BWW Interview: Enchanting the Young at Heart: MSMT Panel Examines the Enduring Appeal of THE WIZARD OF OZ
"For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion....." These words from L. Frank Baum dance across the screen during the overture of MSMT's stunning new production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, reminding the audience of the perennial appeal of this beloved story. And as the curtain goes up, the audience is treated to arguably the largest, most lavish production in MSMT history with a cast of fifty (that includes twenty children and a dog), dazzling technical elements, staging and choreography to blow one away, and performances to melt the heart.
""When I saw Marc Robin's production at the Fulton in 2016, I said, "We have to do this at MSMT. THE WIZARD OF OZ had not been on this stage since 1961, and it was time to give it a new life," says Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark.
Clark is one of the large panel, which also includes Marc Robin, Travis M. Grant, Carolyn Anne Miller, Susan Cella, Ian Knauer, and David Girolmo, who have come together in conversation with BWW's Maine Editor Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwoldin MSMT and BWW's final season collaboration of PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN at the Curtis Memorial Library on August 14th.
For each of these artists, their personal connections with the OZ story and history with the show have made this experience exceptional, and the discussion begins with recalling those memories. Robin remembers: "I played Toto when I was four, and that hooked me on theatre! At ten I played the Wizard; at eleven I directed a production in my parents' gar4age. I have found THE WIZARD OF OZ has kept coming into my life constantly. It was a family tradition growing up, and then as years went on, it was the first professional production I was hired to direct. That was a children's theatre version where I met Curt [Dale Clark] and in the same production David Girolmo and I started to work together. I was also the Artistic Director of the national tour for the Sing Along WIZARD OF OZ film, and that gave me my first New York credit when we opened at the Gershwin Theatre a week before WICKED did. It also brought me to the Hollywood Bowl, where I met Lorna Luft. I also was connected to the work as an actor; I played the Scarecrow at Chicago Shakespeare nineteen years ago, and it was in that show that I tore all the ligaments in my ankle and that injury pushed me toward directing and choreographing full time. I am thankful for that because I love what I am doing. It has been a show that opened so many doors for me - a show that has led me to where I think I should be." Robin concludes by confiding that when Clark asked him to do the Scarecrow in this MSMT production he first thought "it was a joke," but "when he said he was serious, I hired a trainer, lost thirty-seven pounds, and am jumping around like a twenty-year-old again!"
Carolyn Anne Miller, who plays Dorothy Gale, recounts a similarly strong childhood attachment to the OZ tale. "I have a very emotional connection to the show. It reminds me of my grandmother. I would go to her house to watch the movie. I remember the colors, the witch, and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" most of all. [When I sing it now] I try to channel that feeling of being a little kid and wanting to sing that song and be Judy Garland. I remember how I feel about my grandmother, and I channel my inner child."
Girolmo continues the thought: "I am of that age where on Sunday nights when they showed THE WIZARD OF OZ on television, that time was sacrosanct." And for as many times as Girolmo has played the role, he finds "something new every single time." He describes "the very childlike feeling for sixty-two-year-old man to be able to look down the row of my friends on stage and out into the audience and to say 'Look at me; I'm a lion!' We are pretending, and that's what kids do."
Cella talks about her ongoing connection with the material from another perspective. "When Curt asked me to play the Wicked Witch, I was honestly terrified because Margaret Hamilton was so completely iconic. Then, when he told me her son and his wife would be at opening, I was even more frightened. But they were so kind; they told me I had made the part my own." The actress recounts how she has gone about creating a fresh interpretation. "Curt and Marc helped me by saying,'We are not looking for carbon copies,' and Travis helped with the stunning costume he made. It allowed me to steal certain things from Margaret Hamilton, but also I decided she could be more glamorous than the witch Hamilton played - more regal. She is pretty darn mean, but I get to be grand as well."
Playing with precedent and giving new twists and spins to the story has been fun for the artists who are veterans of this show. Ian Knauer who has played the Tin Man many times, says that unlike the previous places he did the role - like the 12,000-seat-outdoor MUNY in St. Louis or the 5,000-seats in Pittsburgh - "what is most different here at MSMT is that this production is more intimate and has more technical elements." And he also cites the new look of his costume which departs from the traditional image, the opportunity to tap (which isn't always the case), and the inclusion in this MSMT production of the scene where the character explains how he came to be the Tin Man.
Cella notes that not only is her Wicked Witch portrayed differently, but she believes in the stage version the character is less scary than on screen. " On screen you see these close-ups of Margaret Hamilton with her nose and chin prosthetics, which, because of quick changes, I can't do on stage." And adding that she thinks her portrayal is "just mean enough," she says "It wouldn't be a good thing for kids to be truly terrified watching the play, because we don't want to scare them for life in their theatre going."
The conversation turns to the technical demands of bringing such a huge project to life on stage. It, of course, begins with the co-director/choroegraphers. Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark talk about their collaborative process. Clark says, "Marc leads us wherever we go."
"I love the puzzle of putting together a show - of beginning with a blank piece of paper and a score and filling that paper with staging that matches the score. I am always passionate about the physical act of blocking the show and about the dance. I usually set up the show and then turn it over to Curt to use his objectivity, his intellect, and vision to make it the best it can be." Robin explains that "Usually when we co-direct, it is because one of us cannot be there for the whole process; I have never done it when I have been in the play - usually it is Curt on stage. But this was unique because after the first week when the show was on its feet, for the most part I turned it over to him [so I could focus on] the Scarecrow, which is such a big role."
Clark jokes, "I thought you were going to tell them how we fight-because we do. When we are not arguing about something, it is probably right. But I love working with him. He is pretty awesome, especially working with the speed that we have to here at MSMT."
And speed - less than two weeks to get the production from page to stage - is not the only challenge. The panel weighs in on some of the many technical hurdles of this production - the numerous special effects, the safety protocols, working with a host of children and a precocious dog, the amazing contributions of the backstage crew. Girolmo notes, "It is almost more exciting to see what is going on backstage. Amy [Bertacini] and her crew perform miracles." Cella gives some examples of the carefully choreographed wardrobe changes, and Clark cites the way each and every entrance and exit must be precisely arranged.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges - and biggest delights - of the production are the more than 150 lavish costumes, created by Grant. Each has its own technical demands, some of which Grant shares with the audience. "Everything is put together with large zippers you could use to hold a house together and big snappers. There is a five-person wardrobe crew to assist" He explains the need to pay attention to quick changes, rigging for the flying harnesses, padding for the Scarecrow, cooling for the Lion, mobility for the Tin Man, clever doubling for Miss Gulch, and deliciously outrageous re-imaginings for characters like the drag queen Apple Trees.
"It is a big show with a lot of tech rehearsal, and this is one of the best costume shops I have ever worked with. These six people spent sixteen hours a day; they did gorgeous work, and they did it with a smile. I have never been happier in my life," says Grant. He recounts how the creative freedom he was given by Clark and Robin was also a great joy and inspiration. "When I started this project I knew certain things are beloved and have to be there - the Four Friends, Kansas' sepia tones and then the color and texture when she goes over the rainbow. But after that I went a lot further than I had originally intended. I went a little crazy because Curt and Marc said 'Be crazy, and we will tell you if you need to pull it back.' So I referenced THE HUNGER GAMES, NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS, THE WIZ, WICKED. It was one of the most challenging and fun things I have ever done."
All the actors acknowledge the huge inspiration to creating character that Grant's costumes have afforded them. Like Cella, they feel it has helped them find the heart of the story. Says Miller, "Dorothy is a real girl in a fantasy universe. She has that wonder, genuineness. She is the heart of the story and the through line, and then you have the comedy of the Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow, the frightening aspect of the Wicked Witch, and the beautiful aspect of Glinda."
It is the close interaction of these characters and the intrinsic qualities they represent that shape the enduring nature of THENWIZARD OF OZ. First and foremost is friendship. Says Knauer, "The story keeps being retold because at its core are so many amazing concepts: friendship, courage, heart, brains, home - all those things we don't think we have, and yet for which we do have the capacity. It is a matter of whether [or not] we believe it and tap into it to use the gift."
"These characters all have within themselves what they are looking for," concurs Girolmo. "Everybody has within him exactly what he thinks he is lacking. We all just have to access that. We all have flaws that need to be overcome, but we have the ability to do that with alacrity."
"And with other people's help, we can make it happen," adds Clark. It is this message of positivity that speaks so passionately to an audience, he feels. That, and the sense of being present in the moment.
Marc Robin sums up that feeling: :THE WIZARD OF OZ reminds you that we spend so much time running toward the next thing that we don't take time to appreciate this thing - this day - this moment right now. Appreciate today right now. There isn't a day I am doing the show and Dorothy says her last lines that I don't well up with tears. And when I look out into the front rows and see children beaming, I know why it is important to do this show - to enchant children for the first time."
And not only children. Not only those who are literally young, but the young at heart. Curt Dale Clark sums it up with simplicity."THE WIZARD OF OZ does have a heartfelt message, and while it is not one that may change the world, it is one that makes people happy, and as artists that is part of our job."
Photo courtesy of MSMT, Olivia Wenner, photographer (L to R: Ian Knauer, Carolyn Anne Miller, Travis M. Grant, Curt Dale Clark, Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, Marc Robin, David Girolmo - not pictured Susan Cella)
THE WIZARD OF OZ runs until August 24, 2019, at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 04011 207-725-8769 www.msmt.org
PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN resumes in summer 2020 on the second Wednesday of each main stage show at noon at Curtis Memorial Library