Oz Does Toronto

James Doyle's work revives the classic pre-MGM story

On December 7 the curtain went up. A Canadian audience saw the premiere of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Musical Journey -- and James Doyle saw his vision become reality on the stage of the Civic Light Opera Company of Toronto.

The former proofreader at Houston's Greensheet had spent 25 years in a quest to restore the long-lost Broadway musical The Wizard of Oz. He co-authored the reconstruction of that 1903 production based on the popular children's book (see "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road," by Kathy Biehl, January 27). That enabled him to write the music and lyrics for the Canadian production.

It was a long-distance meeting of minds -- and dreams. The Civic Light Opera Company of Toronto had been planning a Christmastime concert of Oz songs. Company artistic director Joe Cascone heard Doyle's 1999 recording "Before the Rainbow" and contacted him for copies of songs Doyle had unearthed from the 1903 musical. Doyle sent him some of his own songs as well, including a plaintive ballad about Kansas for Dorothy.

The yellow brick road led north for Oz historian James Doyle.
Steve Lowry
The yellow brick road led north for Oz historian James Doyle.

The two soon recognized their joint interest in stripping the story of the trappings of the classic 1939 MGM film and returning to the original text of L. Frank Baum, who authored the children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Doyle jumped at the commission to do the score and to collaborate with Cascone for "a determined, smallish company in the third-biggest theatrical city in the world," as Doyle put it.

Doyle worked from a stockpile of lyrics, story notes and completed songs he'd developed over years of tinkering with Oz, which provided the backbone for the first act. To give him an idea of the 22-year-old company's performance level, Cascone mailed videotapes of previous productions.

The pair communicated almost entirely by e-mail and AOL Instant Messenger -- even trading music electronically, using notation software Doyle provided when he grew tired of shipping works-in-progress by mail. They first spoke only three days before the premiere, in a Canadian Broadcast Corporation interview for The Andy Barry Show, which Cascone terms the radio equivalent to the Today show. They did not meet in person until ten days later, on December 14.

Their work unfolds as an early-19th-century traveling show, presided over by the character of Baum. He serves as a narrator to explain and move along the sometimes rambling story line -- and steps in himself to portray the wizard. Doyle and Cascone set Dorothy's age around ten, a choice that enhances her vulnerability. "The importance and strength of what Dorothy does is magnified by the fact that she's small, amid all the adult actors," Doyle says.

The score incorporates a spectrum of styles that would have been known to Baum: waltzes, gospel hymns, Sousa marches and African-American-influenced cakewalk and ragtime music. Those were "exploding in the national consciousness" at the time Baum's book appeared, Doyle explains. The premiere used only a piano, clarinet and cello for accompaniment, in deference to the intimacy of the company's 250-seat theater. Doyle plans to expand the orchestration for future productions.

Following operetta style, many of the songs function as narrative devices. Instead of attempting special effects, one number creates the atmosphere of the cyclone, from its approach to its carrying Dorothy away. Two long traveling sequences, involving the heroine and her companions, compress parts of the book that the MGM movie ignored, largely involving encounters with fantastical creatures such as Hammerheads and Kalidahs (which are part bear, part tiger -- no lion).

In the first act, the Queen of the Field Mice and a chorus of her subjects extol the powers of friends working together as they build a cart and pull the sleeping lion out of the poppy field. The second act peaks with Glinda (the predecessor to MGM's good witch) guiding Dorothy, through song, into realizing her powers.

A CD, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has been released on Hungry Tiger Music (www.hungrytigerpress.com), the same label that released Doyle's earlier Baum album.

Doyle anticipates more life for his Wizard after the successful premiere, which he is looking at as a workshop production. Cascone, who directed the ten-day production, has received offers to take the show to two theaters outside Toronto.

 
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