Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Heart the Tinman—“The Wizard of Oz” on Screen and Stage

The Wizard of Oz has been everyone’s favorite movie since its debut in 1939. We’ve all seen it. It’s one of those rare, ambitious films where the whole is greater than the sum of its admittedly extraordinary parts. At its best it is—simply—the best: the best performance (and singing!) by Judy Garland; the best fanciful costumes by the genius Adrian; the best music by Harold Arlen; the most talented ensemble cast; the most imaginative art direction and scenic design. And the best use of small people as the citizens of Munchkinland, the gamest, most talented, and generous supporting cast in cinema history.

I have a curious observation to report: every little girl under seven loves the Tinman. What is it about him? I suppose he’s the relatively macho one of the Oz bunch: the knight in shining armor; the axe-wielding, bust-down-the-witch’s-door guy who’s all heart. He’s not a klutz like the Scarecrow or a scaredy-cat like the Lion. And he’s got that cool New York accent as he sings, “If I only had a haaahht.” I guess if I were seven, I’d swoon.

In the final scene, the film attempts to deliver a message similar to the original L. Frank Baum book, that a young girl’s place is at home and if she strays, she could end up doomed in terms of turn-of-the-last-century morality. The great or perhaps lucky thing about the film is that this “explicit” message is so garbled, it ends up having little to no impact on the film. I for one still can’t make heads or tails of it when Dorothy announces, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” When the Scarecrow replies, “But that’s so easy,” I want to tell him, “then explain it to me.” That’s the difference between the book and film: the character of Miss Gulch who was out to “destroy” Toto is an invention of the screenplay, which undermines the book’s plot and ending. In the film, Dorothy didn’t leave home to go looking for her heart’s desire. She left home to protect Toto. And the use of a triple negative in her statement doesn’t help. The viewer is free to evoke their own meaning, which adds to the film’s universal appeal. This movie is not about its end; it’s about Dorothy’s brilliant and colorful journey.

Parents can share this film with their kids with few worries, though younger children could use some guidance during scenes involving the Wicked Witch. And the flying monkeys scare some kids, so an explanation that they’re just costumes could go a long way to calming fears. And I think part of the fun of sharing The Wizard of Oz can be pointing out the obvious, low-tech movie “magic.” The lion costume looks like a … well … costume. And the wire holding up his tail shows—a lot. Even the youngest child can spot the painted backdrop in the shallow soundstage. This movie wasn’t created with a computer program. It was created by hand and looks it. It’s the stuff of life. And if the past is any indication, it’s eternal.

Recently, this film has inspired a theatrical adaptation in London’s West End. Guest blogger Casey Brienza shares her review:

We’re Off To See the Wizard (at the London Palladium)

The classic 1939 film, reinterpreted by Andrew Lloyd Webber for West End musical theatre? Starring Michael Crawford as the Wizard?! Somebody get me a front row seat to so that I can see that!

Fortunately, front row seats are easy to acquire if you show up at the London Palladium at 10:00 am or shortly thereafter, and you’ll only have to shell out £25 (approximately USD $40) per ticket for that evening’s performance.

Unfortunately, what I—or anyone else who sat in the front row—could not see due to the angle of my line of sight was the Yellow Brick Road, which promotional footage on YouTube records spinning around in one direction while other pieces of the set spin around in the other in a complicated whirly-gig mechanism which is probably a musical theatre first.

Not that it or any of the rest of The Wizard of Oz’s technical wizardry feels particularly magical. Instead, you find yourself feeling for the stiff, scared-looking Glinda (Emily Tierney) dangling a couple dozen feet above the stage, or feeling annoyed when there are technical difficulties during the Wicked Witch of the West (Hannah Waddingham)’s climatic melting scene, as there was the night I was there…or just feeling downright disappointed by this soulless musical theatre machine.

Sure, The Phantom of the Opera “phans” will feel a bit of tingle when they hear Crawford belting “Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West!” as loudly as artificial amplification (or was that pre-recorded?) allows. And those who were rooting for Danielle Hope on the reality competition Over the Rainbow are surely pleased to see her on stage as Dorothy. But nowhere does the musical ever become more than a second-class shadow of its Hollywood source material.

With one exception. Hannah Waddingham. Blessed with an A-plus belt and a strikingly tall stature, she towers over the rest of the cast as well as the rest of this production. If you’re even remotely tempted to head off to the West End to see Wizard again, it will be thanks to her sequences. “Red Shoe Blues,” an original number, is darkly magnificent and perhaps a smidge too sexy for the elementary school set.

But will the kids be entertained? Possibly. There’s plenty of pageantry. But you’d still be better off sitting them down in front of the television with a holiday broadcast of the movie. You could even buy them a complete set of the L. Frank Baum novels. Or you might take them to one of the many productions of Wicked worldwide—it’s one of those rare musicals which actually, in my view, improves upon its Ozian source material. — Casey Brienza


  1. Sorry you didn't much enjoy the show. I did! I was very much entertained by all of the talent on stage and by the music AND by the special effects---no malfunctions when I saw it, and none of the characters who flew looked scared.

    The children I saw looked like they enjoyed themselves and lined up afterward to get photos and autographs from Danielle and Michael C. He, by the way, sings "Broomstick" live from a video booth under the stage as do the actors playing Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, whose images and amplified voices appear in the scene in which Dorothy is imprisoned by the Wicked Witch.

    I fully agree with you that Hannah Waddingham is terrific and that her witch might be a tad much for the elementary school kids.

    I am in favor of anyone buying books for children at any time, but I wouldn't pass on a chance to let them see the Wizard of Oz at the Palladium.

  2. Thank you for your post. I especially appreciate your insights on the childrens' reactions to the show.

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