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Further Stage Adventures in Oz, Part Twenty-four: An Examiner in Oz Part Four

Dorothy and her friends play to the crowd, Denslow-style
Dorothy and her friends play to the crowd, Denslow-styleW.W. Denslow, illustrator

My second foray into the realm of stage Oz was in a production of the MGM/RSC The Wizard of Oz which was, in all honesty, technically spectacular, possibly even on the level of the Baum – Tietjens Wizard. Full use was made of an enormous stage on which was built a platform which essentially made for a two-story effect. The cast were for the most part well-chosen and the ensemble (of which I was a member) was vast; in all about one hundred and twenty-odd people, seventy-five or so of them being children to populate Munchkinland. The sets, costumes, and choreography were beyond what one normally expects for a community theater show.

The problems (which compel me to leave the production company unidentified) were a certain aloofness on the part of the production staff and a good deal of backstage drama. I will not go into the latter except to relate one incident, as it nearly catapulted me into a starring role. Besides playing a cornstalk, a tree, a “creepy-crawly,” an Emerald City Citizen, a Jitterbug, and a Winkie Soldier, I was understudy to the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow.

Now, the actor who was cast as the Scarecrow had an issue with the mask—yes, mask—the directors wanted him to wear. Frankly, it was hideous, and most of us thought it too frightening for the very small children. After what must have been a lively discussion one rehearsal day, this actor burst into the dressing room and said to me, holding his thumb and forefinger about a quarter of an inch apart, “You are this close to playing the Scarecrow!”

But it was finally settled, and he was allowed to use makeup as he’d wanted. So I never played the Scarecrow or either if the other characters for which I was standby.

You might be wondering about some of the roles I mentioned before. For each of the signature tunes of Dorothy’s friends (the “If I Only Had___” series of songs), the director wanted there to be lots of movement on the stage, so for the Scarecrow, the cornstalks danced, for the Woodman, the trees, and for the Lion (who lived in what was not so much a forest as a swamp, by the look of things), some nondescript creepy crawly critters.

The first production of Wizard that I was in featured children as most of the Munchkins, with grownups on their knees filling in the background. The second show boasted, as I said, roughly seventy-five children, and the people in charge had ingeniously separated them into various groups, each with their own team name, and arranged for a groups of parents to look after them when not on stage.

For once, Aunt Em and Glinda were played by different actresses, but in a very bizarre decision, the directors decided that the usually dual role Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West would also be split between two people, and neither woman bore any resemblance to the other.

Many of the children were also Winged Monkeys, and so great were their numbers that Nikko was given a second-in-command to help him keep them in order.

It was, as I said, an amazing production, and I made some friends, one or two of who I worked with on other shows later. But all in all, I think I'd have preferred to bow out earlier.