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! With her kind assistance I was able to spend some time exploring the content of the show.
Unfortunately there is no way to couch it for Oz fans as 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 (of Hamlin’s Wizard Oil) 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. The stars of the show included Anna Laughlin, Fred Stone, Dave Montgomery, Lotta Faust, and Bessie Wynn.
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 as for 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
The disconnects with the 1939 movie and the books are not complete. The device of the snowstorm was repeated in 1939, and bits of the Broadway show, including the names “Gale”, “Nick”, and “Pastoria”, turn up in later books.
Baum wrote two more Oz musicals. “The Woggle-Bug” closed out of town in the red, but “The Tik-Tok Man of Oz” was in the black when it was also closed out of town by the producer, in the belief that New York wouldn’t accept it.
Thank you for this post! Happy 111th Anniversary to the first staged production of The Wizard of Oz!
Let us continue the magic of Oz on the stage!
Up next for Oz is Strangemen & Co’s “The Woodsman,” created by James Ortiz, at 59E59 January 30-February 16th.
Ortiz says, “The Woodsman is based on the original story of The Tinman, which appears in several passages of L Frank Baum’s classic Oz series. This story has never been told in a way truer to the original text. And since Oz is the first American Fairytale, we decided to depict Oz as a fantasy landscape that in some way resembles America circa 1840-1890, the years in which Baum himself lived, in order to sort of, tie into the time he was writing about and referencing.
We tell the story musically, physically, and with puppets- while always trying to retain that Frank L. Baulm old world flavor. ”
If you love L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series, and want to experience the world of the fantastical and dark Oz, please join us at 59E59 for a performance!
All the best,
Claire Jamison of Strangemen & Co.