Why Wicked Works: Behind the Musical that Captivates the World

If you’ve never heard of Wicked the musical, I’m sorry to tell you that you’ve been living under a rock. Though you probably won’t hear your average Joe belting “Defying Gravity” out of nowhere anymore like you could a decade ago, Wicked is far from being forgotten.

Just take my recent experience as an example. I saw Wicked a couple weeks ago on a Tuesday night at 8:00 PM in the final week of the show’s run at a local concert hall. I live in a fairly big city, but not enormous. And yet, when my husband and I arrived in the area a little over an hour before the show, we could not get to the concert hall. Cars packed the streets. Every highway and byway was congested. I’ve been to many, many concerts at the hall over the past several years, and never once had I experienced anything like that night. “There has to be something else going on,” I determined, since the concert hall was in the middle of downtown amongst other venues. But research showed that Wicked was it. (I mean, come on, it was a Tuesday!) When we (eventually) made it to the hall and got in our seats, I was astounded to find myself in a full house show…on a Tuesday night at 8:00 PM in February…in a concert hall that seats 2,700 people.

This is the crowd that Wicked still draws today, 20 years after its debut. I wonder how many of the people in that crowd were not first-timers. It was my third time seeing the musical, but I’d still happily see it again tonight. There’s something so “rewatchable” about it, like a favourite film you never get tired of – and I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so.

You don’t need to be a genius to understand that this musical is special. It breaks records everywhere it goes, and it’s still the second highest-grossing musical of all time above Hamilton and Phantom of the Opera. And while the music is, of course, a big part of its success, I’m not just talking about the success of the soundtrack here. I mean the whole musical – namely, you guessed it, its story. My blog is all about learning how to craft meaningful stories, so by picking apart such a masterful story as Wicked, I hope we can learn how to make our own meaningful, memorable stories – because it’s a formula that’s accessible to everyone!

(Please be aware that in order to be thorough, this review does contain some spoilers for the musical that are not in the soundtrack.)

Why Critique Stories?

My purpose in critiquing stories is not to say that the story or its creator is either awful or flawless. I’m not trying to say that I know everything there is to know about writing a story, or that I’m even right in my assessments/opinions. My motives are twofold: 

  1. To break apart stories so we can learn what makes them successful or unsuccessful and apply those elements to our own stories or know what to avoid
  2. To dispel the myths that 1) popular stories are “perfect” and 2) creating a story as “good” as a well-known writer is an unattainable goal

It’s comforting to know that a good story is a good story. No one has any secret, special knowledge that makes their story better. As long as you take the time to learn and practise the art of writing, you have the same potential as a famous writer to craft something that people will remember for years to come.

The Good Stuff

Sympathetic Main Character

One of the main reasons why this musical grabs you straight from the beginning is because of how it portrays Elphaba, the main character. I don’t care how much you hate the Wicked Witch of the West; the moment you see Elphaba bumble onto the stage, repulsing everyone who lays eyes on her just because of her green skin, you’re with her. You want to protect her and you feel for her. Creating a main character who hasn’t done anything wrong and yet is disliked by others is sure to immediately capture the audience’s sympathy. Just think of how many times Disney has used it! This works so well because it’s a universal human experience. Everyone, at some point in their lives, will feel like they don’t belong. We all understand that, and it hurts when we see it happening to others.

So no matter how much you go into the show wanting to hate Elphaba, you absolutely can’t. The way she’s presented as a victim makes that virtually impossible. Already, this flawless introduction sets the story up for success because you’re sure as heck going to care about everything that Elphaba cares about.

A Theme of Uniqueness

Elphaba is the absolute embodiment of uniqueness. She represents all of the unique traits that set us apart from others and sometimes make us an object of ridicule. Again, the value of uniqueness is a universal message because every person is, by definition, unique. We all want to know that it’s okay to be ourselves, green and all. (Just make sure you’re finding your identity in the right place!)

Twist on a Classic

If you’re wondering how much people like seeing an old story revisited, just have a look at all of Disney’s recent remakes. We all complain about them, and rightly so, but Disney keeps making them because they keep selling. People like things that blend new and familiar – and that’s exactly what Wicked is! The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story that most are familiar with, mostly thanks to the glorious 1939 movie.

Moreover, from what I can tell, Wicked is mostly responsible for the “villain origin story” trend that’s become so popular ever since the early 2000s (and note that Wicked came out in 2003). But, to be honest, most people who tried to copy what Wicked did got it wrong. The story doesn’t try to excuse the villain’s terrible deeds as many of the villain origin tales do. Actually, Elphaba recognises when she’s done wrong and even goes so far as to ask for forgiveness.

Instead, the story focuses on the danger of accepting the way things are and trusting everything we hear, especially from people we don’t actually know. Elphaba doesn’t do much evil, but she’s perceived as evil – same as how the Wizard hasn’t done much good, but he’s perceived as good because everyone says he is. This twist really makes the story exciting, too, because it turns our expectations upside-down.

Female Friendship

There are still all too few stories centred around female friendship, but it’s clear that we’re hungry for them. I’m a firm believer that this is why Frozen instantly became so popular back in 2013. Everyone complains that it wasn’t actually that good, but did you see anyone else making stories about female friendship then? Nope, apart from Wicked – which also happened to be an instant sensation. And what do Wicked and Frozen have in common (besides Idina Menzel)? Their stories are based around two very different women trying to find their places in the world while at the same time learning what it means to be a friend (or sister). These relationships are all the more powerful in stories like Wicked because they’re so rare (and rarely done well).

Humour, Tragedy, and Romance

These are the three staples that just about every single successful story has in common (there are some caveats, which I’ll get to).

Wicked certainly cracked the code for the type of humour that anyone – child or adult, male or female – can laugh at. You don’t get much of this humour in the soundtrack, but the show is so hilarious that I’ve always found tears in my eyes from laughing so hard, usually sometime around “Popular.”

People are looking for laughter. Humour (and good humour, at that) is essential for a good story. Make them laugh and they’ll keep coming back for more. I also think it’s worth noting that Wicked only contains simple, innocent humour. Crass humour has never appealed to me, so I find it heartening that over and over again, the stories that last throughout time tend to be the ones with universal, family-friendly, simplistic humour. You might be surprised at how effective this humour really is; there’s something so comical about hearing the middle-aged man down the row roaring with genuine laughter because of the way Elphaba tries (and fails) to toss her hair.

Tragedy has a great appeal to audiences. Sure, you can have a perfectly happy story with a perfectly happy ending, but it won’t be all that memorable or meaningful. What you really remember is the sinking feeling in your gut after Elphaba is “melted,” there’s a beat of silence, and Glinda pitifully calls, “Elphie?” You feel it when Elphaba and Glinda sing, “Because I knew you, I have been changed,” standing right beside each other on the stage and yet living a whole world apart.

Tragedy gets under our skin more than anything else. Again, it’s a universal experience. We all know pain and suffering, and seeing someone else – fictional or real – going through something triggers a deep feeling within us, especially if we’re already attached to them. So yes, a good story always has some element of tragedy. But, the story also isn’t hopeless, and that’s an important point. All of the main characters have changed for the better, and even if it’s bittersweet, they’re moving on to new and better lives.

The romance aspect helps with this. Fiyero and Elphaba’s romance embodies hope and being loved for who you are. Having that stay strong until the very end of the story gives the audience a sense that everything is going to be okay – that even if Glinda can’t share in Elphaba’s future, Fiyero always will. (I will make a brief note, though, that while there is still some correlation between romance and the popularity of stories, we’re moving into an age where romance isn’t absolutely necessary in a narrative as long as there are other strong relationships the audience can cling to. I know I, for one, really enjoy stories that can be brilliant without romance!)

I could say lots more about how Wicked excels at storytelling, but then we’d be here all day, so I’ll spare you.

The One Problem

I will admit that possibly my one gripe with Wicked is largely based on my own feelings, though I think I can defend those feelings from a storytelling point of view. This issue is, as usual, with the ending. It tears my heart in two that Glinda has to go on without knowing Elphaba is alive, but I think there are legitimate reasons why that ending might be more forced than natural.

For one, the fact that Glinda can’t know the truth is established in one line and never explained. “She can’t ever know…” But why? I get why Elphaba can no longer live in Oz, but Glinda would obviously keep her faked death a secret. Even if she had to believe it was real at first, why couldn’t Elphaba secretly show up to her later?

This fact also seems to lean heavily into the romance aspect at the end. Fiyero is now the only one Elphaba can turn to, so they walk off into the sunset together. But this seems rather odd, as the whole point of the story was not the romance, but the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda. I recognise the beauty in a story that ends with friends still loving each other but going their separate ways, but that falls apart a bit when the reason for them being apart doesn’t make sense. I’d be much happier if I had a legitimate explanation for this ending in the story.

But mostly, I understand this is just me being stubborn.

Meaningful and Memorable

And there you have it! The elements that make good stories work don’t have to be a mystery. When you break down popular stories like Wicked, you realise that it all comes down to good storytelling practices. I hope that this post has given you more insight into how to construct a great story. (And if you’ve never seen Wicked, you really should – it’s a wonderful experience.) Until next time!

Happy writing!

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Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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When you write as much as I do, you have to take frequent breaks from sitting. A standing desk (not a whole desk, but a mini desk that will sit on top of my current desk with my laptop, keyboard, and mouse and extend upward) will allow me to continue working while maintaining that good blood flow to my brain. Thank you so much for your support that allows me to keep producing free content. God bless you! ♥️ E.J.


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