Before Queen Elsa's blizzard tore through Arendelle, the voice behind the icy blonde tore through Oz's Western sky. I was 12 years old the first time I experienced Idina Menzel's powerhouse voice. I sat speechless inside New York City's Gershwin Theater, bewitched by a green-skinned woman I had never heard of propelling herself into the air through the sheer power of song. My mouth literally fell open as Menzel suddenly lifted from the ground and held her broomstick out in front of her like a scepter symbolizing her newfound freedom. "No one mourns the wicked," the townspeople screamed below her.
I couldn't blink as Menzel soared above the stage and belted out over the audience in a kind of voice I didn't know existed. It was high, deep, soft and rough at the same time. It was raspy, yet it also sounded smooth as ice. In one song, Menzel could make you feel weak, powerful, restrained and free.
I have seen Wicked six more times since that night, but no Elphaba has ever compared to the soul and power that Menzel thrust into the show's not-so-wicked witch. I followed Menzel's career ever since she enchanted me as part of Wicked's original cast, and with the release of Frozen, I am happy that the world has finally recognized a talent the Broadway community has relished for years.
The first time I saw Frozen and heard Elsa's sweeping reclamation of independence, I immediately thought of Elphaba. I don't know if I would have made an instant connection if it had not been sung with that same resilient voice, but knowing Wicked as I do, it is impossible to ignore the soul of Elphaba resounding through the kingdom of Arendelle, permeating Elsa's words and actions.
Both Elsa and Elphaba -- who even have uncannily similar names -- start their stories as misunderstood daughters who must learn to control the strange, magical powers with which they were born. Menzel's characters both learn to withhold the most significant and unique pieces of who they are. While Elphaba's green skin makes her uniqueness more difficult to hide, both girls are subject to the same social and political isolation.
In both stories, the girls' powers gain strength through emotional distress, and the more each girl represses her magic, the stronger it becomes. They are misconstrued as wicked and each resorts to self-banishment as a means to avoid ridicule and pain. In the end, the only way each character can find happiness is by learning to love her true self and accepting her special traits as gifts rather than curses. Elsa and Elphaba come to symbolize the need for each of us to embrace our individuality.
Both Frozen and Wicked are also centered on the power of female friendship. In Wicked, the competing love that Elphaba and Glinda feel for the school heartthrob, Fiyero, is no match for the strength of their friendship. While male-female love is a factor in the story, the real love story is between the two best friends, who learn to appreciate one another's differences and use their varied strengths to help one another.
Similarly, Frozen's true love story is of the love between sisters. The entire second half of the film is devoted to thawing Anna's freezing heart through an act of true love. Everyone assumes that true love's kiss will seal the deal, but ultimately, it is Anna's heroic act to risk her own life to save her sister that softens her insides. While Anna does fall in love with a man, the film focuses on her relationship to Elsa in two fundamental ways: 1. Anna's desperation to reclaim the closeness she once had with her sister, never giving up no matter how strongly Elsa pushes her away and 2. Elsa's selfless act of hiding her powers, and thus herself, to protect Anna's life. Only through the love that these sisters feel for one another can Elsa finally discover how to control her magic and use it for good.
The climactic moment in each story comes when the heroine finally decides to embrace who she is even if it means being an outcast in her community. Menzel takes back her freedom through the liberated ballads of each girl, one who chooses to defy gravity and another who lets it go. The songs communicate almost identical messages. Check out a few of these parallel lines:
Elsa: It's time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.
Elphaba: I'm through accepting limits, 'cause someone says they're so. Some things I cannot change, but 'til I try I'll never know.
Elsa: Let it go, let it go, I am one with the wind and sky.
Elphaba: So if you care to find me, look to the western sky.
Elsa: A kingdom of isolation...no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I'm free.
Elphaba: And if I'm flying solo, at least I'm flying free.
Elsa: It's funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all.
Elphaba: Too long I've been afraid of losing love I guess I've lost. Well if that's love, it comes at much to high a cost.
Elsa: Let it go, let it go, and I'll rise like the break of dawn.
Elphaba: Kiss me goodbye, I'm defying gravity, and you can't pull me down.
I know I am not the only one who has noticed the Wicked-Frozen connection, but something about Menzel playing both parts has stuck with me on a greater level than simple comparison. It is beyond typecasting. Perhaps there is a total essence that only Menzel's voice can bring to characters like Elsa and Elphaba. Characters who stand out, after all, also deserve voices that do.
There is, however, one very important difference between Frozen and Wicked, and that is the endings. In the Wicked finale, Elphaba must fake her own death to prevent the villagers from killing her, and, after a tear-jerking farewell duet with Glinda, she goes into hiding, presumably for the rest of her life. While Fiyero joins her in eternal solitude, Elphaba is still forced to give up everything. Elsa, on the other hand, is able to prove her innate goodness and returns to her kingdom as queen, living happily ever after with her sister by her side.
These stories were released 10 years apart, and I can't help but view them as one continuous narrative. Whether or not the Frozen writers had Wicked in mind when creating the script, choosing Menzel to play Elsa has caused Elphaba and the snow queen to become intimately linked. To me, Elsa is a reincarnation of Elphaba, returned to life in another body and another land, but with that same, tortured soul yearning to break free.
Through Elsa, this soul is given another chance to get it right, and this time, instead of spending the rest of her life in solitude, Elsa finds a way to show the people of her kingdom that she can use her powers for good. Elsa becomes Elphaba's second chance at redemption and finding the community she deserves. Finally, after ten years of fighting for it, Menzel's tortured character found a way to be herself and also be loved by others.
I listened to Wicked on repeat for about five years straight, and these days I have had Frozen playing on my iPod over and over, in my car, in the shower, while I'm cleaning, on my run, and anywhere else that does not require silence. Every time I scream "Let It Go" alongside Menzel, I think of my 12-year-old self, poised on my bed with my arms in the air, declaring to my imaginary audience how I was flying high, defying gravity. But even through all the inspiration, I always felt a little sad when I remembered that Elphaba's decision to let her storm rage on led to everlasting isolation.
Elphaba's link to Elsa shows us that you can always find a way to maintain your individuality without giving up everything else -- even if it takes a decade to figure out how to do it. Elphaba never gave up on her beliefs. Like Elsa, she let it all go and didn't let the cold, judgmental hearts of her community stop her from feeling free. Now I know that choosing to do so did not sentence her to loneliness forever. Through Elsa, Menzel finally set Elphaba free, and I want to thank her for taking on the Frozen role and showing her longtime fans that it is possible to both be loved for simply being ourselves. I want to thank her on behalf of all of us who have waited 10 years to see a happy ending to Elphaba's story.
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