Early on in the development of “Wicked,’’ composer Stephen Schwartz says, it became clear to him and co-creator Winnie Holzman that “we’re really on to something. If we do this right, we’ve got something here.’’
Oh, they did it right, and not just in the box-office terms by which this blockbuster is too often judged.
It was 10 years ago this October that “Wicked’’ premiered on Broadway. What the ensuing decade has shown is that the best and truest measure of this underrated musical — which is at the Boston Opera House through Sept. 15 — is the extraordinary and undiminished strength of its appeal to girls.
Why does it have such a hold on them? Because “Wicked’’ takes seriously their dilemmas and their dreams. And that is more important now than ever, as a countervailing force to a wider culture that is often discouraging or even hostile.
Imagine you’re an adolescent girl. Consider the dismissive, often misogynistic messages with which you’re bombarded. To cite just one of countless examples, you saw Seth MacFarlane on the Academy Awards, smirking his way through an actress-mocking number whose refrain was “We saw your boobs,’’ signaling that no matter how much women achieve, some pinhead will try to reduce them to a punch line.
Consider how that mindless frat-boy ethos oozes out of so much of pop culture, not just movies but also TV, music, the Internet, shock radio, advertising — all of which do their utmost to reduce women to one dimension: sexual. Consider how much more difficult that makes the already challenging task of forging an identity in middle or high school.
And then, blessedly, consider “Wicked.’’ For the past decade, with wit and heart and a boatload of gorgeous tunes, “Wicked’’ has celebrated the power of female friendship. While giving full weight to the complexity of the path girls have to navigate, the show has affirmed the importance of standing up to groupthink, otherwise known as peer pressure.
A prequel to “The Wizard of Oz’’ based on a novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked’’ focuses on the shifting relationship between the green-skinned Elphaba — later to become the Wicked Witch of the West — and the blond, popular Galinda, later to become Glinda the Good. Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics, and the book is by Holzman, who created “My So-Called Life,’’ a terrific mid-1990s TV drama that revolved around a teenage girl played by Claire Danes.
Elphaba is a despised pariah and Glinda sits atop the social pyramid at Shiz University. To their initial dismay, they are forced to be roommates — a circumstance captured in “What Is This Feeling?,’’ which amusingly inverts love-ballad conventions into an expression of antipathy. A clique-ish vibe pervades Shiz, and at first Glinda behaves toward Elphaba like a classic Mean Girl.
But these two very dissimilar young women slowly build a bond that deepens and changes both of them — for good, to borrow the title of one of the most beautiful songs in the show. They learn about the transformative effect deep friendship can have, especially when you’re young. Each of them has to make choices while figuring out what her values are. Each of them learns that the facile equation of good vs. evil doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny. Each of them learns to forgive, one of the hallmarks of maturity. (It’s also noteworthy that — spoiler alert! — the character who does not conform to traditional standards of beauty is the one who ultimately gets the guy.)
Elphaba is confronted with a choice between taking an easy path to power and status on the one hand, and, on the other, doing the right thing by standing on the side of the disenfranchised and oppressed. She spells out her choices and her values in “Defying Gravity’’ — and think how thrilling and liberating it must be for an adolescent girl to see and hear this soaring declaration of independence:
“Something has changed within me/ Something is not the same/ I’m through with playing by/ The rules of someone else’s game . . . I’m through accepting limits/ ’Cause someone says they’re so . . . And if I’m flying solo/ At least I’m flying free/ To those who’d ground me/ Take a message back from me/ Tell them how I am defying gravity. . . ’’
It’s not just gravity Elphaba is defying but a whole set of social expectations and limitations, and many girls instinctively get that. My wife, Carol, took our daughter Christine to see “Wicked’’ on Broadway when she was in third grade. Now 17, Christine has seen it several times since then. A photo hangs on a wall in our home of her singing “For Good’’ with a friend in an elementary school performance. Like a lot of girls her age, she has listened to the soundtrack countless times over the years. She is part of an entire generation whose love of musical theater was kindled, at least in part, by “Wicked.’’ She’s not just a fan, though, but a connoisseur, and as her knowledge of musical theater has expanded, it has only renewed her appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry of “Wicked.’’ Meanwhile, the show’s message continues to resonate.
In an e-mail, Christine explained what “Wicked’’ has meant to her: “The night I saw ‘Wicked’ on Broadway is one of my happiest memories. In a culture where the main concern of female protagonists is usually their love interest, seeing a show focused on female friendship was huge to eight-year-old me.
“Sure, they fight over a guy, but Fiyero takes a backseat to the two powerful, interesting, complicated women at center stage,’’ she added. “Their struggles (those not involving wizards and green skin) are easily relatable to young women: learning to value your own opinion of yourself over others’, exploring what makes you truly happy, building a friendship with someone different from yourself. During the trial-by-fire that is female adolescence, it’s heartening to see Elphaba defying gravity . . . and you can’t bring her down.’’
Schwartz seems to see his creation that way, too. When I asked the songwriter in a telephone interview whether he believes “Wicked’’ is so deeply meaningful to girls because it helps counteract an often-toxic cultural environment, Schwartz immediately replied: “I do. I do think that. I think that the sort of empowerment of Elphaba is very inspiring. And it’s more than just to girls. I get all these e-mails from young gay male teens, and from older women, women who are in bad marriages and are affected by ‘Defying Gravity.’ ”
It’s true that “Wicked’’ appeals to a broad cross-section, including middle-aged guys like yours truly; otherwise, it couldn’t be as big a hit as it is. A 2006 survey found that 53 percent of New York audiences for “Wicked’’ were 35 or over. When I spoke with Schwartz, he repeated a much-quoted line from David Stone, one of the show’s producers: “We all have that green girl inside us.’’
However, there’s no question whom the show’s core audience is. That 2006 survey found that seven out of 10 audience members at “Wicked’’ were female. Granted, that’s only a bit higher than the Broadway norm, but no survey can measure fervor. Anyone who has ever attended a performance of “Wicked’’ knows how much this show matters to girls, and to their mothers and aunts, too. (Ours is far from the only family where “Wicked’’ was a mother-daughter bonding experience.)
Part of what they respond to is the fact that Elphaba is guided by such a firm moral compass as she picks her way through a maze of life challenges. “She starts as an outcast girl who wants nothing more than to fit in, and the whole first act she pursues that opportunity,’’ Schwartz noted. “But when it’s finally within her grasp, in order to take that opportunity it means selling her soul. And she won’t do it.’’
What that means is that Elphaba’s story has an equivocal, real-world quality. Yes, “Wicked’’ is a coming-of-age tale, but it deviates slightly from the usual simplistic narrative of the underdog who ends up on top. “While she is empowered, it’s not like ‘The Bad News Bears’ and she wins the championship and lives happily ever after. It’s very bittersweet,’’ observed Schwartz. “It’s funny to say about a green witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but there’s something realistic about how her power worked out for her. The fact that it’s not an unmitigated triumph feels real to people.
“Her courage in giving up her chance to fit in in order to stay true to what she believes is inspiring,’’ he added. “And the friendship between those two [Elphaba and Glinda] is also complicated and nuanced. That relationship speaks to girls and women.’’