Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wicked, and Glinda: the Musical's Best Character

Before I begin spouting the wonders of Wicked's Glinda, dear readers, first let me apologize!  This blog has been a certifiable wasteland the past few weeks, a fact I am neither proud of nor happy about.  I hereby promise to not be so damn neglectful in future.

Now.  Yesterday, as I made myself dinner (and also as I may or may not have baked a rather large batch of peanut butter cookies) I cranked up the Wicked Original Broadway Soundtrack and sang my little heart out.  And in doing so, I realized, not for the first time, that Glinda has permanent living space in said little heart.

Proposal: G(a)linda is actually the best character in Wicked, the stage play.

Hear me out.  I don't deny that Elphaba is a wonderful creation, one who deserves her place as main character and as an individual that almost any audience member can relate to.  Elphaba is an icon, an embodiment of what it means to be different and yet determined to achieve greater things, despite the people trying to keep you down.  She deserves to be the anchor of this story.  

But that's just it: Elphaba is the anchor, the emerald center of this tale that spins around her as she slowly descends into the wickedness always presumed of her.   And even though Wicked, the stage version in particular, touts the partnership of Glinda and Elphaba as the highlight of the story, it's still Elphaba's story.  Hell, it's Glinda telling Elphaba's story - the show opens with "No One Mourns the Wicked," as Glinda gives the back story of Elphaba's birth to the citizens of Oz.  

And it's perhaps this construct that helps make Glinda the best character in the ensemble.  Wicked's true genius is not necessarily in Elphaba's story, or even in Glinda and Elphaba's story, but rather in how Glinda interacts with Elphaba's story.  The entire musical is framed by Glinda relating Elphaba's story to us, intuitively suggesting that we should examine the characters in such a light as well.  Looking at Elphaba's story without looking at Glinda's would be an oversight.

Without Glinda's involvement, frankly, Elphaba's story is somewhat standard.  Again, she's the anchor.  Like so many traditional heroes, she was born different, unaccepted by her family, and discovered she had extraordinary power inside her.  She fights for a cause, strives to do the right thing, and we learn of her true parentage - and how it affected her entire life.  This is all fairly straightforward character information, hallmarks of a Hero's Tale.  

From a purely narrative perspective, what sets Wicked apart is the conceit that this is a story we think we know - and do know, to some extent.  We know how it ends, and the show cashes in on that knowledge, turning everything on its ear in a droll and sometimes tragic way.  Dramatic irony rules every moment on that stage.

But from a character perspective, the addition of Glinda allows Elphaba's story to transcend its classic hero structure and become something else entirely.  This was a choice made specifically for the stage musical - Glinda is absent for countless pages of the original book by Gregory Maguire.  But in adapting the novel to the stage, it was increasingly apparent that the spark necessary to ignite the page characters into reality was Galinda Upland - and more of her.

Galinda is the character that changes.  It's all wrapped up, right there in her name.  She starts out as Galinda, a snotty brat who cares too much about appearances, and ends up Glinda, a battered soul who still cares enough about appearances to never let us see how much pain she's experienced.  And the changes she undergoes make her a better person and simultaneously ruin her life.  Let's look at Wicked, Elphaba's story, through Glinda's perspective.

Galinda Upland arrives at Shiz fully expecting to be special, and treated that way.  She is self-centered in a way that makes her naive.  She doesn't grasp the grave political situation in Oz, and completely trusts that the people in charge are all good guys.  She's also self-centered in a way that makes her inconsiderate of others - she manipulates Boq, throws herself at Fiyero, and makes fun of Elphaba.  Everything she does skates obnoxiously at the surface (and part of the genius is that much of the show's humor comes from Galinda in these moments - Galinda is the Clown of the First Act, keeping her antics likeable and not bitchy).

Galinda, more than anything, wants to be chosen to study witchcraft with Madame Morrible on account of natural talent.  But that doesn't happen.  Galinda actually has very little natural talent when it comes to witchcraft, which is something I find terribly tragic.  Turns out Elphaba, the peculiar green girl, and Galinda's roommate, has it in spades.  But Galinda never acts out against Elphaba on that count - technically, Galinda should have an inferiority complex, but it never fully manifests.  It sneaks into the narrative with Fiyero, who also chooses Elphaba over Gllinda, and we get the tiniest taste of sadness and tables turned, as Glinda sings a reprise Elphaba's song - "I'm Not That Girl."  The roles reversed, and Glinda gets another dose of reality.

Essentially, examining Glinda's part in Elphaba's story yields a conclusion that is entirely in keeping with her character.  Glinda realizes that the reality she has built for herself isn't reality at all, and that the world really can be a cruel place.  But what's heartbreaking, and the quintessential Glinda of it all is that we never really see her succumb fully to heartbreak.  It is not something she shares with the audience in any real way.  Elphaba sings "The Wizard and I," and "Defying Gravity," and "No Good Deed," all anthems of her existence that explode before the audience in a very magnified way.

Glinda, however, has quiet moments of crumble.  She sings 52 seconds of ironic heartbreak with "I'm Not That Girl," and a minute-long interlude of sadness and regret in "Thank Goodness," before she affixes that smile back on her face and continues to force herself to want what she has.  Glinda has no anthem in Wicked; if anything, she gives us "Popular," which simply informs us that Glinda cares too much about appearances, and therefore will not be singing us an anthem in Wicked.  It's not her style.

But how beautiful are characters who quietly break down without ever letting anyone know?  Especially the girl who threw a tantrum when her rooming arrangement wasn't how she wanted it?  

And here we are, again, at Glinda's change.  The Glinda at the end of Wicked is very different from the Glinda at the beginning, and yet no one really noticed because she hid it all behind a fake smile and the opportunity to be beloved by the public.  Which leads me to my next topic: Glinda's choice.

"Defying Gravity," while certainly having its merits as an anthem of noncompliance and self-empowerment, is actually most powerful in that it delineates a choice.  "Defying Gravity," solidly and purposefully placed at the end of the first act, signifies the moment where Glinda and Elphaba make their choices.  Glinda can choose to go with Elphaba, embracing the changes in her life, and fully expressing this new person Glinda could be.  Or, she can take the somewhat cowardly option of staying behind and keeping her good name with the Wizard.

Both Elphaba and Glinda make choices that bring a gavel down on the rest of their lives.  Elphaba's choice makes her forever an outcast, an enemy of the government, and the receiving end of hate from angry villagers.  Knowing that Elphaba began her journey as an idealistic and well-intentioned young woman makes this supremely tragic.  But at the end of the day, we, as an audience, know that Elphaba made the right choice, because she chose to defy gravity.  Elphaba may have taken the hard road, but it was the right road - and in the musical, she was rewarded for that, because (surprise!) she doesn't actually die when Dorothy throws the water on her.  Instead, she emerges from a trapdoor, a happy life in hand with Fiyero, finally free of her rather cruel circumstances.

But Glinda?  Glinda chooses the easy road because she doesn't think she's brave enough to go with Elphaba.  She's not done changing yet, and she falls back on the security of her old dreams.  She chooses to be in with the good guys, aligned with the majority - popular.  Glinda chose the wrong path, and is stuck on it for the long haul.  She's rewarded with the empty security of public approval, and is set to live the rest of life thinking the one person who changed it is dead.  Glinda's last notes in Wicked are in mourning, a lament for Elphaba, who can never let Glinda know she's still singing in harmony with her.

To me, the sum of these parts makes Glinda a stronger character than Elphaba.  She changes.  She makes the wrong choice.  She quietly breaks down underneath a cockeyed grin.  And she lives her life dealing with the consequences of her change and her choice, without the only friend that ever mattered.  Beyond that, the structure of the play is completely defined by her.  She frames the story at beginning and end, and her involvement in the narrative defines both acts.  Act I is largely defined by Galinda's humor and kook, and Act II, shaped by the choices from "Defying Gravity," is charred with the the tragedy of Glinda's circumstances, taking her humor from Act I and subverting it into heartbreak.

While it is Elphaba's story that anchors Wicked, it is actually Glinda's involvement in the narrative that provides most of the storytelling intrigue, and helps shape what makes this musical unique, likeable, and tragic.  It's true that without Elphaba, there would be no Glinda.  But without Glinda, there would be no Wicked.


  1. This was so perfect, I'm crying.

  2. wow, I've seen Wicked twice but this describes something about the show that makes me for sure want to see it again someday, and definitely makes me like Glinda more. I used to like Elphaba more. But now... I think I'VE changed. ;)

    Wonderfully written!

  3. I stumbled upon this post while I was intrigued by "For Good" lyrics ("Because I knew you | I have been changed for good") and searching what change Elphaba really had been through, because, I agree with you, it's Glinda who clearly had been changed.
    Great post. You pointed out some things I haven't been aware before. I also agree with you about how the musical gave more weight to the friendship and evolution of the two girls compared to the novel which to me seemed to focus only on Elphaba.
    Anyway, it's a real pleasure reading your post! :-)


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