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How Does ‘Wicked’ Exist Within The ‘Glee’ Universe? A Cursed Cultural Investigation

January 26, 2021 by Tina Wargo
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Idina Menzel and Lea Michele on ‘Glee’

With the introduction of Glee into the zeitgeist over 10 years behind us, it’s high time to start asking (and, hopefully, answering) some burning, deeply important questions about its fictional universe.

In case you haven’t heard, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. For over ten months, the majority of us have been stuck inside with nothing to do but panic-shop, stress-eat, and manically binge-watch whatever we’ve been meaning to cross off our lists. For some, that means catching up on Game of Thrones or finally getting around to The Sopranos or diving back into their obsession with The Crown the moment the new season dropped. For me, a noted Ryan Murphy stan and purveyor of camp-based entertainment experiences, it meant finally contending with my white whale of content consumption. It meant sitting down to finish Glee.

Like any other good little musical-theater-obsessed tot (read: 17-year-old), I watched Glee religiously when it first premiered, which somehow was in 2009 and not 3 years ago but also 200 decades ago. I have vivid memories of frantically running to my family’s shared computer to download each episode’s setlist immediately after the smash cut to black following that week’s inevitably emotional finale. I had a Glee poster in my freshman dorm. I have never once been in a car when the AUX cord was in the control of a man age 23-45 without saying, involuntarily, “They did this on Glee!” after every song he played.

And yet, despite crying through the eventual concert movie and begging my friends to duet “Poker Face — Glee Cast Version” with me every karaoke night, I fell off the Gleek train at some point between season 2 and season 7 or 8 or 47 or whenever it ended. I’ve heard about what happens. It is so unbelievable to me — a woman who has seen every single thing Ryan Murphy has ever touched — that I knew I had to see it for myself. And thus began my journey back to Limo, Ohio.

Everything was going swimmingly. I had already seen the first season no fewer than five times, so not only was it easy listening, but it was a real reminder of how unique, iconic, boundary-pushing, and slightly deranged this show was in its heyday. The songs were electric, the comedy was fresh, the tragedy was biting, and the guest stars were out of this world. Olivia Newton-John? Jonathan Groff? Molly Shannon? And that’s where it all started.

When Kristin Chenoweth appears in episode 5, I thought, “Oh, right! Perfect! Who could forget April Rhodes, the now-alcoholic but one-time-glee-club-star who seduces Will but teaches the Glee kids a thing or two about talent?!” Then, a few weeks later into my viewing journey, Idina Menzel shows up. “Oh yeah!” said I. “Rachel’s MOM! LOL! She has some great numbers here, despite playing a slightly sad-sack high school glee club coach. It’s impossible to believe that any teenager of any gender would encounter this woman as a teacher and be expected not to become completely obsessed with how afraid/in love they are with her. Cool!”

Several more weeks went by. Kristin Chenoweth’s season 1 arc had come and gone, Idina was on her way out, and I was feeling pretty good about making it all the way to season 2. Almost done! Kind of!

But then tragedy struck. In one quick lightning bolt of a moment, while I was watching arguably the show’s most gloriously arranged cover— a duet of “Poker Face” between Lea Michele and Idina— I said out loud, “It’s so funny that Rachel doesn’t even know about Wicked in this universe.” And then I remembered.

Not only does Rachel Berry know about Wicked. Oh, no. There’s an entire episode dedicated to an impending diva-off that would see Rachel and Kurt Hummel battling each other in song to vie for a coveted Sectionals solo. The song, you ask? “Defying Gravity.” Ever heard of it??

This is when my spiral got out of control. If Kristin-Chenoweth-as-April-Rhodes appears before and interacts with the Glee kids in episode 5, then they all sing “Defying Gravity” in episode 9, then Idina Menzel-as-Shelby-Corcoran appears in episode 14, who are we to believe the Glee kids think originated the roles of Glinda and Elphaba? Or perhaps the more accurate question is who did originate the roles of Glinda and Elphaba in the Glee universe? Who won the Best Actress Tony that year? Who’s on the cast recording? And furthermore, why isn’t every single kid at McKinley High like, “OH MY GOD YOU LOOK EXACTLY LIKE KRISTIN CHENOWETH/IDINA MENZEL!” the moment they lay their nerdy lil theater kid eyes upon the respective women? Of all that has happened on Glee, my friends, this discrepancy is the most unforgivable oversight.

But that’s not where it ends. Oh, no no no. There’s more. Let’s say we’re willing to forgive this simultaneous merging of/erasure of fictional universes (which I am not, clearly). In episode 16, April Rhodes returns to announce that she’s gotten sober and is headed to New York to launch the first all-white production of The Wiz (which is…I can’t even begin to go into the racial politics of Glee, but let’s all just agree that it is categorically Bad™).

After her announcement, she brings down the house with her rendition of “Home,” at which point, my mind shot right into outer space and has since taken up permanent residence there. What we’re looking at, folks, is a bunch of theater-obsessed teenagers who love and have trained tirelessly to sing songs like, ohhh, I don’t know, “Defying Gravity” and who are now watching a woman who looks and sounds exactly like Kristin Chenoweth sing a song from another The Wizard Of Oz-reimagining. And none of them say a thing.

How am I to move on from this? How can I ever purge from my brain this cursed information, or perhaps more importantly, how do I conclusively stop my brain from caring about this and turning it into a curse upon myself? There’s no answer. Just like the Glee kids have to learn to accept their place within the social hierarchy of their high school in every episode until season 3 even though they are living their dreams of being performers and every time they perform in front of the school with the exception of the very first time, everyone cheers and screams and loves them, I must learn to stop trying to make this show make any sense at all. Its legacy is not its logicality. It is its theatricality.

And THAT’s what you missed on Glee.