Toronto cast members discuss The Wizard of Oz’s never-ending appeal
“Someplace where there isn’t any trouble… do you suppose there is such a place? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away, behind the moon, beyond the rain.”
How many of us have dreamed of such a place? Where little people spread happiness and joy, and troubles are faced with the help of faithful friends, strong and brave and true. Where good witches are kind and beautiful, and bad witches get washed away like so much green dust. Oh, to live in the Land of Oz, as imagined by beloved children’s author L Frank Baum.
Of course, we let go of such fantasies as we grow up. The adult world has little time for merry songs and happy endings. But many of us, young and aged, vividly remember the first time we heard Judy Garland open that glorious throat and wish herself “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Perhaps that’s why the song and the story are so enduring, nearly three-quarters of a century after the movie’s 1939 premiere. Garland’s incandescent performance as a frightened but hopeful child, mirrored in her own bittersweet life, lent Baum’s simplistic character an oomph that still resonates today. Of course, the book on which the film is based was already a hit back when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer unveiled their musical adaptation, but it’s hard to deny that the movie’s timeless songs, written by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg propelled Baum’s story into enduring public consciousness.
“Of course, we all know the songs, we all grew up with the film,” says Jamie McKnight of The Canadian Tenors fame. “But as you’re singing the words, and telling the story, all of a sudden it has this new meaning. It’s so moving.”
McKnight is one of the stars in the Mirvish production of The Wizard of Oz; as the Scarecrow, he can’t wait to slip into the wise one’s floppy shoes. The boyish singer is also relieved with the comfort level of what he’s wearing onstage — particularly in comparison to his comrades in arms.
“It really is wonderful,” McKnight says. “I can easily move around in my costume, whereas Lee is a hot water bottle, he’s so padded everywhere, and Mike can barely sit down in rehearsal in the Tin Man outfit.” Actor and playwright Lee MacDougall as the Cowardly Lion and Mike Jackson as the Tin Man join Danielle Wade, winner of the reality TV search for the perfect Dorothy Gale, in an all-Canadian cast.
Despite the obvious drawbacks to his Cowardly Lion costume, Lee MacDougall is nonetheless thrilled to be playing one of fiction’s most lovable and iconic cowards.
“I still love the film,” says MacDougall. “It seems like it’s been part of my whole life. It’s nearly impossible not to have it as part of your childhood.
“And the Lion is just so fun to explore. I love the freedom to react to everything that happens in a big way. It fits in with the show as well. It’s all big… big emotions, big fun, big sets. It’s just a huge show.”
A huge show indeed, with a huge pre-opening boost courtesy of the televised hunt for the actress who will be playing Dorothy. CBC’s Over the Rainbow was a ratings hit, with Canadian viewers electing Danielle Wade to step into the Kansas waif’s plaits and ruby slippers. Her costars couldn’t be more thrilled with the country’s choice.
“Personally, Danielle was my favourite,” says MacDougall who, along with his other co-stars, made an appearance on the TV program mid-search. “I watched that first episode and thought, ‘She’s the one.’ And she’s just wonderful. She can sing and act, and she’s so pleasant to work with.”
McKnight agrees, marvelling at Wade’s grace under the huge pressure of taking on such an iconic role for the country’s biggest theatrical company.
“I don’t know how she does it,” McKnight says. “She’s there for every rehearsal, with the dog, onstage all the time. She’s so young, but she’s so cool about it.”
Despite the bankability of all things Oz, there’s still a substantial amount of pressure on all involved for the show to succeed. The five new songs written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for the production were well received for the show’s British run, but it must be a little daunting to take on such mythic roles that are so familiar to the general public.
“Basically everyone knows these characters already,” says MacDougall. “But we’ve been allowed to reinvent them somewhat, and bring our own qualities to the part. Because I can’t just do Bert Lahr.”
For McKnight, lifelong showbiz fan, the process is as exciting as it is arduous. Plenty of stretching and workouts mean he’s in tip-top shape for the highly physical role, but there’s still plenty of time to savour the moment.
“My favourite thing is to watch everyone else,” he says. “I love watching actors in their process, being in the audience and seeing, wow, witches are flying! I love being part of that.”
Because, Because, Because
Frank Baum’s famous story has spawned a legion of Oz-related offerings. Here is some of our favourite Ozophilia.
The Oz books
The original classic from 1900 was followed by 13 books, all written by Baum over 20 years, furthering the adventures of Dorothy Gale and her friends as they join an ever-expanding cast of misfits that include a Patchwork Girl, a talking sawhorse, Jack Pumpkinhead and a transparent glass cat with pink jewelled brains. Quirky and fun, with all sorts of added Ozian lore.
Baum’s own films
Baum wrote and produced (and, according to some intertitles, directed) a series of silent films in 1914/15 based on his Oz stories brimming with vaudevillian clowning and outlandish costumes. Available on DVD collections and online. For extreme Ozophiles.
Motown and Universal’s 1970s foray into African- American fairytale, featuring Diana Ross’s effervescent turn as Dorothy, a Harlem teacher magically transported to a very urban Oz to find adventures with Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and an impossibly young (and black!) Michael Jackson. Great music, fantastic dancing and Nipsey Russell. Classic.
Geoff Ryman’s tour de force novel from 1992 imagines that Dorothy was a real girl whom Baum actually met when he was a teacher in the Midwest — and that she was abused by Uncle Henry. Intertwined with the stories of a Judy Garland-obsessed actor dying of AIDS, an aged Dorothy in a senior’s home and Garland on set during the making of the film. Everything comes together in Manhattan, Kansas and, yes, there’s a tornado. Dark and compelling.
A sympathetic tale from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view, courtesy of US author Gregory McGuire. Later turned into a hit musical by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. Detailed, political and very adult. A must for the adult Ozophile.
From figurines and jewellery to toilet seat covers and collectable lawn furniture, virtually any collectable imaginable has been tied into the world of Oz. The 1970s Mego action figure line of dolls features likenesses to the actors that are staggering even when compared to present-day offerings. The toilet seat covers are just plain weird.
Gordon Bowness & Serafin LaRiviere
THE WIZARD OF OZ Opening Sun, Jan 13. Ed Mirvish Theatre. 244 Victoria St. (416) 872-1212. mirvish.com.