Today, an exploration of L. Frank Baum’s hit Broadway stage adaptation of his popular 1900 children’s book The Wizard of Oz. Thanks, Cheryl Rice, for making this post possible!
I had done a very extensive post about the many different Oz versions, including the 1910 and 1925 films, but a pretty glaring hole remained, where this musical should be, particularly since we have written about a few of its stars: Anna Laughlin, Fred Stone, Dave Montgomery, Lotta Faust, and Bessie Wynn. I finally spent some studying the show last night and this morning; there is no way to couch it for Oz fans than anything but a disappointment. Baum’s first love was theatre; not to put too fine a point on it, before he wrote children’s books he was kind of a theatre hack. At the soonest available moment when success as a children’s author allowed him to do so, he jumped at the chance to bring his theatrical hackery to Broadway, with the help of producer Fred Hamlin and director Julian Mitchell. Essentially, this meant catering to the needs and expectations of a Broadway audience, as opposed to, say, Oz fans, who were children, anyway. While the book to the show technically follows the plot points of the original story, the fabric of the show was made of parodies of other Broadway shows, topical jokes, an endless stream of love scenes between lovers, lover’s quarrels, and dozens and dozens of songs about darkeys, coons, Irishmen, and characters like “Daisey Donahue” and “Jakey Cohen”. There’s one song about skating , another about football. For the first time in my life perhaps, this old vaudevillian found himself longing for a little of the discipline of Rogers and Hammerstein. At any rate, you know how this shit works. The thing was a smash hit. It ran 293 performances in 1903, got revived a year later and ran another 20 months and then toured through 1911.
But if you always wondered (as I always did) why this show was never revived or made into a film, this is why. It was disposable stuff, contrived for its own day and not a day later. Many of the tunes are pleasant and even witty. Reviving them for vaudeville makes sense; having them in a musical would be nonsense. And resemblance to the 1939 film? Well, it has the same name. Other than that…
And look, it actually has been revived. This company in Canton, OH did it a few years ago. This little clip has some of the original music:
And check out this cool account of the show’s excavation here: http://www.houstonpress.com/2000-01-27/news/good-bye-yellow-brick-road/
Lastly for more, much more on the show, see David Maxine’s website here.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and early Broadway, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my second book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube