a Wicked generation?

Wicked Musical

I had the awesome opportunity to see “Wicked” again Friday night. It has a standing engagement in Chicago, and for good reason this musical continues to be a very popular show on Broadway, touring, and in several standing engagements in the US and London.

My friend Lance talks a lot about watching for worldviews in popular media. While I’m nowhere as savvy as he is on the topic, “Wicked” shouts some themes, concerns, and reflections that I think touch directly (and powerfully) on Collegiate Ministry. I wanted to take a second – without ruining the story – and discuss ways the world of “Wicked” parallels the present generation of students, which some call the Millennial Generation.

Again, I don’t plan on any “spoilers” here – think of this like a movie review. On the other hand, if you want to know more about the “Wicked” story, Wikipedia has a pretty good synopsis here.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the show, “Wicked” serves as a parallel tale to “The Wizard of Oz.” It highlights the “untold story” of the Wicked Witches of the West (Elphaba) and East (her sister Nessarose), as well as Glinda the Good Witch – from their early days at college together, all the way through the timeline of “The Wizard of Oz.” (Wicked’s character and general story is based on a book – but there are enough differences that you almost have to think of them as two separate stories. This post deals only with – and only recommends – the musical, as I have not read the book. See more about the book here.)

So how does this modern, popular musical reflect on our ministry? Are we experiencing a “Wicked” generation? Click below to find out…


1. Diversity valued and commonplace

With munchkins, animals, Animals, witches, humans, and others all side-by-side, Oz is certainly not lacking in diversity. Yet it is along these lines – beginning with disgust over Elphaba’s green hue – that the whole story revolves and evolves. Ultimately, those rejecting the different suppressing the speaking, and oppressing the small are certainly not the heroes of this story. Meanwhile, for those characters who allow for it, diversity offers nearly automatic value within the “Wicked” story. Friendships (and more) between the very different prove profoundly valuable.

As an extension of this diversity, just as Millennials have a “team mentality,” in “Wicked” teamwork is always option one – “Dreams the way we planned ’em / If we work in tandem…”; characters only “fly solo” when the situation demands it. Impact-by-association is assumed and appreciated, regardless of actual benefits: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? / But because I knew you / I have been changed for good.”

2. Authority not rejected – but not automatic

Like our newest generation, the leads in “Wicked” do not immediately reject the establishment, and they truly desire to hear from, learn from, and follow leaders. At the same time, a deep disillusionment arises as many of those leaders, like the Wizard, are far from transparent. (And yet when transparency is taken up, much can possibly be forgiven.) These feelings certainly extend to family, which, for good or wicked, deeply matters to these characters. All this reflects today’s generational shift – though slight – from Gen X’s pure cynicism toward authority.

But with so many “unqualified” or “uninteresting” leaders afoot, authority is certainly not automatic. The characters in “Wicked” pick & choose their leaders (perhaps sometimes better understood as “guides”) – and feel no need for loyalty when transparency is lacking or moral failure is clear. In the end, participation in the Emerald City establishment “works” for some, others simply profit from its advantages, and still others choose to work outside the system altogether.

3. Morality present but often ambiguous

There certainly is a morality to “Wicked”; it simply is not as clean-cut as that of “The Wizard of Oz.” For one thing, the very nature of this “revisionist” story hints that labels may not reveal the truth. “They call me wonderful / So I am wonderful,” sings the Wizard… and yet the generation reflected in “Wicked” isn’t as quick to buy it – or they’re quick to disregard the facade when it proves as such. So a “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” can turn out to be the villain of the story, while a “Wicked Witch” can turn out to be the (anti-)hero. Even the story itself is not a “fairy tale” but a sort of “anti-fairy-tale,” with little in the way of ultimate vindication, among other things.

Thus ambiguity does reign, but not exactly in the classic “post-modern” way; again, there are values. In the end, however, the two witches can choose very different paths, both proving to be “good” and yet far from perfect.

4. Optimism and Action

Where “Generation X” let these moral ambiguities lead quickly to pessimism, today’s generation has a shocking optimism. Likewise, Elphaba has no doubt she can – and will – change the entire land of Oz.

But going even one step further, she feels compelled to fight the fight of social justice when injustices arise. Here, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” is soundly rejected (it’s called “dancing through life” in the musical, “because dust is what we come to”). Instead, there are larger things to pursue – and a die-hard hope for real, substantial change. In “Wicked,” this optimism only fades – and that only briefly – after facing the worst possible assailings.

There is here – among the characters but also in their creators – a clear hope for a “happy ending,” even if we will find those days a bit ambiguous, too. “‘Cause getting your dreams / It’s strange, but it seems / A little – well – complicated.”

5. And it all happens in college…

That’s right, there’s all this to “Wicked” – and all begins in the collegiate environment. New friends are made, new ideas are explored, causes are decided, personal purpose is found (even in “a weird quirk I’ve tried / To suppress or hide”), horizons are broadened, arrogance is tempered, romance is found or flounders, disillusionments arise – all at “Dear Old Shiz.” The Shiz University professors, for good or for wicked, change everything in this story – but so do roommate assignments…

Sounds like… real life, real college, real need for strategic impact.

I do believe this musical reflects much about this generation, for good and for wicked. I also believe that this show powerfully reflects the distinct importance of the collegiate experience. If this is indeed the chance and the field before us, there is much to be said for helping each person to “defy gravity” and, simply, to “make good” on the good story God has scripted.

3 Comments

  1. Jake & Lesley

    Ben, that was really insightful and an interesting look at Wicked. I appreciate your focus and follow through on your calling, even in “media” as you said.

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