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BWW Interview: Randall MacLowry & Tracy Heather Strain Talk AMERICAN OZ on PBS

The doc premieres tonight on PBS; check out an exclusive clip from the film below!

A new American Experience documentary, "American Oz," premieres tonight, April 19th, at 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS!

Ahead of the premiere, BroadwayWorld caught up with filmmakers Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain to talk about the legacy of "The Wizard of Oz," the most interesting things about L. Frank Baum, and why they believe this story is so uniquely American.

Read the full interview and check out an exclusive clip from the film below!

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents American Oz, a new documentary that explores the life and times of author L. Frank Baum, the creator of one of the most beloved, enduring and classic American narratives. By 1900, when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, Baum was 44 years old and had spent much of his life in restless pursuit of success. With mixed results he dove into a string of jobs - chicken breeder, actor, marketer of petroleum products, shopkeeper, newspaperman and traveling salesman - but continued to reinvent himself, reflecting a uniquely American brand of confidence, imagination and innovation.

During his travels to the Great Plains and on to Chicago during the American frontier's final days, he witnessed a nation coming to terms with the economic uncertainty of the Gilded Age. But he never lost his childlike sense of wonder and eventually crafted his observations into a magical tale of survival, adventure and self-discovery, reinterpreted through the generations in films, books and musicals.


What are your personal histories with THE WIZARD OF OZ?

Tracy: I had on my shelf as a child the full set of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz books. So I had these 12 or 14 books - they were beautiful, colorful books, white with colorful imagery on the covers. And I actually carried those books around with me as an adult whenever I moved, until quite recently. I read the books. And also, as an American Studies major in college, we read The Wizard of Oz in a literature class. For the life of me, I can't remember exactly what we discussed.

Randall: So for myself, I did not read the books as a child. I was introduced to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as I think many people were, through the 1939 film. It was during one of the TV broadcasts that became traditional - the annual broadcasts around Thanksgiving. And, as it was mentioned by one of our interviewees in the film, I, too, had a black and white television set. So, growing up, I had no idea that Dorothy entered Oz and this wonderful, technicolor world. It was quite the surprise when I finally saw the film as it was intended to be seen! And also, like one of the interviewees said, the flying monkeys were terrifying.

I had actually not read the book itself until I started to work on this project, which was a commissioned film from American Experiences. So, that was my introduction to the book - and it was interesting to see some of the differences between the book and the different adaptations of the book.

What are some of the most notable differences? Why were those choices made?

Randall: I can't speak to the choices of the filmmakers, but certainly, the film - like any film adaptation - they have to reduce the story. They had to create a through line that's much more focused on the conflict between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West. That was not nearly as large a part of the book as it is in the film. There are many other adventures after the Wicked Witch of the West is vanquished that Dorothy and her three companions go on. So, there were a lot of things that were pulled out, and it became much more of a duel battle between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch.

But, of course, the main ideas and the themes are the same - the idea of home, and the sense of having what you need within yourself. In that respect, there were similarities. Certainly the movie is what cemented the book and that story in the American consciousness.

From my perspective working in Broadway news, I'm always thinking about the Wicked Witch when I think about the Wizard of Oz - why do you think the Wicked Witch has sort of gone on to have a life of her own?

Randall: Yeah, Wicked was such an interesting thing - giving the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West. The Broadway play brought great visibility to that, and that was adapted from a book as well - which was very different tonally from what the Broadway play was! But, again - it's similar themes of marginalization and acceptance. And now Wicked will become a movie!

What do you think makes this such an American story?

Tracy: I'm gonna address the books and the film story - I think that the people who inhabit the United States are characterized as people who are optimistic and can-do. And it's a place that has, for a long time, been written about as a place where one's dreams can be realized. This is something that we understand that people in other countries believe about the United States.

And so, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Wizard of Oz are stories that are consistent with that kind of conceptualization that you can overcome obstacles here. You can find answers. You can go on adventures here.

And I think that one of the things I particularly like about The Wizard of Oz is that the protagonist is a woman. A girl. And she is able to achieve - she's brave and she gets things done. That's a quality that is often projected as an American sensibility. It's not to say that other people and cultures don't have that sensibility, but a lot of times you see it in popular culture identified as that American optimism. Sometimes it drives other countries crazy.

Randall: And I would say in terms of Baum himself, I think he's uniquely American - quintessentially American. He's a person who kept reinventing himself, and that's sort of part of what people think of America. That you can become somebody else, somebody other than where you started. In certain respects, you could say he always had a certain level of wealth, and he had that support, but he was constantly struggling, and trying to find his way, and he failed many times in his journey to achieve the recognition and the successes that he wanted.

So, that idea of doing everything from chicken breeding to acting to being a salesman of many different stripes, and kind of finding different ways to use his imagination and invest his work with his imagination, regardless of what he was trying to do, and finally landing on this storytelling aspect that was always with him in many ways and turning it into a successful career. And I think he was innovative in that way, too. He was constantly striving for new things - to get involved with theatre, and then the film. He was on the cusp of many things, especially in some of his ideas of American culture, and popular culture, and even technology. He embraced technology quite a bit, and was excited by something like film and how it could transform the world he was imagining, and how he could leverage those new technologies to his advantage.

What's the most interesting thing you uncovered about L. Frank Baum's life?

Tracy: I have to say, the chicken breeding was a surprise! I did not expect that! Where did that come from?!

I didn't know anything about his life, first of all. And so, everything was interesting and surprising, and trying to decide what to put in the film was challenging. He had a printing press when he was a kid! We couldn't put that in the film.

The fact that he tried some of these things - and sometimes, he stopped doing things he was successful doing, because it felt like he had something inside of him driving him. It's like he knew there was something he had to ultimately do.

That was surprising - that he kept leaving successful things to try to do something else.

Randall: For me, one of the most interesting things for sure, and one of the things that deserves a lot more attention, was his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage. I found her to be a fascinating individual, and certainly the influence she had on him. But the idea that she was very progressive for the time, and for the work she did in suffrage, but even her ideas of relating to women in society, and her ideas about having more of a matriarchal society, and looking to that as a way to solve world problems. I think we found in learning more about Baum and the story, and the literary and scholarly works that have been written about it - that kind of influence was very important in terms of the world he did create. Wizard of Oz is very much a matriarchal world - the protagonists in that story are the women.

I found Matilda Joslyn Gage to be a fascinating character, and it was important for me to learn about her. She obviously was a very important part of his life. Even things like theosophy, which was his religion of sorts, but also more kind of the idea of the power of the mind. That was part of what they were being taught - that sort of turning inward was something I thought was interesting in terms of what they were experimenting with thinking about, and how that translates into the work he was doing.

It sounds very ahead of its time.

Randall: I think it was! I think she certainly was, and he had aspects of himself that, I think, were. He did envision a future that was beyond where they were. He did have that quality, and I think it comes out of the fact that he really nurtured and trusted his imagination. As a child, that was what he wallowed in - making up stories, and getting the opportunity to read a lot as a kid. Being brought into those ideas of the fairytales, and places beyond where you are at the moment.



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