Saturday, February 1, 2014

Remembering THE WIZARD OF OZ ... times 3

OZ X 3

Directing a show can be a little like venturing through a minefield. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a tricky show to put together. Based on an iconic film with a lot of unusual requirements for at least some stage wizardry (pun intended) required, it’s definitely challenging for a community theater production, otherwise known as “musical theater on a shoestring.” I’ve been brave enough ... or foolhardy enough ... to direct it three times since 1991.

Aside from the obvious (three actors who can play a Lion, a Scarecrow and a Tin Man and are willing to don some pretty scary costumes, a Dorothy who we know will be compared to Judy Garland, and a Wicked Witch who can deal with green makeup), there are those Munchkins. Here’s one of the problems: we wanted them all to be shorter than Dorothy. So during auditions, kids were backed up against a wall where the top line was 5’, and if they topped that, they weren’t a Munchkin. They might be an Emerald Citizen or a Winkie Guard, if they looked old enough and could sing well enough. Otherwise, we couldn’t include them in the cast. It’s hard to break a couple of dozen children’s hearts. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Sounds simple enough ... but we cast the show in September and it went up in November or December. Children grow very quickly. Inevitably we could have had a Munchkin basketball team. How did you grow three inches in two and a half months? What do you do with Munchkins who are onstage twice in a two hour show? Find some wonderful moms who help them play games and do busy work in between their two scenes.

During our first WIZARD OF OZ there was an outbreak of a nasty stomach virus that swept through Munchkinland during show weekend. Fortunately, by then every Munchkin in the cast knew the dialogue, music and movement for every Munchkin leading role, so when first the Mayor and then the Coroner and probably others I don’t recall were knocked out of commission, we just grabbed a Munchkin who fit the costume and the show went on.

Other challenges: going from black-and-white or sepia (which is what the original film was) to technicolor. Mainly costuming and lighting. Flying monkeys: we only used one, and that was the third time we did the show. He was a hoot. The Witch’s crystal ball: mainly good acting by the Witch. The Wizard’s Throne Room. (Lots of specials from the lighting and sound designers.) I think you get the picture. Glinda's bubble. Needless to say, the show is a nightmare for the stage manager.

The house that moves from Kansas to Oz: house constructed on a frame with casters; stage crew members inside who moved the house from one side of the stage to the other while the lighting and sound techs created a pretty awesome storm. Fans blowing the curtains around (not sure how effective that was). Blackout, really good backdrop of Munchkinland pulled across the stage. Quickly hide Munchkins everywhere. Quick change for Dorothy into “technicolor” blue and white checked pinafore dress. Worked pretty well! 

Toto. Probably the biggest land mine in the entire show. Our first Toto was not a stage performer, but his owners were great and they were as much part of the cast as anyone else. They were there through thick and thin. Rather than trying to have a non-stage trained dog on for the entire show, the Wicked Witch snatched him up when she first accosted Dorothy, and Toto didn’t reappear until Dorothy was in the Witch’s castle, where he was in a cage. The owners begged me to let Toto try crossing the stage by himself when he’s rescued, so at the final dress I agreed. Toto bolted into the hall. The rehearsal came to a screeching halt while we rescued him for real. Since we were in a high school the halls were filled with non-show people.

Second Oz: we used a dog trained for stage work. He was great, but the trainer wasn’t people friendly, so there was a lot of tension backstage. Third Oz: one of the Munchkins had a mom who was a veterinarian. Best Toto yet! That was the year we had fifty Munchkins on stage and a total cast of one hundred. I’m surprised the actors who played the Lion and the Tin Man that year are still my friends ... those costumes weren’t easy!

My favorite scene was the one that was cut from the film: “The Jitterbugs.” Most fun scene in the entire show, and I just relaxed and watched the dancers provide some wonderful true stage magic in Oz thanks to a terrific choreographer. Would I direct it again? I absolutely would. Would it scare the daylights out of me? Without a doubt. But it’s worth it!