The strange journey of Dorothy, courtesy of a tornado, from Kansas to Oz was so indelibly committed to celluloid in 1939 that it might seem unnecessary — even a little sacrilegious — to transform the MGM classic into a stage show.
But given the film's colorful story, its no-place-like-home message and brilliant Harold Arlen songs, it's easy to understand the temptation.
Only a few years after it hit the screen, "The Wizard of Oz" was adapted by the Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis. In the late 1980s, the Royal Shakespeare Company unveiled a theatrical version in London.
In 2011, another staging appeared in London and ran for a year and a half. This production came with one of the biggest names in musical theater attached — Andrew Lloyd Webber.
This latest treatment of "The Wizard of Oz" reaches the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Wednesday for a five-day run, bringing with it several new songs, a cast of about two dozen, lots of scenery and costumes, an orchestra of 10 — and Toto, too.
To fashion this project, Webber reunited with Tim Rice, his lyricist for such 1970s hits as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." The composer, whose celebrated works (with other lyricists) also include "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Sunset Boulevard," co-wrote the adaptation with Jeremy Sams, who is the production's director.
"A lot of thought went into this show," says Madeline Paul, associate director for "The Wizard of Oz." "The challenge was keeping intact the wonderful characters and songs that already existed in the film, and adding a new brightness to it."
The creative team attempted to deliver that brightness first by filling out the score to make this an all-out musical.
As fans of the "Oz" movie know, it has a musical imbalance — after such now-classic songs as "Over the Rainbow," "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and "If I Only had a Brain," the second half or so of the film is pretty much just dialogue.
Webber and Rice fashioned a showpiece for the Wicked Witch of the West, who expresses her obsession with a pair of ruby slippers by belting out "Red Shoe Blues." There's also a number for Glinda, the good witch, when she reminds Dorothy that she always had the power within herself to get back home.
"The movie has no song for Professor Marvel, who is quite an important character in Dorothy's journey," Paul says. "In this show, he sings 'Wonders of the World' as he gives Dorothy a world tour with the use of slides. The final slide is a cottage with a white picket fence. He tells her, 'Home is one of the wonders of the world as well.' Dorothy has to run away to find that out."
As for Dorothy, she gets a new song early in the musical, before the one everyone is expecting, "Over the Rainbow." It's called "Nobody Understands Me."
"It's designed to introduce her as an angst-ridden teenager who feels her voice isn't being heard," Paul says.
The voice that will be heard in Baltimore belongs to Julia McClellan, a Canadian who has been on the "Wizard of Oz" tour since it launched last fall, after the show's eight-month run in Toronto. (Most of the tour has featured Danielle Wade, who was cast as Dorothy after winning a talent competition on Canadian television to fill the role.)
McClellan, barely into her 20s, remembers the 1939 movie being on TV while growing up — "It was my grandmother's favorite," she says — but did not watch it all the way through until she got a chance to audition for the musical.
"Now I love it to death," McClellan says. "I get why this is such an iconic film. But when I saw it, I didn't understand why Dorothy wanted to leave home. She had a beautiful dress and an awesome dog, and it didn't seem like she had to do any work. Why would she want to leave? One of my favorite things about our version is that it shows why."
The girl who laments that nobody understands her turns out to be ready for anything when she winds up in Oz.
Sams and Webber have "created a new Dorothy," McClellan says. "She's a bit feistier. She's funny; she stands up for her friends; she saves lives. That's a pretty strong female. She's a cool chick in this version."
This Dorothy learns the same lesson in the end.
"It's so universal," McClellan says. "It's about going away, only to find out that everything you wanted you already had."
Any stage version of Dorothy has to compete with a long, strong shadow cast in 1939.
"I know the minute anyone comes to our show, they're thinking of Judy Garland," McClellan says. "I'll never be Judy Garland. No one can. But I try to pay homage by adding a little of Judy to my performance."
Another member of the cast does something similar. That's Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, who plays the Wicked Witch of the West. This Broadway veteran of "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" and more remembers well the 1939 "Oz" with the perfectly cast Margaret Hamilton as Dorothy's nemesis.
"I waited every year for that movie to come on TV," says Donovan. "Margaret Hamilton scared the pants off me. There are certain things I do in the show that are absolutely nods to her."
One thing Donovan's portrayal does not acknowledge is another incarnation of the witch, the one named Elphaba in the mega-hit "Wicked," a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz."
"I may be the only music theater performer who has never seen 'Wicked,'" Donovan says. "At the stage door one night, I heard someone say, 'Look, there's Elphaba.' I don't know how to respond to that. But it has been interesting to have both shows on the road at the same time. I think they feed off of each other in a way."
Donovan notes that the witch in the Webber-ized "Oz" differs a bit from the one in the movies.
"They've added humor," she says. "There's a very different flavor to it. The witch still needs to scare the kids, though. In her song, she snaps back and forth between giddy and evil."
The whole score to this musical involves a certain back-and-forth, given the distinctions between the familiar movie songs and the additional ones.
"Andrew Lloyd Webber has clearly thought a lot about Harold Arlen while writing the new songs," McClellan says. "The music fits in quite seamlessly, I think."
The show's music director, David Andrews Rogers, who has guided several Broadway and touring productions, credits orchestrator David Cullen with helping to hold the 1939 and 2011 elements together.
"You want the show to speak with one voice," Rogers says. "The orchestrations sound at once old-fashioned and contemporary."
Webber uses some music that was cut from the movie before its release, including a reprise of "Over the Rainbow."
"Dorothy sings it plaintively when she's locked up in the Witch's tower," Rogers says. "As I understand it, it was considered too melancholy for a children's film, so it was cut. In the stage show, it gives you a better insight into what Dorothy's thinking."
One famous number from the movie is missing — the Cowardly Lion's "King of the Forest," which gave actor Bert Lahr an extra solo. In this stage version, the character gets equal time with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow.
A crucial visual element of the film has been retained in the stage version.
"We couldn't have black-and-white for Kansas," Paul says, "but the Kansas design does have a Dust Bowl, 'Grapes of Wrath' feel to it, with wonderful sepia tones. And when Dorothy lands in Oz, there are riotous colors."
When it comes to the canine portion of "The Wizard of Oz," this production takes no chances.
"We've got two dogs — Nigel and his understudy, Loki," Paul says. "They're really actors. They know what to do. Toto gets the final curtain call, and, if the audience isn't already standing, people jump up for him."
If you go
"The Wizard of Oz" runs Wednesday through June 1 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $49 to $69 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun