Saturday, December 1, 2012

Theatre For Thought, December 1, 2012

joel fishbane

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A Producer, a Marketer and a Quantitive Analyst walk into a bar. “I want to produce a hit show,” says the Producer. “No problem,” says the Marketer. “We just need to take a known product that appeals to children while touching the nostalgia lurking within all middle class adults.” The Quant promptly crunches some numbers. “You’ve got a choice,” she says. “You can produce a musical based on Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.” The Producer thinks about it. “Musicals based on Alice in Wonderland have never worked,” he says. “And best of all, The Wizard of Oz is already written.”

Flash forward a few months and we have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the famous 1939 MGM musical of what happens when a girl from Kansas realizes she’s definitely not in Kansas anymore. The show hits Toronto in a few weeks and while I’m usually pretty open-minded when it comes to theatre, I’m having trouble finding anything redeeming to say about this production. At the risk of hyperbole, it strikes me as the greatest evil to appear on stage since Mephistopheles first graced us in the inaugural production of Faust. 

It was so clearly assembled for no other reason than to create a product that nobody needs.

The show represents nothing less then the wanton murder of original theatrical thought. It was so clearly assembled for no other reason than to create a product that nobody needs. It’s not as if there hasn’t been a stage version of The Wizard of Oz before; it’s not even as if a stage adaptation of the movie hasn’t appeared before. The first musical version of The Wizard of Oz appeared in 1902; the first version based on the film appeared in 1942. That version, featuring the famous songs by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, has been marketed to schools and amateur groups for decades.

A hit in the West End, this new Wizard is being produced in Toronto by the good folk at Mirvish, who recently teamed with the equally good folk at CBC to produce “Over the Rainbow”, a reality show in which audiences chose the show’s lead. A similar thing was done in London, which makes me wonder if this version of Wizard was only produced as a way of justifying the existence of the television show. Some might call this corporate synergy, but it strikes me as a little alarming. Theatre being used to justify the existence of a reality show? Surely, the apocalypse is nigh.

There is definitely something to be said for any theatre that aims to reinvent the classics; Charlie Smalls did just this in 1974 with The Wiz, his modern, all-black adaptation. Then there’s the smash success of Wicked, a prequel of sorts that turns Oz into a political dystopia. In both these cases, the authors have taken the known world of Oz and re-examined it from a different perspective. 

This is not the case here. The show has a few new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but they do nothing to reinvent the show. The new songs – one is for Dorothy, another gives the Wicked Witch her moment in the spotlight – aren’t there to give us a new perspective on the narrative. They don’t add any dimensions to the story that aren’t already there – if the script was broken, it wouldn’t have worked for almost 70 years. All the new material does is pad the narrative and allow the creators to advertise the show as something new. Memo to the world: this isn’t a new Wizard. It’s an old dog who knows one or two new tricks.

I never thought I’d long for the day when Disney was giving us stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King; I never even thought I’d long for the musical version of films like Legally Blonde and Shrek. Yes, there was a clear bit of marketing genius behind the creation of those shows. But in the end they put into the world a piece of art that didn’t already exist - and that is a case of the ends justifying the means.

The Wizard of Oz by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams with songs by E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, (sigh) Andrew Lloyd Webber and (double sigh) Tim Rice begins an open-ended run in Toronto on December 20, 2012. For tickets visit

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