It's a little on the nose, to be sure, but it's effective. Elphaba is wiser now. She realizes that the Wizard is guilty of some pretty terrible stuff. Still, it must be tempting when your former hero offers you everything that you've ever wanted and more. It's sort of heart-wrenching for the audience to hear this melody reprised within this context. And if we in the audience are affected by this moment, how can Elphaba possibly resist?
But resist she does. It's a crucial moment for the character, and for the show - the moment in which Elphaba finally rejects what she thought she wanted (recognition) and embraces what she truly needs (self-acceptance). Furthermore, it's a fantastic illustration of how the careful handling of the tried and true elements of a book musical can lend a moment particular significance. "Wonderful" carries the emotional weight that it does precisely because of this musical reference to Elphaba's oh-so-important "I Want" moment. It is a smart composer who can use the formulaic structure of a book musical to bring about a cathartic release, reprising musical material in a way that is not only emotionally satisfying, but brings the audience to a crucial understanding of the protagonist and her ultimate trajectory in the show. It is a beautiful way to demonstrate how far she has come in her journey and a perfect example of why composers turn again and again to the book musical form.
1. If you do happen to read Viertel's book, you'll see that he and I actually have a fundamental disagreement about the merits of Wicked. He feels that it is structurally flawed, while I believe that it is has an incredibly strong book. But that's academia for you! Not everyone will agree! C'est la vie!