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Oz on Stage

1902playThe world of Oz was destined to be illuminated by footlights. As a former actor and playwright, L. Frank Baum eagerly sought opportunities to adapt his books for the stage. Just two years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, The Wizard of Oz, a musical extravaganza based rather loosely on the original novel, premiered in Chicago. The successful production moved to Broadway in 1903, where it was a smash hit starring the vaudeville duo of Fred Stone and David Montgomery as, respectively, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. Although largely forgotten today, the Wizard musical had a huge influence on turn-of-the-century pop culture, having toured the country for multiple seasons after its initial New York run and spawning numerous hit singles. In more recent years, historical interest in the production has been revived; Hungry Tiger Press’s two-CD set collecting original recordings of songs from the show was nominated for a Grammy in 2004.

Given the financial success he achieved with the Wizard of Oz musical, Baum was eager to try for another theatrical hit. He penned a second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), in large part because of the success of the 1902-03 production; the sequel to Wizard includes numerous elements written with easy translation to the stage in mind, including painfully pun-filled repartee and an army of pretty girls. Unfortunately, the stage adaptation of Land, premiering in Chicago in 1905 as The Woggle-Bug, lasted less than a month before it was exterminated by bad reviews. The Chicago Daily Tribune reviewer wrote that the musical’s book “contains virtually no story whatsoever, and witty lines are almost wholly lacking.”

TikTokManThe sting of The Woggle-Bug’s failure did not prevent Baum from attempting another Oz musical. In 1913 The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, adapted primarily from Ozma of Oz, premiered in Los Angeles to positive reviews. Although the show did not make it to New York, it toured extensively in the West and Midwest, with stops in Chicago and St. Louis, until early 1914. Among the Tik-Tok Man cast members were noted comic actors Charlie Ruggles and Charlotte Greenwood.

In the 1920s Ruth Plumly Thompson, the second Royal Historian of Oz, wrote a musical playlet, A Day in Oz, to help publisher Reilly & Lee promote the Oz series. It was typically performed by local children in department stores and bookshops that sold the Oz books. Thompson also wrote The Magical Land of Oz, a puppet show produced by marionette artist Jean Gros in 1928 and again at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. Meanwhile, between 1928 and 1937, Samuel French, Inc. published four plays based on Oz books: The Wizard of Oz (1928), The Land of Oz (1928), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1930), and Ozma of Oz (1935). The first three plays were labeled “Junior League Plays,” written by Junior League members for children to perform.

WizPosterBwyThe world of Oz finally reappeared on Broadway, seven decades after the smashing success of the long-forgotten 1903 production, in a radically different form. The Wiz, which opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975, featured an African-American cast, creative staging, and soulful new songs thoroughly steeped in the Motown era. Starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and André De Shields as the Wiz, the production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and played for four years, providing an early demonstration of the mainstream commercial viability of African-American works on Broadway.

On October 30, 2003, the show that would become the most successful Oz-related stage musical of all time opened on the Great White Way. Wicked, based on the bestselling novel by Gregory Maguire that reimagined the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, starred Idina Menzel as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda. The production garnered 10 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, and won three: Best Actress in a Musical (Menzel), Best Costume Design, and Best Scenic Design. It continues to play to sold-out houses more than a decade after its premiere, and has been seen in various North American and international productions by some 30 million people worldwide.

WickedPosterThe most recent high-profile stage adaptation is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Wizard of Oz, which opened in London on March 1, 2011. Based on MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and featuring new songs and music by Lloyd Webber alongside the film’s classic tunes, the show played in the West End for a year and a half. A Toronto production closed in August 2013 after an eight-month run, to be followed by a North American tour.

Of course, these are just a few highlights from the infinite number of Oz-related stage productions spanning more than a century. The saga of Oz has been manifested onstage in everything from grade-school plays in rural villages to multimillion-dollar productions in the world’s biggest cities. That happy tradition shows no signs of ending anytime soon.




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