Dorothy on Stage! - October Blog


Wamego # 148 October 2022




[Above: On the evening of Thursday, February 29, 1940, denizens of the film industry held their annual Academy Awards banquet/ceremony at Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel. As a feature of the entertainment, Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” which – on that occasion – also won for composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg the Oscar for the best original motion picture song of 1939. Just prior to her rendition, Judy received her own miniature statuette, honoring the seventeen-year-old’s screen work “as a juvenile” across the preceding year in two of 1939’s “Top Ten” grossing movies: THE WIZARD OF OZ and BABES IN ARMS. Mickey Rooney, her costar in three films to that date (and in seven more to come) made the presentation.]

We’re now beginning to wind down just a bit in our 2022 vlog/blog celebration of Judy Garland’s centennial year – but only chronologically! If you’ve been reading here since January, you’ll know that the Garland celebration has been coupled on a monthly basis with Ozzy recognition of some of the many other actresses who have played the role of Dorothy Gale since L. Frank Baum’s Kansas heroine first took to mass media 120 years ago. Ironically, we’re not at all running out of honorees OR Oz-related Garland anecdotes; instead, we remain confronted with the fact that these theatrical riches continue to evolve out of history. So . . . onward we go! Today, we look back at a few of the many musical celebrities who (with varying success) initially starred in THE WIZARD OF OZ across the first decades that the Baum story AND the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie score were initially coupled in “live” stage performances.

The triumphant original theatrical production of THE WIZARD OF OZ ran, more or less, for seven seasons – from 1902-1909 -- and was still being licensed for production into the 1920s and 1930 by the Tams-Witmark Music Library organization. There were, however, comparatively few takers some two or more decades after the show’s debut. The script recounted an Oz that was vastly different than the ever-more familiar characters and stories of Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson’s annual Oz books, and its score (while certainly and happily popular in – and fondly recalled by many from – its day) included no lasting “standards” or recurringly familiar melodies or lyrics.  

As such, when the already famed outdoor St. Louis Municipal Opera (The Muny!) decided to add OZ to its summer season in 1942, they circumvented the 1902 libretto and songs and had a new and mostly Oz book-oriented script version of the story adapted for their show by Frank Gabrielson. The venue was even more fortunate, however, in the seeming fact that show business was apparently a good deal less complicated in those days. Contemporary correspondence at both the theater and in the MGM archives in California confirms that the film studio did -- quite blithely, generously, and trustingly -- send complete instrumentation for most of the film’s songs to St. Louis at the latter’s simple request: “Over the Rainbow,” the “Munchkinland Musical Sequence,” “You’re/We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain”/“If I Only Had a Heart,” “If I Only Had the Nerve,” “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” and “The Jitterbug.” As a result, The Muny seems to have become the first theater to produce The Wizard of Oz with primary musical selections from the MGM movie, and their audiences actually heard the original Herbert Stothart (et al) orchestrations as written for and played to accompany the songs on the soundtrack of the film. 

The Muny’s OZ proved to be the highlight of that season -- their twenty-fourth annual summer mélange of musicals, operettas, and the random opera at the eleven-thousand seat, outdoor amphitheater in Forest Park. The occasion was historically important beyond that preliminary success; the triumphant amalgamation eventually led The Muny to revive the musical eleven more times up through 2016 (although, as you’ll read below, they abandoned the Gabrielson reworking and switched over to the movie-faithful stage script in 1992). Beyond that, in 1952, “their” OZ also became officially available for license by other professional, regional, community companies, and schools, and soon began to be produced all over the world.

OZ stage productions continued to escalate during and beyond the mid-twentieth century – and to an almost unimaginable degree after the MGM movie made its national CBS television debut on November 3, 1956. Some forty-five million people tuned in, and that success led to a four-decade series of virtually annual network appearances beginning in 1959; OZ is still vividly recalled across those years as THE hallowed “family TV event” in record-breaking numbers of North American homes. Its unprecedented popularity and increasing familiarity, coupled with the availability of The Muny’s OZ script and score through Tams-Witmark, led to this ever-increasing series of national and international WIZARD OF OZ stage productions throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  

The Muny casts for any/all of its productions were always of strong, skilled, trained, and professional caliber. For their fourth production of OZ, however, star billing entered the credit equation, and the August 1957 show was publicized as “Dorothy Collins in THE WIZARD OF OZ.” Ms. Collins was a household name at the time, thanks to both many years as one of four primary vocalists on the national radio and television versions of YOUR HIT PARADE and a potent recording career. OZ marked her first attempt at a “book musical,” and she proved to be an appealing, charismatic natural. (Her subsequent, varied, and versatile career in the theater culminated in a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress in a Musical for her costarring role in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in 1972.) (Fricke editorial note: She shoulda won! 😊 ) Of additional interest to aficionados is the fact that 1957 marked the first of three OZ engagements for which The Muny imported Margaret Hamilton to recreate her MGM stint as the Wicked Witch of the West. Such a showcase invariably delighted audiences; the lifelong Hamilton “talent to amuse” was given full, happy, and (occasionally) chill-inducing reign.

[Above: The coast-to-coast TV/radio/recording star Dorothy Collins made her theatrical stage debut as the “other” Dorothy at The Muny in 1957. Although the theater wisely cast many local children in their productions whenever possible – selling countless tickets to parents, relatives, and friends – the singing/dancing abilities required to kick across the MGM movie score in those early OZ productions also required Munchkins of a more professional performance caliber. Here, Dorothy C. meets “The Lullaby League.”]

Herbert L. Monk’s ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT review gave full satisfaction to the 1957 production. “Neither the years . . . nor the time that has elapsed since it was conceived have divested OZ of any of its appeal . . . audience reaction indicated that its charms are everlasting – those of the Baum original and of . . . Arlen and Harburg.” He thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Collins’ work, as well: “The quality of [her] performance . . . may come as a surprise. [She] is a piquant, a wistful, a charming Dorothy. She performs with ease and the poise of a veteran, herself does little violence, to say the least, to memories of Judy Garland . . . .”

[Above: So successful was the Dorothy Collins appearance in OZ that the show was revived just months later over the December holidays in Miami. There was enough (at least initial) optimism about that mounting to herald the production as “Prior to Broadway,” but such a transfer proved untenable.]

The trifecta triumph of Collins, Hamilton, and The Muny was an added factor in the burgeoning theatrical productions of this version of OZ all over the country (and, as noted, eventually all over the world), from the late 1950s well into the 1980s. The role of Dorothy Gale was not always “starred”; various other celebrity names were often employed to head up the casts. Buddy Ebsen, pre-THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIIES, finally assayed his original, if unfulfilled, MGM role of the Scarecrow in at least one deluxe stock production. Sterling Holloway and Robert Q. Lewis augmented their extensive motion picture and TV credits by taking stage at the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, CA, in 1965 as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. According to a brief 1964 report, even Ray Bolger appeared in OZ at the Hobble-de-Hoy Theatre, Northbrook, IL, in 1964.

That being said, the idea of “spotlighting” Baum’s central character remained the most frequent approach to ticket sales for any theater wishing to attract an entertainment savvy audience. Connie Stevens – then “Cricket Blake” of the TV series, HAWAIIAN EVE-- played Dorothy at the Kansas City, MO, Starlight in 1963, and at the West Covina, CA, Carousel Theatre in 1965. Her costars in the latter edition were three classic film and television character actors, Stuart Erwin, Allen Jenkins, and Renie Riano as, respectively, Uncle Henry, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch of the West. In Kansas City (at least), Stevens elected to drop the script’s second-act Dorothy Gale solo of an interpolated non-OZ song, “Evening Star,” and instead added renditions of the standard show tunes “I’m Shooting High” and “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” to her performance. 

[Above: A fuzzy reproduction – but worth the seeing! Connie Stevens traveled “Over the Rainbow” at the outdoor Kansas City Starlight Theatre in 1963 and later reprised her role in California. Her Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Woodman in Kansas City were (respectively) Will B. Able, Dean Dittman, and Jim Powers.]

Back at The Muny, TV’s Tom Poston (most recently a treasured TV “returnee” as “George Utley,” the handyman/maintenance man at the Stratford Inn on the NEWHART series) teamed up with a new pop vocalist from Australia, Lana Cantrell, to share top billing for that August 1968 OZ session. Sydney-born Cantrell was a teenage singing success, migrating to America in 1965. Almost immediately, she created a sensation on the nightclub circuit, began TONIGHT and other musical TV appearances, and launched a well-received -- if ultimately short-lived -- recording career, which included a 1968 Grammy Award nomination. OZ marked her theater debut.

Miles Standish vetted the show (“delightful and spectacularly produced”) on behalf of the St. Louis POST-DISPATCH. He’d found Cantrell the only in-advance “question mark” of the performance but decided that she “came through beautifully . . . her voice . . . warm and appealing. With slim legs and a boyish haircut, she was convincing as a child and played with the looseness and savoir faire of a veteran.” In the GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, film critic Frank Hunter was reasonably if not entirely as enamored by the overall show and more critical of Cantrell. He admired her as “a singer of first rate quality” but admitted the twenty-four-year-old’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” was “the torchiest delivery this writer has heard in years – she is a remote, ungirlish, highly sophisticated Dorothy. When she gets all excited about taking a trip to the Emerald City, she is about as convincing as a veteran sock peddler trying to get geared up for his 300th visit to Omaha.” (Jim Haff, a local resident and esteemed veteran member of The International Wizard of Oz Club, concurred at the time. In a contemporary report, Haff hailed Cantrell’s “excellent” singing but found her otherwise “woefully miscast.”) 

When The Muny next did OZ in August 1975, another television/recording vocalist Karen Wyman played Dorothy Gale with similar mixed results. In the GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, Hunter referenced Wyman’s “torchy touch” while singing “Rainbow,” noting her “sophisticated recording star sound . . . . It’s difficult to picture her as strictly demure, despite all the calico and manufactured excitement. With Miss Wyman, on the farm or off, you always have a feeling there’s a cocktail bar where the pump ought to be.” Meanwhile, TV reviewer Wayne Powers cited Wyman’s “wonderful voice, but her characterization of Dorothy from Kansas with a Brooklyn accent is forgettable.” 

Despite The Muny’s overall supremacy in launching a stage/MGM coalescence in 1942 – and carrying it through (and seeing it generated) for decades to come -- there eventually was an even more contextually stunning and adventurous variation of the standard OZ production. In 1977, the Milwaukee, WI, Melody Top tent theater-in-the-round leased the Tams-Witmark/Gabrielson script and orchestrations, but instead made use of a taken-from-TV audio tape of the complete MGM film to adapt their dialogue, along with a copy of Herbert Stothart’s conductor’s book of the entire Metro score, used to recreate much musical mood and underscoring. That composite blended into a vivid and true on-stage recreation of the 1939 WIZARD. Broadway’s Stubby Kaye, famed for theater and film roles in GUYS AND DOLLS and LI’L ABNER, played farmhand Zeke and the Cowardly Lion. Nancy Kulp forsook her image as “Miss Jane” Hathaway of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and appeared as Almira Gulch and her WWW alter ego. Dorothy’s ruby slippers, meanwhile, were filled by a much respected and vastly effective young stage veteran, Marsha Kramer. When the Melody Top reprised their OZ in 1985, Broadway’s original ANNIE, Andrea McArdle, was then in her twenties but believably incarnated Dorothy Gale. (Three seasons earlier, McArdle had performed in Judy Garland’s MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS role at the same theater, and some may also remember her “as” the teenage Garland in the biographical movie, RAINBOW, on NBC-TV in 1978.)

[Above: Andrea McArdle – and friend – during the 1985 dress rehearsal for the Milwaukee Melody Top’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. Photograph graciously provided by superlative theater historian and webmaster Dan Pagel: http://www.memories of melody]

By 1987, MGM’s film was so ensconced in world-wide hearts and memories as THE musical version of OZ that Turner Entertainment finally extended theatrical licensing for its songs to its script and underscoring, as well. The Royal Shakespeare Company version of OZ debuted in December that year, and London was so jubilant in its reception that the show was revived in 1988. This was the adaptation that then quickly took world-wide precedence when venues decided to offer OZ onstage, and the preeminent Dorothy Gale at the time was also highly acclaimed for her interpretation. Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby – a diminutive, endlessly charming, and gifted musical theater performer – brought her own unique magic to scores of Dorothy Gale performances beginning in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, The Muny itself forsook its decades old Gabrielson adaptation of OZ when they decided to take their own next trips to Oz. In more recent years, they haven’t “starred” the role of Dorothy but extended “name” casting to such potent performers as -- among others -- Phyllis Diller as Miss Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West (July 1992) and Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan as Professor Marvel and the Wizard of Oz (July 1997). 

[Above: The effervescent Cathy Rigby, center, is surrounded by one of many “principal cast” amalgamations during her triumphant years of OZ tours.]


 And now, onto our Centennial Gal! Virtually everyone who knew, worked with, saw, or encountered Judy Garland has attested to the fact that the woman had an extraordinary wit, a lightning-fast ability to quip, and a pretty much boundless sense of humor. During the period of twenty-four hours (on and off) I was privileged to spend with Lucille Ball in 1977, she unconditionally stated this – although she had no idea I was a Garland devotee. Lucy’s exact words? (Trust me: I wrote ‘em down as soon as I could after she said ‘em!) “Judy Garland was the funniest woman in Hollywood . . . she was NATURALLY funny. Judy Garland made me look like a mortician!”

A wondrous aspect of the Garland penchant for laughter – causal or forthright – came in her ability to gauge and, ever-aware, to self-deprecatingly kid herself, as well. For example: Many of those familiar with (not to say venerating of) MGM's THE WIZARD OF OZ movie are aware that Judy’s “Dorothy” wore an elaborate blonde wig and excessive baby-doll make-up during the first two weeks of filming in October 1938. Fortunately, this was abandoned for a more natural girl-from-Kansas appearance; the initial footage was junked, and Judy was seen pretty much as herself. Fourteen years later, playwright/scenarist Moss Hart adapted the 1937 movie drama, A STAR IS BORN, as a musical motion picture showcase for Garland's screen return, and he slyly, cleverly (and with her full cooperation) adapted the OZ situation for a sequence in the new picture. As a gifted big-band vocalist, Judy's STAR IS BORN character, Esther Blodgett, is prepared for a screen test, but the movie studio make-up men totally sublimate her own beauty into that of a manufactured Hollywood starlet (not unlike a Zsa Zsa or Eva Gabor). In January 1969, Judy was appearing in London, and across the intervening fifteen years, her STAR had long since become recognized as both a classic and the pinnacle of her thirty-four feature film roles. When the National Film Theatre screened STAR that month, Judy volunteered to make a surprise appearance at the conclusion of one of the showings; the audience went joyously ballistic at such a treat, and the spontaneous Garland wit made for an impromptu, delightful question-and-answer session with the crowd.

In the process, one of the patrons referenced the A STAR IS BORN screen test sequence they'd just seen and asked if MGM had ever subjected Judy to such transformation. "They certainly did!," she gleefully shot back. "They gave me a blonde wig -- and they thought my nose 'went in' too much. So they put a piece of rubber here" [indicating the bridge of her nose]. "I looked like I could pick locks with that nose! And this was all because I was 'PERFECT' for THE WIZARD OF OZ. And I kept thinking, ''If I'm so 'PERFECT' for this part . . . why are they putting rubber on my nose?!"


[Above: MGM, October 1938: Dorothy’s weighty blonde wig – and a “leveling” strip of adhesive on her nose – gave Judy Garland plenty about which to joke . . . if only in retrospect.]


It was on that same occasion that Judy made what soon became another classic remark. When a fan at the National Film Theatre commiserated with her re: the fact that Garland actually (and unbelievably) lost the Academy Award “Oscar” as Best Actress for A STAR IS BORN in 1955 (altogether now: “Grace KELLY?!??!?”), someone else in the crowd instantly, sympathetically shouted out that, in 1940 for THE WIZARD OF OZ, Judy had received a special “juvenile Oscar.” 

Pointedly, drily, and instantly, the star shot back, “Yes . . . . A TINY one.”

And then, without missing a beat, she for all-time classified her miniature statuette as . . . “The Munchkin Award.”

That’s Our Girl. 😊



[Above: Judy in her joyously impulsive National Film Theatre appearance in London, January 1969. She’d triumphantly opened the preceding Monday evening at the Talk of the Town supper club, done five evening shows across the week, and had another to do after this surprise “walk on” at the NFT. (She ultimately fulfilled a five-week booking, breaking all attendance records at the popular TOTT venue.) Here at the NFT in a life-long spirit of generosity itself, she offered to take stage -- as an unannounced surprise -- to banter with the packed crowd who’d attended the screening of her 1954 A STAR IS BORN. (Notice that there’s no vanity involved; the ever down-to-earth entertainer was wearing little make-up, en route as she was to her dressing room and preparation there for her formal, singing performance that evening.) After twenty minutes of frequently funny ripostes to the audience, she excused herself to “go to work” but then remained onsite at the NFT to informally introduce the subsequent STAR showing, as well.]


 Meanwhile: If you’ve been following these 2022 Judy/Dorothy blogs and their preceding vlogs, please keep an eye out. After some technical hang-ups and unavoidable delays for October, the forthcoming November installments will quickly follow on the heels of this post – with (hopefully!) December installed next month as it should be.


With my heartfelt thanks for sharing with all of us!


Article by John Fricke


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