Wamego #73 June 3, 2016
MEET ME IN ST. LOU-OZ!:
ANOTHER OP’NIN! AN OZZY SHOW!
[Above: That vast expanse shows the spread of the stage and a portion of the eleven-thousand-seat audience capacity of The Muny Theatre in St. Louis. Since 1942, they’ve offered eleven different productions of a “live” version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, featuring all the beloved songs from the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture. This month, they mount OZ for the twelfth time – on a scale that has to (and should!) be seen to be believed.]
In 1901 -- a year after he first published THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ -- L. Frank Baum himself wrote the first prospective stage adaptation of his successful children’s book. But THE WIZARD OF OZ didn’t reach the stage until June 1902, and by that time, director Julian Mitchell and producer Fred Hamlin had reworked and reconfigured Baum’s simple fantasy into a madcap combination of extravaganza, comic opera, and vaudeville. There were new characters, wild subplots, and songs by a half-dozen different composers and lyricists. Dorothy appeared as a young woman who travels to Oz with her pet cow, Imogene. The Oz poet laureate – Sir Dashemoff Daily – immediately falls in love with her. (With Dorothy; not the cow.) Pastoria, the ex-king of Oz who’s been working as a Topeka streetcar conductor, is blown back to the Munchkin Country by the same cyclone that transported Dorothy, and he’s traveling with his buxom, ever-hungry, and ever-saucy girlfriend, Trixie Tryfle. Meanwhile, there’s ongoing political rivalry for the throne of the magic kingdom, involving Pastoria, the Wizard, and Sir Wiley Gyle. The poppy field, as played by a phalanx of beautiful girls in flower costumes, enchants Dorothy and her companions; even with all the foregoing action, she’s found time to meet a Scarecrow, Tin Man, and (briefly) Lion. They’re quickly saved by the Good Witch, who summons frost and a snow storm to nullify the power of the posies.
And that was just Act One.
Of three acts.
Yet for all its remodeling, the Mitchell version of THE WIZARD OF OZ was a phenomenon of the early- twentieth-century American musical stage: a recurring triumph on Broadway (to which it periodically returned from the road) and the basis for two national touring companies. OZ crisscrossed North America for seven seasons before finally leaving the boards in spring 1909; thereafter, it was taken up by several stock and regional theaters.
Other adaptations followed, most notably a non-musical, Junior League Play script by Elizabeth Fuller Goodspeed (1928), which reembraced Baum’s basic story and proved perfect for performance by community and children’s theaters across many years. For twenty-six weeks in 1933-1934, Jell-O sponsored a thrice-weekly, fifteen-minute radio program over NBC, which retold several of Baum’s Oz books – including THE WIZARD -- for that medium.
[Above left: A poster for the second national company of THE WIZARD OF OZ, circa 1906. The fame of the musical – and that of its original break-out stars, Fred A. Stone and David C. Montgomery (who played The Scarecrow and Tin Man) – was such that the show could tour with a substitute cast and still dazzle the environs. Right: Twelve-year-old Nancy Kelly voiced Dorothy for the Jell-O/NBC radio series, where she was joined by such stalwarts – early on in their careers -- as Agnes Moorehead (later Endora on BEWITCHED), Parker Fennelly (later Titus Moody on Fred Allen’s radio show, as well as the Pepperidge Farm spokesman on TV commercials), Ian Wolfe (the pastor in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and Mr. Neely of Disney’s POLLYANNA, among countless other roles), and announcer Ben Grauer. Kelly herself, however, made the quantum leap, gaining Broadway and Hollywood immortality as suicidal mother Christine Penmark, both onstage and in the film adaptation of THE BAD SEED.]
But it took Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Judy Garland, composer Harold Arlen, lyricist E. Y. Harburg, orchestrator Herbert Stothart and his staff, multiple scenarists, and almost countless creatives and technicians to produce the ultimate musical/theatrical treatment of THE WIZARD OF OZ. In the last seventy-seven years, nothing else has come close to equaling the power of that motion picture, its score, and its script. The majesty of MGM’s songs and underscoring was instantly acknowledged (Arlen, Harburg, and Stothart all won Academy Award “Oscars” for the film); “Over the Rainbow” was the greatest song hit of 1939.
And then: Enter The Muny – as pictured at the top of this week’s blog, and whose inception harks back nearly as far as the original Oz books and stage show themselves. After summer theatrical presentations in Forest Park in 1914 and 1916, the St. Louis mayor, parks commissioner, an attorney, and other locals banded together in 1917 to create, on that site, “the first municipally-owned outdoor theater in the United States.” The first full bracket (of six different shows) was produced in 1919, and The Muny hasn’t missed a season since.
They first offered THE WIZARD OF OZ in the summer of ’42 (…), with a new script based on Baum’s story credited to Frank Gabrielson. Baum and his 1902 composer, Paul Tietjens, also received billing, but more notably, the program offers that “Music of Recent Screen Version of THE WIZARD OF OZ Interpolated Through Courtesy of Composers Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.” This made The Muny production the very first legitimate stage adaptation to include “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and etc.; according to MGM’s legal files, The Muny approached Metro for (and actually borrowed) the film’s Stothart (et al) orchestrations for those numbers.
The Muny’s musical OZ was such a success that they revived it just four years later – and then again in 1951, 1957, 1962, 1968, 1975, 1992, 1997, 2001, and 2006. Of special interest were the mountings of 1957, 1962, and 1975, when Margaret Hamilton recreated her MGM role as The Wicked Witch of the West. (She was joined by The Hudson Brothers, with Karen Wyman as Dorothy, in the last of these engagements; the 1968 Muny production starred Tom Poston and vocalist Lana Cantrell).
As such, it was The Muny that started a major trend, as the box office potential of a stage OZ with MGM songs was quickly noted by many other major stock and regional theaters. From the 1950s into the 1980s, audiences elsewhere in the country enjoyed (or at least saw) such stars as Dorothy Collins (bravo!), Connie Stevens, Andrea McArdle, or Cathy Rigby as Dorothy; Buddy Ebsen (at last playing his originally-assigned 1938 MGM role of The Scarecrow); Stubby Kaye as The Cowardly Lion; and Phyllis Diller or Nancy Kulp (“Miss Jane” Hathaway of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES) as The Wicked Witch.
All of those productions could boast the Arlen/Harburg songs. But it wasn’t until 1987 that London’s Royal Shakespeare Company chose to – in effect – “put the movie on the stage.” They entered an agreement with MGM to utilize the movie script itself, plus a goodly percentage of the by-then equally familiar Stothart underscoring. As a result, theater audiences finally got to experience the classic film come-to-life. The RSC version is now that most frequently produced (discounting the currently touring – and, in one man’s opinion, beyond-dismal – new Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation, with its hacked-about scenario and mediocre, additional original songs). Since the early 1990s, the RSC OZ has played both at full-length and in abbreviated stagings in scores of venues, occasionally top-lining such stars as Roseanne Barr, Liliane Montevecchi, Eartha Kitt, or Jo Anne Worley as Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West, and Eddie Bracken or Mickey Rooney as Professor Marvel/The Wizard. (Even after more than a year in those roles, Rooney’s grasp of dialogue could be dodgy; fellow cast members were ever on the alert to get the show back on track when Mickey sometimes playfully drifted from the script. There was nothing much anyone could do, however, on the classic occasion when -- as he prepared to balloon-off from the Emerald City -- Rooney’s Great & Powerful Oz declaimed that he was leaving Oz to be ruled “by the Scarecrow…! The Tin Man…! And... The Bear!”)
[Above left: An ad flyer for the 1992 New Jersey Paper Mill Playhouse production of the Royal Shakespeare adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ, which (mostly successfully) sought to recreate the MGM film “live, onstage.” Right: The logo for this month’s mammoth musical mounting of OZ at the St. Louis Muny; come one, come all -- it’s going to be well-worth the trip!]
So much for past history. It’s now my special pleasure to note that everything comes full circle once again this month, as The Muny offers their twelfth deluxe staging of OZ, every evening at 8:15 from Monday, June 13th through Wednesday, June 22nd. They’re using the complete Royal Shakespeare Company (i.e., MGM) script, songs, and underscoring, with full orchestra, a professional cast…and a glorious spectrum of color, costuming, sets, and special effects.
But there’s more! To celebrate the return of OZ to The Muny stage, artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson is going all out for what is being termed a preshow “Oztravaganza.” Six enormous banners will be on display in the theater entryways, their images detailing the history of Oz on the printed page, on film, on stage and television, and in pop culture. Display cases of decades of Oz memorabilia from the Jane Albright collection also will be on view.
And – in what is self-admittedly a boundless personal and professional joy – I’ve been asked to do a twenty-or-so-minute presentation, pre-show, each evening at 7:15, offering anecdotes about and illustrations of Oz, tracing its 116 years of magic. All of this (the Fricke talk, the banners, the memorabilia) falls under the happy heading, THE WONDERUL WORLD OF OZ, and The Muny has arranged for me to autograph copies of that book -- with its color photos of five hundred amazing items from the Willard Carroll/Tom Wilhite collection – as available at the theater’s souvenir stand.
So…! Please feel free to “Meet Me in St. Louis” -- and/or visit one of America’s most outstanding, historic, and splendid theaters as they (on a supernatural scale) take thousands of people each night over the rainbow, down the yellow brick road, and off to see the Wizard!
For tickets and further information:
One concluding – and most-welcome -- fact: For anyone on a budget, it can be happily noted that approximately fifteen-hundred seats, in the last nine rows of the theater, are free, every performance, and may be occupied on a first-come, first-served basis!
Article by John Fricke