August 1, 2009

Virtually every living person is aware of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland. Many people are also aware that it was based on the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1899 and was published in 1900.

But between the book and the 1939 film falls the shadow. There's an entire universe of Oz-ness in those 40 years that has completely gone down the memory hole, almost without a trace.

On the heels of the book's instant success, a Broadway musical was planned. It opened first at the Grand Opera House in Chicago on June 16, 1902, then went on to Broadway with a January 21, 1903 premiere. It ran for almost a year and continued for many more years as a touring production, endlessly criss-crossing the country. Community theatres continued to stage the play regularly right up until the advent of the 1939 film, which was also a musical and which used a few elements from the 1902 version.

According to the book Oz Before the Rainbow by Mark Evan Swartz, the touring version of this production came to Louisville, Kentucky for a short engagement of just three days: February 15, 16, and 17, 1904. Because of the popularity of the voluminous Oz series of books and the musical, these shows were surely packed in attendance to the rafters.

What Kentuckians saw that night would be almost unrecognizable to anyone from our generation, or our parents' generation:

  • Instead of Toto the dog, Dorothy is accompanied by a giant talking cow named Imogene.

  • The Cowardly Lion is in a much more realistic lion-like costume, doesn't speak, and is only a very minor character.

  • Much of the story is taken up not by Dorothy's quest to get home, but by the misadventures of a slutty waitress named Trixie Tryfle and her lover, King Pastoria II. (Pastoria rules Oz, but also secretly works in an auto repair shop in Kansas.)

  • The Tin Man has a girlfriend named Cynthia Cynch, also known as The Lady Lunatic.

  • Dorothy is given three wishes, but strangely doesn't use any of them to wish herself back home. Instead, one is wasted accidentally, one is used to bring the dead Scarecrow back to life, and the other is used, inexplicably, to be able to learn the lyrics to a song that another unfamiliar character, Sir Dashemoff Daily, has written for his girlfriend, Carrie Barry.

  • Instead of being assisted by the Wizard and Glinda, Dorothy is sent to prison and about to be executed by beheading. A tornado arrives just in time to blow her back to Kansas.

    Trying to understand the songs in the show today may be difficult for those with an aversion to antique music. Only a handful of crispy old recordings survive, almost all of which have been collected on a great two-CD set from Hungry Tiger. These recordings range from Edison wax cylinders, 78rpm records, piano rolls, and even mechanical music boxes.

    Most of the musical numbers have little or nothing to do with the plot, and the libretto kept changing over the years. It's not uncommon for scenes and songs to disappear or be tweaked early in a show's run, but this reinvention continued over the many years the show was being staged. The disconnected nature of the songs made it easy to replace them with new ones, apparently in an effort to keep the show fresh for the people who were coming back to see it over and over and over again. The show's biggest hits have all but been forgotten:

  • "Hurrah For Baffin's Bay" - a faux sea chantey in which the Scarecrow and the Tin Man inexplicably reminisce about their past sailing adventures on a ship called the Cuspidor.

  • "Must You?" - hit records were had by several artists with this song. It was, completely randomly and implausibly, sung by the Tin Man through the bars of a jail to a passing waitress:

    I must have been a silly sort of josh
    When I went and spliced Matilda Jane.
    I thought at the time I was in for something prime,
    But very soon found out I was insane.

  • "Sammy" - a song which Trixie Tryfle sings about an old lover she wishes she still had. This was the show's most blockbuster hit, and yet it's virtually unknown today. In each night's performance, Trixie (played by Lotta Faust) would break the Fourth Wall, pick out a man from the audience and sing the song directly to him, usually to his great embarrassment.

    The modern pop-culture obsession with The Wizard of Oz that we all seem to share will hopefully be extended to re-include this bizarre musical, which for 40 years was the one true original real thing, before that Dorothy-come-lately Judy Garland's revisionist version. And if that isn't enough to keep you occupied with Oz-study for the rest of your life, there are still other Oz-related stage shows of the past, such as The Woggle Bug and The Tik-Tok Man of Oz!

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    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at