a Wicked generation

Wicked Musical

Last week, I had the opportunity to see the musical “Wicked” once again, on opening night of its Dallas Summer Musicals run. My first opportunity to see this “best musical of the decade” came three years ago, also in Dallas; the second came early in the yearlong road trip in Chicago.

I do listen to the soundtrack on occasion as I roam about the country. But finally seeing the show again reminded me how clearly this musical “shouts some themes, concerns, and reflections that I think touch directly (and powerfully) on Collegiate Ministry.” (Those are the words I wrote after that second visit to “Wicked,” long before most of you were reading this blog.)

The show is on a two-year tour all over the U.S. – in fact, it’s on two simultaneous tours through 2011 (and apparently has permanent runs in NYC and San Fran)! So I wanted to update my original post from September 2007 and look again at this show through “college ministry lenses” (without ruining the story, of course).

It’s clear “Wicked” has a Millennial sensibility about it, revealed in what the show itself proclaims as reality, as “good” and “wicked,” and as truth. If you have the opportunity to see the show, it’s not simply highly entertaining – it’s a chance to reflect on the values, circumstances, and hopes of the generation we serve.

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If you’re completely unfamiliar with this musical, “Wicked” serves as a parallel tale to “The Wizard of Oz” (the movie). It highlights the supposedly “untold” story of the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba) and Glinda the Good Witch. We view their early days at college together, all the way through the timeline of “The Wizard of Oz,” and even a little beyond.

(If you do see the musical, I highly suggest watching “The Wizard of Oz” first, even if you’re familiar with it already. You’ll appreciate the connections and timeline within “Wicked” much more.)

And now, five ways we are indeed serving a “Wicked” generation:

1. Diversity valued and commonplace

With munchkins, animals, witches, and humans all side-by-side, the world of “Wicked” is certainly not lacking in diversity. And it is along these lines – beginning with others’ 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 shown as evil. Meanwhile, time spent with the most unlike ourselves offers great opportunity: “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 the generation we serve, the leads in “Wicked” do not immediately reject the establishment, and they truly desire to hear from, learn from, and follow leaders. These deep feelings certainly extend to family, which, for good or wicked, deeply matters to these characters.

While these characters may start by trusting authority, disillusionment quickly arises if (and when) those leaders prove not to be transparent or worthy. Doubting the system – but not with the utter cynicism exemplified by Gen X – proves wisest in this world. In the end, participation in the Emerald City establishment does “work” for some individuals, while others make their way outside the system.

3. Morality present but often ambiguous

This is perhaps the most obvious and most central Millennial characteristic of this show. There certainly is a morality to “Wicked,” but you’ll never find it as clean-cut as that of “The Wizard of Oz.” White gowns, black hats, and “wonderful” labels don’t mean everything (or anything?).

“They call me wonderful / So I am wonderful,” sings the Wizard… but we in the audience aren’t supposed to buy it. This explicit denunciation of labels-equaling-value runs throughout the show. Even the story itself is not a “fairy tale” but a sort of “anti-fairy-tale”; it turns out that “getting your dreams / It’s strange, but it seems / A little – well – complicated.”

Again, a backdrop of values is present – but it’s quite hazy… just like our Millennials deal with everyday. If you do get to see the musical, pay attention to all the turns on the word “good” (and other value-words). It’s dizzying and brilliant.

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 from the first moment someone believes in her.

But even after harsh reality darkens this first optimism, she doesn’t wither but fights. And, interestingly enough for us in college ministry, it’s a Social Justice fight.

Of course, the naïve may pursue simply “dancing through life … because dust is what we come to,” but we (and they) soon learn that this laissez-faire mentality doesn’t suffice. Certainly, such a life may mean less pain, but it also means less good. So it’s necessary to “try defying [the] gravity” of one’s own situation and keep striving to save the world.

5. And it all happens in college…

Not only is “Wicked” extremely Millennial in tone, but huge turns in the plot take place in college. There, new friends are made, new ideas are explored, causes are decided, horizons are broadened, arrogance is tempered, romance is found (or flounders), disillusionments arise, and personal purpose is found in the very thing once considered a burden, “a weird quirk I’ve tried / To suppress or hide.”

All this and more occurs at “Dear Old Shiz.” The Shiz University experience – its faculty, its opportunity, even its roommate assignments – provides the hinge moment for our characters.

Not unlike the students we serve.

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5 Comments

  1. great post benson.

    am a big fan of wicked, although have yet to see it.

    you have me thinking about number 2–nearly all (90%) of my 20 student leaders at chico have explicitly told me (because i asked them) that they started out distrusting our ministry and my leadership until they got to know me.

    this wasn’t like a 60/40 thing but a 95/5 thing in terms of distrust vs trust.

    my favorite story is our most solid and mature guy leader (who just graduated and is interning w our ministry) did not want to meet w me because in his words “i don’t want to meet w an old guy that i don’t know”–even though his sister had a tremendously positive experience with CCC in college, and was interning w us overseas in Spain!

    i know there are analogies that prove both sides but i’m wondering if any other campus ministers experience the same thing about working extremely hard to gain trust at the outset.

  2. That’s really interesting – have you found ways to “grease the wheels” on establishing trust?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s common, although I would also wonder if the college ministries that have a more obvious “plan” might feel this “backlash” a little more. Obviously, I’d encourage the planned, systematic thing. But students seem a little loathe to put down roots – anywhere – and ministries that ask them to do that a little more might have a little harder time with the trust issue – although in the long run, I bet those same ministries have an easier time with loyalty. Interesting dynamic.

    You need to go down to San Fran and see Wicked. I’m not sure if “being a big fan of it” means you’ve read the book, but I would warn you that it’s apparently much different (and much cheerier – interesting Gen X vs. Millennial deal there, from what I can tell). I won’t read the book, ’cause I don’t want it to ruin the musical for me. :)

  3. yep i have read the book but i’m not one of those who get bothered by the differences.

    and i’m now officially in the mid-west! ohio for the summer, indy for the fall provided our support comes in.

    good point on the obvious agendas that a college ministry brings–that’s definitely a part of it.

    even though many students know of campus crusade it can still get the shady vibe because we’re not a church.

  4. Wasn’t sure when that switcheroo was happening. Congratulations. In that case, it sounds like a wonderful post-Fall Semester and/or New Year’s activity in Indy. :) If you do, I really would love to hear your analysis of the differences in the musical and book.

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