Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2004, Volume 24, No. 2
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


"Wicked" gives disability an evil name

"Wicked" opened Oct. 30, 2003, Gershwin Theatre, NY, NY. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Winnie Holzman, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. Starring: Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda), Idina Menzel (Elphaba), Joel Grey (The Wizard), Carole Shelly (Madame Morrible), Norbert Leo Butz (Fiyero) Directed by Joe Mantello.

Reviewed (Feb. 11, 2004) by Beth Haller, Towson University.

Fabulous performances. Stunning sets. Breathtaking costumes and even decent music and songs (although not as memorable as most Broadway shows). But the musical "Wicked" doesn't get disability right.

Ironically, the musical's theme is all about the social construction and labeling of people. For one character of a different color, the topic is masterfully handled, but for another with a disability, it sinks into negative stereotypes.

The story travels into the world of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Its tale is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, both book and movie, and is based on the 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire of the same name. It follows the life of the Wicked Witch, Elphaba (played by Idina Menzel), who is born green. Her greenness is a huge disappointment to her father, the governor of Munchkinland, who treats her badly from then on. For her color, she is shunned and mistreated.

However, she is far from "wicked." She is actually a kind and caring person with high intelligence and great magical powers. Elphaba especially loves her younger sister, Nessarose, played by Michelle Federer, who is the apple of their father's eye because she isn't green. But she does use a wheelchair. Elphaba harbors no resentment toward Nessarose but does feel guilty about her sister's disability, believing that her greenness caused their mother to drink a potion while pregnant with Nessarose so the new baby would not be green. The dread of greenness gave Nessarose her disability and their mother died in childbirth.

Elphaba and Nessarose make the journey to college together, so Elphaba can help her sister. In the land of Oz, this isn't just any college but one for magic. Although everyone else glows from the sheen of being in a fantasyland, Nessarose uses a wheelchair straight from the 19th century. Think Colin in The Secret Garden—an old, oversized wooden wheelchair with huge metal wheels. My first thought was "with all this magic flying around, why does disability—in such an ancient characterization—exist at all." I was to get my answer in Act II.

Glinda (the future "good" witch) plays the foil to Elphaba's serious, outspoken, and intelligent character. A vapid, shallow blonde, she puts the most importance on being popular. Kristin Chenoweth really sparkles as a kind of magical "homecoming queen." She plays it with just the right finesse so her shallowness comes off as loveable. Glinda and Elphaba are thrown together as roommates because Nessarose wants to be independent and learn to survive without her sister. It's too bad the show didn't make more of this; it could have turned into a wonderful message about independent living. But unfortunately, Nessarose devolved into a group of stereotypes.

Elphaba, however, becomes the agent of the musical's message of tolerance. Even shallow Glinda sees beyond the green to Elphaba's true goodness, and she plays a pivotal role in helping Elphaba understand that Nessarose's disability is not her fault. Elphaba speaks up against intolerance when Oz gradually robs all animals of their speech and cages them. When her great magical powers are revealed as she frees a lion cub (who grows up to be—guess who—the cowardly lion), she's off to see the Wizard (played by Joel Grey). Glinda goes along in support of her friend. However, the Wizard is up to no good and wants to use Elphaba's powers to further enslave animals. He tricks her and she rebels. Then the PR campaign is underway to redefine Elphaba as "wicked." Glinda stays behind and becomes the toast of Oz. Unfortunately in her eagerness to be popular in Oz, she betrays Elphaba by telling the Wizard about her love for her sister. All they must do is put her sister in danger and Elphaba can be found.

Nessarose has become the new governor of Munchkinland. She has traded in her old wheelchair for a regal one of red satin and gold, and she has lost her sweetness from the college years. She has become manipulative and cruel, bordering on wicked. And when Elphaba helps her, Nessarose does become powerfully wicked. This scene near the beginning of Act II embraces many stereotypes typically embedded into fiction with disabled characters, i.e. disability equals evil. Nessarose has enslaved a former "boyfriend," Boq, as her servant, while living in denial that he cares for her. In fact, he only asked her out because of his love for Glinda, who asked him to.

Nessarose's first request when she learns of Elphaba's magnificent magical powers is to ask for a "cure" for her disability. Elphaba tells her magic doesn't work like that but wants to help so enchants her ruby slippers, which allow Nessarose to walk. The most disturbing part of the "cure" was the audience response. When Nessarose took her first steps, most of the audience (a matinee performance filled with high school groups) gave a hearty round of applause. The audience members' reaction to Nessarose's "cure" seemed to convey their belief in an underlying ableist message that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed. The added factor that so many of the audience members were teenagers disheartened me about how many young people's attitudes are just as antiquated as their elders.

But once she is ambulatory Nessarose becomes even more wicked. When Boq sees her walk, he tries to leave because she no longer needs assistance. In her fury, Nessarose casts a spell on him, which begins to shrink his heart. Elphaba comes to the rescue to save him and turns him into someone who doesn't need a heart—the tin man.

Numerous scholars (Klobas, 1988; Hahn, 1988; Longmore, 1987; Zola, 1987; Bogdan, Biklen, Shapiro, & Spelkoman,1982; Fiedler, 1976) have identified the use of people with disabilities as villains and victims in fiction and mass media representations. Nessarose is just one of a huge number of stereotypical disabled characters. In "Wicked," disability equals evil once again, and the "punishment" for disability is death, as when the house falls on Nessarose and kills her. (She became the Wicked Witch of the East due to her sister's infamy as the western witch.) As Longmore explained in 1987: "Among the most persistent is the association of disability with malevolence. Deformity of body symbolizes deformity of soul. Physical handicaps are made the emblems of evil."

It's ironic that a musical whose theme is social construction labels people with disabilities in some of the worst ways. For all the forward movement of disability rights in America, a top Broadway musical in 2004 still perpetuating the same old negative images of people with disabilities doesn't bode well for how far we have come in popular representations. Images have incredible power, and daily, audiences at the Gershwin Theatre are asked to embrace wicked representations of people with disabilities.


Bogdan, R., Biklen, D., Shapiro, A. and Spelkoman, D. (1982). The disabled: Media's monster. Social Policy, 13, 32-35.

Bogdan, R. & Biklen, D. (1977). Handicapism. Social Policy, 7, 14-19.

Fiedler, L. (1976). Freaks. Myths and images of the secret self. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hahn, H. (1988). The politics of physical differentness: Disability and discrimination. Journal of Social Issues, 44:1, pp. 39-47.

Klobas, L.E. (1988). Disability Drama in Television and Film. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company.

Longmore, P. K. (1987). Screening stereotypes: Images of disabled people in television and motion pictures. In A. Gartner and T. Joe (Eds.), Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images. (pp. 65-78). New York: Praeger.

Zola, I.K. (1987). Any distinguishing features? The portrayal of disability in the crime-mystery genre. Policy Studies Journal, 15:3, 485-513.