Good-bye Yellow Brick Road

Houstonian James Doyle helps reclaim a neglected Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz that predates the MGM musical by 37 years

As a child, James Doyle knew more about Oz than Judy Garland's Dorothy ever did. After watching her 1939 MGM classic for the first time, he began to explore the 40-volume Oz book series, which ventured far beyond the familiar confines of Munchkinland and the Emerald City with tales of the Tik-Tok Man, the Patchwork Girl, Princess Ozma and other fantastical beings. Yet none of his readings prepared him for what he encountered in 1973.

At the time, he was a high school junior in Santa Ana, California. He was at home, in the living room, practicing the first violin part for a school production of The Wizard of Oz. The windows were open, as was usual for a balmy Southern California afternoon. He was working on the entrance music of Glenda, the Good Witch, when his next-door neighbor spoke up from the yard between their houses.

"What are you playing?" Felice Louria asked, in her abrupt, bluntly honest style, which endeared the Brooklyn retiree to Doyle. "It sounds like the damned souls in hell."

James Doyle: Compared to that of some modern Broadway shows, the original music from The Wizard of Oz "kicks ass."
Steve Lowry
James Doyle: Compared to that of some modern Broadway shows, the original music from The Wizard of Oz "kicks ass."

Doyle went outside and told her what he was practicing. She joined him on the front porch.

"Oh, yeah, The Wizard of Oz," she said, with a note of recognition. "Montgomery and Stone," she added knowingly, as if the names spoke for themselves.

"Who?" Doyle asked.

"You don't know?" she replied. They were, she said, the song-and-dance team that had played the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: A Musical Extravaganza in Three Acts, a huge Broadway show at the beginning of the 20th century. She'd seen it several times as a child.

The revelation played right into what Doyle would later call his "other version" fascination: When he learns that a variant of something exists, he wants to know more about it. Felice was happy to indulge the compulsion. She broke into a few bars of the musical's hit song. "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay" she sang, attempting a little dance, as well as a woman in her eighties could.

She described how the Scarecrow worked on the Tin Man to bring him back to life. Every time the Scarecrow loosened a joint, the Tin Man's ax would come down with a whack! With each whack, the Scarecrow would somersault two or three times across the stage. She remembered the audience howling when the Scarecrow quipped, "Some of these tough joints need to be closed down."

The production's crown jewel, she told Doyle, was its cyclone. The show began with the twister off in the distance and everyone on stage running away. Things appeared to blow through the air as a magic lantern projected one slide after another onto a sheet of gauze. Behind it, a series of curtains opened to reveal the progress of the cyclone, working its path of destruction. When it died down, the lights faded to blue and Munchkinland rolled onto the stage, piece by piece, as if by magic.

"I want to know about the show," Doyle thought, when he went back to practicing a half hour or so later. "I want to hear the music."

That conversation would send Doyle on a 25-year odyssey to piece together a musical that was the Cats of its generation -- but one whose form had fallen out of fashion long before Garland's film became the definitive version of the Wizard of Oz story.

Those who know The Wizard of Oz only from the MGM film would find the first theatrical production as foreign as Dorothy found Munchkinland. Sure, both interpretations feature a Kansas girl who joins up with a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion to pay a visit to the wizard. But that's where the similarities end. In the theater version, there are no flying monkeys or lollipop-wielding Munchkins, no yellow brick road and no Wicked Witch of the West. And Toto, too, is missing. Instead, Dorothy travels with a pantomime cow named Imogene, a capitulation to the difficulties of working with a live animal on stage.

Dorothy also has a love interest, Sir Dashemoff Daily, the poet laureate of Oz (played by a woman), who decides, sight unseen, to woo the girl whose house has crushed the Wicked Witch. But before Dorothy speaks her first line, two other plots begin to unspool: Cynthia Cynch, a self-professed "lady lunatic," has been driven mad by the disappearance of her love, Nick Chopper, and looks for him by asking every man she encounters -- in a bizarre swipe from Cinderella -- to play her sweetheart's piccolo. And the same tornado that sweeps Dorothy into Oz also blows in a Topeka waitress named Tryxie Trifle and her boyfriend, a streetcar motorman who happens to be Oz's exiled King Pastoria II. The king wants his crown back.

Periodically the Scarecrow and the Tin Man wander on stage to interrupt the action with egregious puns -- "I'm a soldered but wiser man," says the latter -- and irrelevant topical political humor. (None the equal in this production, the Lion is relegated to a bit part.) The pair even occasions the appearance of a chorus of cooks and waitresses, which exists for the sole purpose of leading into a song about a pie.

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