"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (1900) by Lyman Frank Baum is a beloved children's classic that has yielded many interpretations onstage and on screen. Of these myriad inceptions, many have taken on musical form. There is something about this magical world that inspires a musicality that audiences have embraced again and again. With the 12th anniversary of Wicked's triumphant reign on Broadway just celebrated, it is exciting to look back at the musical versions of Oz that have joyously inhabited Broadway, film and television.
The first time the characters of Oz took the stage was just two years after the book's initial release. The operetta "The Wizard of Oz" ran for 293 performances on Broadway, and it played extensively around the country. Baum himself provided some of the lyrics and Paul Tietjens the music, with additional songs coming from a variety of sources. There were, in fact, over 60 songs in this version of "The Wizard of Oz." Baum also provided the script, which was tinkered with and changed by producers, leaving the musical with only a partial resemblance to the beloved book. Among the changes: Audiences never saw The Wicked Witch of the West, The Cowardly Lion was reduced to a bit part, and the dog Toto was turned into a cow named Imogene. For most audiences, the vaudeville comedy duo of Fred Stone as the Scarecrow and David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman was the highlight of the show, but by all standards, the show was a hit.
"The Wizard of Oz" For most people, this is where the love affair with Baum's characters begins. The 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz" by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been seen by countless millions thanks to its popular perennial runs on television. The score, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg (the duo would also write Broadway's Bloomer Girl and Jamaica), is considered one of the most whimsical and enchanting of all film scores, with the Oscar-winning "Over the Rainbow" being a standout. The cast, including Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (Glinda) and Frank Morgan (The Wizard), all hailed from the world of vaudeville and the musical stage, putting their indelible stamp on their respective characterizations.
"Journey Back to Oz"
Filmation animation studios began production on this film in 1962, but due to financial difficulties, "Journey Back to Oz" was put on hold for eight years. Drawing much of its inspiration from Baum's sequel to "The Wonderful Wizard Oz" titled "The Marvelous Land of Oz," the story was really an amalgam of the two books. The film tells of Dorothy's return to Oz, where she reconnects with old friends including the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, but also befriends Jack Pumpkinhead and a wooden sawhorse nicknamed "Woodenhead." The film features a score by musical stalwarts and longtime collaborators Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. "Journey Back to Oz" was not successful at the cinema, but it found a following when it aired on television in the 70s and early 80s. What makes "Journey Back to Oz" so memorable is the long list of voice talents from Broadway involved, including Liza Minnelli (Dorothy), Ethel Merman (Mombi), Paul Lynde (Pumpkinhead), Herschel Bernardi (Woodenhead), Mickey Rooney (Scarecrow), Rise Stevens (Glinda) and Margaret Hamilton (Aunt Em).
In the 1970s, the sounds of rhythm and blues, Motown, funk and gospel were filling the airwaves. The African-American influence in music was everywhere, having transcended barriers that had once woefully held them back. The Broadway musical The Wiz employed these varied music genres, and composer Charlie Smalls wove them into a compelling retelling of Baum's book. An all-black cast including Stephanie Mills (Dorothy), Hinton Battle (The Scarecrow), Tiger Haynes (Tin Man), Ted Ross (Lion), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Glinda), Andre DeShields (The Wizard) and Mabel King (Evillene) gave the musical a lively zest. The Wiz was made into a film version in 1978 that envisioned the world of Oz as a dystopian New York City turned barren wasteland. Starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross, it struggled at the box office. The Wiz is about to find new life on the small screen with a live television version preparing to play on NBC this December.
Perhaps the most unique musical interpretation of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is the 1976 Australian film "Oz." Featuring music by Wayne Burt, Baden Hutchins, Ross Wilson and Gary Young, the film follows a girl named Dorothy who is a teenage groupie traveling with a rock band. When the group's van is in an accident, Dorothy bumps her head and finds herself in a peculiar world where she must journey to see the final concert of The Wizard, a glam rock singer. Along the way, she meets a surfer named Blondie, a mechanic without a heart named Greaseball and the Cowardly Biker named Killer. Dubbed "A Rock & Roll Road Movie," the film was produced on a relatively small budget. It was released in the United States but failed to ignite the box office.
"The Wizard of Oz"
Another animated attempt to recapture the glory of the 1939 musical film, this version of "The Wizard of Oz" was a Japanese anime production with English voices (it was later dubbed in Japanese for a release in that country in 1986). The music was by Joe Hisaishi and Yuichira Oda, lyrics by Keisuke Yamakawa, and featured the infectious "It's a Wizard of a Day" and the lovely "I Dream of Home." Of note, Aileen Quinn, who had played the title character in the film version of "Annie," provided the vocals for Dorothy, and television actor Lorne Green was the voice of The Wizard. What makes this version so unique is that it comes the closest to following Baum's novel, with only a few minor eliminations to keep the running time at a brisk 78 minutes.
The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True
As a benefit for the Children's Defense Fund, The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True was performed at Lincoln Center in 1995. The production was taped live and played subsequently on television. This concert was a staged reading of the screenplay of the 1939 film, with some big-name talent filling out the roles. Jewel (Dorothy), Jackson Browne (Scarecrow), Roger Daltrey (Tin Man), Nathan Lane (Cowardly Lion), Joel Grey (The Wizard), Natalie Cole (Glinda) and Debra Winger (Wicked Witch) led an all-star cast that also featured the Boys Choir of Harlem as the Munchkins.
The Wizard of Oz
Not a new version of the Oz stories, but a new interpretation of the 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz was presented onstage in 1997 at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theatre. Planned as an Easter equivalent to their successful stage version of A Christmas Carol that played during the holidays, this production is best remembered for Roseanne Barr's performance as the Wicked Witch of the West. The cast also featured Jessica Grove (Dorothy) and Ken Page (Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz returned the following year with Eartha Kitt in the role of the Witch and Mickey Rooney playing the title character.
"The Muppets' Wizard of Oz"
The Muppets have always been a laugh riot when they take on classic literature with their satirical, zany humor ("A Christmas Carol," "Treasure Island"), so it stands to reason that they would be just as delightful interpreting "The Wizard of Oz." The results were uneven, but it did produce some funny moments, especially with Miss Piggy playing all of the witches in Oz. Pop star Ashanti portrayed Dorothy, and she was joined by Queen Latifah as Aunt Em and David Alan Grier as Uncle Henry (the duo will also appear in the live version of The Wiz as The Wizard and the Cowardly Lion, respectively). Michael Giacchino provided the score, which included "Kansas," "When I'm With You" and "The Witch is in the House."
Author Gregory Maguire had an excellent run for a while writing novels that take fairy-tale villains and look at the stories from their point of view. His most successful stab at this was his novel "Wicked," which, of course, turned the sinister Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz stories into the misunderstood Elphaba. In turn, composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist Winnie Holzman took Maguire's novel and put their own spin on it, softening Elphaba and concentrating the story's focus on her evolving relationship with her personality antithesis, the chirpy and popular Galinda. Wicked, of course, was a smash hit and is still running 12 years later, delighting audiences with such unforgettable songs as "The Wizard and I," "Popular," "Defying Gravity" and "For Good." The musical also rocketed the already well-respected performers Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth to gravity-defying stardom.
Mark Robinson is a theatre, television and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Robinson is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."