The Wizard of Oz has long been a part of the fiber of our world. The film, which for decades was a fixture in American homes, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and even the original Frank L. Baum books remain popular and beloved. In fact, a new television series, Emerald City, debuts on NBC in January, a retelling that is promised to be darker than the film and will cover the material of the entire series of books.
With that lasting popularity, it's almost surprising to realize that stage productions of the story are rare, and when the University of St. Francis opens their fall production of Oz next week, it will be the first time the show has been performed live in this area.
At the helm is local theater veteran Brad Beauchamp, who has overseen a remarkable variety of shows for USF. With Oz he hopes to return families to something that many of us fondly remember as an annual family tradition.
"I liked the fact that there had never been a live production done here before," says Beauchamp. "And the movie used to be such a big family experience for everyone. It only aired that one time every year, and the family would gather together and share this experience. Now everyone has their devices, and the film airs on different cable channels, so it's [no longer the] special family event that it used to be. It's also a great escape from the current political discourse. So if you're tired of all of that, then The Wizard of Oz is where you need to be."
First broadcast in 1956, the 1939 film (which was part of Hollywood's finest year and only won an Oscar for best song thanks to a little film called Gone with the Wind) garnered much more attention on television thanks to its inaccessibility through other means. While it's hard to imagine now, at one time families were at the mercy of network programmers to see anything from Hollywood films to holiday specials. By the mid-80s, that was all changing thanks to home video releases and since ... a variety of media platforms ... vie for viewer attention.
Perhaps because of that, Beauchamp was surprised to discover that not everyone now has even seen the film, something which would have been unthinkable just 30 years ago. But for those well familiar with the movie, Beauchamp says that audiences will be pleased with the stage production.
"I actually sat down to watch the film and followed along with the script, and they're almost word for word," he says. "What they did was take a great film and make a live version of it, with the one major change being that the jitterbug number is back in. That scene was deleted from the film, but it gives us another great number for the ensemble in the production."
The cast is large, providing one of the challenges for Beauchamp. In addition to the 20 youngsters cast as Munchkins, there are also 29 principal roles. There are also a few production challenges, something that USF's increasingly state-of-the-art system is able to tackle in their new Performing Arts Center downtown, but Beauchamp is still required to think outside the box to accomplish a lot of the special effects.
"We do have the ability to do so many things through technology now. In some areas we aren't quite there yet, but I can do a lot of things with digital projection. For example the Wicked Witch's fireball will be digitally projected because we can match the video sequences with the live action. The same is true for the great and powerful Oz who will be projected on stage to seem as large and imposing as he is in the story."
Although the story can deal with some darker themes, Beauchamp says this production is very family-friendly. And for those fearing the dreaded flying monkeys, there will be monkeys - but they won't be flying. That alone should help the youngsters sleep after seeing the show. And the music from the film is one of its most beloved elements, particularly "Over the Rainbow" which the American Film Institute has called the greatest movie song of all time.
"The rumor is that 'Over the Rainbow' almost didn't make the film because it was the only song from the black and white part of the film. The other songs are all part of her dream, and so they wrestled with the idea of whether there should be this song before all of that began."
Of course, the switch from black and white to color (something some of us never experienced in our youth thanks to black and white televisions) is another challenging aspect of staging the show. The dramatic shift perfectly startles the viewer who has seen this sepia-toned world only to wake up along with Dorothy in a technicolor masterpiece.
Beauchamp promises that gels and khaki costumes will provide the underwhelming palate of the Kansas scenes, and then the sets and lighting will provide that same shift in perspective. With all of these elements included, an already large cast grows to an overall crew of almost 70 people - from both USF and the community - making this special show possible.
Aside from the visual splendor of the show, Beauchamp loves presenting Baum's themes in a way which is still interesting more than 100 years after he published his first of the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
"There are so many themes and layers that Baum wove into this series. His point was that things are not as they appear. You can keep digging and digging for different meanings, and while it may seem hard to compare him to Arthur Miller, I think you can say it's like Death of a Salesman in that you can find so many themes that we face in everyday life. We're all looking for something, and when Glinda tells Dorothy that 'there's no place like home,' she's telling her that what she was looking for was no further than her own backyard. She just needed somebody to give her a nudge. We all just need to have the heart and the courage to see that it was there all along, we just need a push. And as the song says, 'the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.'"
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