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Pulling Back the Curtain


Dorothy: I'm just a simple girl from the prairie. Oz: She is Dottie with a dot on the i. Dorothy: It seems to me you're very contrary. Oz: And I hope you will explain to us why.

- from the lyrics of "Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie"

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Oz anymore.

Or at least not the Oz we know so well from the 1939 MGM film classic. On the other side of this rainbow, our rosy-cheeked heroine has a love interest (Sir Dashemoff Daily), Toto has been replaced by a pantomime cow named Imogene and a Topeka waitress blows in on the same tornado as Dorothy.

And though Dorothy does join forces with a tin woodsman, scarecrow and cowardly lion to wend her way to the Wizard of Oz, they don't skip down the yellow brick road, drop in on lollipop gangs of Munchkins, or slosh water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

That's because this version of "The Wizard of Oz" was a stage show, a hit Broadway musical that was the "Cats" of the early 20th century, nearly 40 years before the Judy Garland movie tapped the imagination of successive generations.

The show, which opened in Chicago in 1902 to a packed opera house, ran for 300 performances on Broadway when 100 constituted a hit, according to Oz scholars. And in various versions - more than 100 songs were written for the ever-changing score - it toured the country for more than 10 years, coming to Baltimore's Ford's Theater in 1904, with a return engagement in January 1905.

"The audience laughed and encored song and jest. ... 'The Wizard' is a rattling good show," raved a Jan. 17, 1905, theater review in The Sun. "The Scarecrow, who only needs brains, gets a supply modeled after those of President Roosevelt. He is immediately a friend of the workingman, he declares."

Yet, in the popular consciousness, "The Wizard of Oz: A Musical Extravaganza in Three Acts" has long been replaced by the film version, its nonsensical song-and-dance style lost somewhere down Tin Pan Alley along with other early U.S. musicals of its genre.

Now the original stage show is being revived in an illustrated libretto and piano/vocal score to be published in late fall this year, the 100th anniversary of the publication of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the first book in L. Frank Baum's Oz series. There is also a recently released CD ("Before the Rainbow," Hungry Tiger Music) that features instrumentals from other musicals of the early 1900s based on Baum's later Oz novels, including "Tik-Tok of Oz." (Authorized authors have kept the Oz series alive, and there are now 40 books and counting.)

And if that's not enough Oz stuff, there's a four-day Oz Centennial Convention at Indiana University at Bloomington starting tomorrow. Among other tributes, fans of Oziana (as Oz paraphernalia is known) will be treated to a lecture on the Broadway hit and a slide show reconstruction of the first act.

"If you talk about historically significant developments with ['Oz'] since it was published, without question the popularity of the 1903 stage play has to be included," said Jane Albright, vice president of the International Wizard of Oz Club (www.ozclub.org).

In many ways, the 1939 MGM film was truer to the plot of Baum's book than the musical, though some elements of the stage show, such as using a snow storm to awaken Dorothy from the field of poppies, were adapted for the film. (In the book, field mice saved the day.)

Also like the film, the Broadway hit was known for its astonishing special effects, including an on-stage "cyclone" featuring lantern projections of wind-blown objects and an electrically controlled light show considered spectacular for the era.

Yet even 100 years later, it's hard to understand how such a popular production could be so thoroughly erased by the film. Though some Oz scholars and fans knew of the Broadway musical, detailed information has been scarce and elements of the score scattered among libraries and private collections.

The rediscovery and piecing together of the three-act Oz musical extravaganza started with two strangers who began reading and collecting Oz books as children, grew into obsessed Oz fans as adults, and then met each other via the yellow brick electronic highway.

James Doyle, 43, a Houston muSician, composer and aficionado of early Broadway musicals, and David Maxine, 37, co-founder of Hungry Tiger Press in San Diego (which publishes historical writings about Baum and Oz-related materials) had both heard snippets about the theater production. In separate searches over two decades, they collected copies of the script, sheet music, composers' notes, lyricists' papers, scratchy recordings on '78s and wax cylinders, and archival material - including photos, programs and press clippings.

"When I began to find the old recordings, the show really came to life," said Maxine, who studied theater design at New York University and Yale University. "All of a sudden, you hear the songs being performed by 1903 and1904 singers." Yet sheet music for many of the 100 songs remained missing.

In the mid-1990s, after hearing about each other through a mutual friend, Doyle and Maxine sent tentative e-mails and then started searching the Internet for more material, tapping university archives just then going online. During an electronic chat in the spring of 1998, Doyle and Maxine found more than 25 songs by simultaneously surfing Johns Hopkins University's Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, a repository of 29,000 pieces of popular American music focusing on the period from 1780 to 1960. (The collection's Web address is levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/)

What Doyle and Maxine discovered was a rich lore of musical theater sprinkled with people who would become some of the biggest names of the next decade. When "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" became a success in 1900, Baum, who had already worked as a traveling salesman, general-store manager, children's book author and actor, decided to adapt it to the stage.

Baum wrote many of the lyrics, joining a young Chicago composer named Paul Tietjens to write such songs as the Tinman's ballad, "When You Love, Love, Love!," "Scarecrow" and "Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie," the last of which was part of the Act II finale.

Baum submitted his script to Chicago producer Fred Hamlin, whose next big Broadway hit would be "Babes in Toyland." Hamlin contacted New York director Julian Mitchell (later to direct the Ziegfeld Follies) who knew two vaudevillian stars who would be perfect companions for Dorothy - David C. Montgomery and Fred A. Stone, according to Maxine. (Stone's loose-limbed acrobatics would later be the basis for actor Ray Bolger's film version of the Scarecrow).

Partly knowing the sheet music would be bought for sing-a-longs around parlor pianos, Mitchell advised Baum to tinker with the script (working in the love interests and subplots) and brought in big-league revisionists, including Glen MacDonough (who would co-write "Babes in Toyland"). Some final tunes were written by Baltimore native A. Baldwin Sloane, a critically reviled but popular composer whose 50 or so shows have all but vanished.

Mitchell also brought in 100 girls in tights to play the Munchkins, a big hit with many critics who otherwise panned much of the musical score. (The Sun reviewer noted: "The chorus girls are among the best-looking and best acting seen in many productions.")

In this extravaganza approach, Dorothy's trek to the Wizard became a plot skeleton on which hung the talents of various stars, who often performed unrelated song-and-dance numbers. Already popular songs about Pocahontas, a kid named Little Nemo and his bear, and other strangers to Oz would appear and disappear from the fluid score. And various productions would include medleys, such as "The Ball of All Nations" which featured the Scarecrow doing a Spanish bolero.

"The performers would have specialties," Doyle said. "They would do certain kinds of things well and have their moment to do it. It's hilarious to read how they worked it into the script. They'd say, 'Gee, that reminds me of a song,' and then launch into 'Pocahontas' or 'The Tale of The Monkey." As the show traveled to theaters around the country, the score shifted around so much that Doyle and Maxine had trouble figuring out which songs to keep in the new version and which to throw out. Because a few holes in the early scripts still remain, they also used composers' notes and reviewers' comments to fill in music where none survived - such as the closing number, which reads only "Finale."

"We ended up reassembling this sort of time capsule of the show when it was still being produced by Hamlin in its initial tour," Doyle added. "After that, it gets really freewheeling."

Among the ever-changing elements was topical political humor. "I think it was illegal at the time to do any play without a Teddy Roosevelt joke," Doyle said. "If the show had theoretically kept on running and was playing somewhere today there would doubtless be Al Gore jokes."

Other jokes needed to be softened or cut altogether. Ethnic humor popular at the turn of the century would be considered racist today. "That's one of the reasons you don't see that many shows from the time," Doyle said. In "Wizard," a song such as "The Bullfrog and the Coon," is now entitled "Interlude: Cynthia's Bullfrog Song."

"It simply wasn't that important to the entire fabric of the show," Doyle said. "The big deal about the song is the fact that it has this hilarious chorus that consists of this very over-the-top lilting operetta chorus interspersed with croaking sounds and kissing sounds."

Maxine's Hungry Tiger Press (www.hungrytigerpress.com) is publishing the score, which will include the reconstructed script, bits of dialogue, backstage gossip, quotes from newspaper reviews, composers' notes, photographs, drawings and 28 Oz songs. In the next few months Maxine expects to release a two-CD set titled "Wizard of Oz: Contemporary Recordings 1901-1910" that features digitally cleaned-up recordings of artists of the day singing popular tunes from the Broadway show.

At the Centennial Convention this week, there will be Oz-related lectures, puppet shows and songfests. A fan named Sir Readalot will try to break into the Guinness Book of World Records by reading aloud seven Oz books for 24 hours straight.

But Doyle and Maxine think they'll top all that with their memorabilia from the Oz musical. "Nobody has really seen anything like this," said Maxine, "unless they are half psychotic like James and I are about the show and are collecting all the music from where the winds have scattered it."

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