Pulling Back the Curtain

Long ago paved over by Hollywood's yellow brick road, a whirlwind `Wizard of Oz' stage show from 1902 gets its due thanks to fans with plenty of heart, brains and imagination.

July 19, 2000|By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson | Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dorothy: I'm just a simple girl from the prairie. Oz: She is Dottie with a dot on the i. Dorothy: It seems to me you're very contrary. Oz: And I hope you will explain to us why.

- from the lyrics of "Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie"

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Oz anymore.

Or at least not the Oz we know so well from the 1939 MGM film classic. On the other side of this rainbow, our rosy-cheeked heroine has a love interest (Sir Dashemoff Daily), Toto has been replaced by a pantomime cow named Imogene and a Topeka waitress blows in on the same tornado as Dorothy.

And though Dorothy does join forces with a tin woodsman, scarecrow and cowardly lion to wend her way to the Wizard of Oz, they don't skip down the yellow brick road, drop in on lollipop gangs of Munchkins, or slosh water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

That's because this version of "The Wizard of Oz" was a stage show, a hit Broadway musical that was the "Cats" of the early 20th century, nearly 40 years before the Judy Garland movie tapped the imagination of successive generations.

The show, which opened in Chicago in 1902 to a packed opera house, ran for 300 performances on Broadway when 100 constituted a hit, according to Oz scholars. And in various versions - more than 100 songs were written for the ever-changing score - it toured the country for more than 10 years, coming to Baltimore's Ford's Theater in 1904, with a return engagement in January 1905.

"The audience laughed and encored song and jest. ... `The Wizard' is a rattling good show," raved a Jan. 17, 1905, theater review in The Sun. "The Scarecrow, who only needs brains, gets a supply modeled after those of President Roosevelt. He is immediately a friend of the workingman, he declares."

Yet, in the popular consciousness, "The Wizard of Oz: A Musical Extravaganza in Three Acts" has long been replaced by the film version, its nonsensical song-and-dance style lost somewhere down Tin Pan Alley along with other early U.S. musicals of its genre.

Now the original stage show is being revived in an illustrated libretto and piano/vocal score to be published in late fall this year, the 100th anniversary of the publication of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the first book in L. Frank Baum's Oz series. There is also a recently released CD ("Before the Rainbow," Hungry Tiger Music) that features instrumentals from other musicals of the early 1900s based on Baum's later Oz novels, including "Tik-Tok of Oz." (Authorized authors have kept the Oz series alive, and there are now 40 books and counting.)

And if that's not enough Oz stuff, there's a four-day Oz Centennial Convention at Indiana University at Bloomington starting tomorrow. Among other tributes, fans of Oziana (as Oz paraphernalia is known) will be treated to a lecture on the Broadway hit and a slide show reconstruction of the first act.

"If you talk about historically significant developments with [`Oz'] since it was published, without question the popularity of the 1903 stage play has to be included," said Jane Albright, vice president of the International Wizard of Oz Club (www.ozclub.org).

In many ways, the 1939 MGM film was truer to the plot of Baum's book than the musical, though some elements of the stage show, such as using a snow storm to awaken Dorothy from the field of poppies, were adapted for the film. (In the book, field mice saved the day.)

Also like the film, the Broadway hit was known for its astonishing special effects, including an on-stage "cyclone" featuring lantern projections of wind-blown objects and an electrically controlled light show considered spectacular for the era.

Yet even 100 years later, it's hard to understand how such a popular production could be so thoroughly erased by the film. Though some Oz scholars and fans knew of the Broadway musical, detailed information has been scarce and elements of the score scattered among libraries and private collections.

The rediscovery and piecing together of the three-act Oz musical extravaganza started with two strangers who began reading and collecting Oz books as children, grew into obsessed Oz fans as adults, and then met each other via the yellow brick electronic highway.

James Doyle, 43, a Houston muSician, composer and aficionado of early Broadway musicals, and David Maxine, 37, co-founder of Hungry Tiger Press in San Diego (which publishes historical writings about Baum and Oz-related materials) had both heard snippets about the theater production. In separate searches over two decades, they collected copies of the script, sheet music, composers' notes, lyricists' papers, scratchy recordings on '78s and wax cylinders, and archival material - including photos, programs and press clippings.

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