Alyssa Fox singing “Defying Gravity” in the Tiny Desk Concert. Photo:NPR
A Louisville Theatre Artist On Their Relationship To Wicked
By Allie Fireel.
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Allie Fireel. All rights reserved.
Yesterday, I was sitting outside the downtown building where I teach theatre at Jefferson Community and Technical College. Idly scrolling while I took a moment post-class to wind down, I saw Louisville Public Media’s post about this Tiny Desk performance from Wicked. The article noted that the musical has been out for 20 years.
Jesus. 20 years. Some music is bound by time and place in my head. Often I will intensely love a song or album, but because of when and where I loved it, I will almost completely cease listening to it when that time and place is gone. Like Bush’s Sixteen Stone, Nirvana’s Unplugged album, Gaga’s The Fame.
Wicked is sort of like that. When I borrowed the CD in 2004 and recorded it onto a cassette, I was living in Fairborn, Ohio, a small conservative town outside of Dayton, that was struggling with poverty and drug addiction. George Bush was in office, and America was about to re-elect him, even though we already knew for sure that the horrendous war in Iraq was being fought for entirely fictitious reasons. The country was settling into the post-9/11 New Normal, and it was ugly. I was 24 years old.
My roommate and I (I’ll call him S to protect the innocent) were both deep in the throes of alcoholism and addiction. I was self-harming, and we were both struggling with suicidal ideation. We lived in a world we didn’t want, that we were sure didn’t want us, and we were almost completely devoid of hope for anything better. So Elphaba’s rejection of the world she was given, and her contempt for the powers that be, struck a deep chord.
I so specifically remember how S’s face looked exactly the same every time he sang along, belting out the four syllables of wordless defiance that are the finale notes in “Defying Gravity”. You know the ones. You can probably hear them right now. Perfectly wordless, because words could not express the loathing and anger we felt for everything, including ourselves.
The only job I ever walked out on, and I cringe so hard even writing this down, was my job washing dishes at Frisches. I don’t cringe over working there, and I don’t cringe for quitting mid-shift, and I don’t cringe because the phrase “washing dishes at Frisches” rhymes with itself. I cringe at this one particular moment. I was a great employee, never late, never missed a shift. But I was still so clearly, visibly in constant emotional crisis that sometimes my coworkers would walk by the dish tank and feed me drugs. “You look bad today, you need a Klonopin?” (The answer was always yes). But like- they were offering me drugs in a kind and loving way. I think they honestly, really cared about me. When I handed my manager my apron, put my cassette-dubbed copy of Wicked into my Walkman, and walked out, I said, “I just can’t wash another dish.” Somebody called S, told him I walked out, and asked him to look for me. I guess they thought I was in serious danger of hurting myself in some permanent way.
But that day I wasn’t in serious danger. I was just walking home, feeling free, feeling like somehow quitting my dead-end job meant my life could change into something better than it was. And this is the part that makes me cringe- when my roommate found me, which he did by simply driving slowly along my normal route home, I was spinning around in a field by the road, my arms honest-to-god, Sound-of-Music-style threw wide, listening to “Defying Gravity”. And I don’t cringe because it was goofy as fuck. I cringe because I was so deluded: I quit my job, and of course, nothing changed.
I listen to songs–and I think a lot of people do this so I’m going to say “we,” we listen to songs–and think, “This is me, this is like me, this is what I do,” even though the opposite is often true. When I was entranced by Wicked, by Elphaba’s strength, Stephen Schwartz’s music, and Idina Menzel’s voice, when I said to myself, “This is like me, I’m like Elphaba, I’m strong, and brave,” I was weaker, shakier, and in more danger than I have perhaps ever been at any other time in my life. But I wanted to be strong. I wanted my anger my rage and all my ugly feelings about the world I had been handed to mean something. I cringe at this sentence but it’s too true to leave out: I wanted to fly.
I don’t talk much about the events that led me to leave Fairborn and come back to Louisville. And I won’t now. Partly because the bad stuff isn’t my story to tell, and partly because it still hurts a lot whenever I dive into those memories. But when I finally ran away from Fairborn, Ohio, I left Wicked there. Not the physical copy, and not my emotional issues and alcoholism. I left my obsession with Wicked there. I don’t ever listen to it, I don’t go see it when the tour comes through town, I don’t have a t-shirt, and I didn’t even know it was here in Louisville this week until I looked it up. I don’t ignore Wicked on purpose. I just kind of have a blank space where feelings about that musical would be.
None of this was in my mind yesterday when I hit play on that Tiny Desk concert video. The first chords of “Defying Gravity” hit. I blandly thought “I can’t remember the last time I listened to this.” It’s a great song. Then it all came rushing in, all those memories. Music is like that.
And I can’t help but think about what was wrong with the world then, and compare it to what’s wrong with the world now. And how it’s all different, but of course all the same. I know I’m different. I’m sober. I haven’t self-harmed in a long time. And with only a little imposter syndrome peaking out I can say that I do little brave things all the time. I wouldn’t say that I’m now “like Elphaba,” but I know I’m much stronger than I was then, even though it often doesn’t feel like I am. And right now, in my mind, I can perfectly see my roommate’s face as he sings along with the worldless defiance in the four final notes of “Defying Gravity”. You know the ones. You can probably hear them right now.
September 20 – October 8, 2023
Part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville series
Whitney Hall at Kentucky Performing Arts
501 W Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Allie Fireel is a bi-polar non-binary queer, creator, critic, and cultural community organizer working in the greater Louisville area who just earned an MFA in Theatre from the University of Louisville. Their plays have been produced by multiple Louisville based companies including Theatre , Looking for Lillith, Finnegan Productions, and The Derby City Playwrights, Suspend Productions, and others. They are also the co-founder and artistic director of the Louisville Fringe Festival, and a member of the 2019 Hadley Creatives co-hort. As Buster Fireel, they dabble in burlesque, both as a dancer and an MC. As Kerry the Killer Lawrence, they provide commentary and drama for Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling