Musical of the Month: The Wizard of Oz (1903)

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
December 13, 2011
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Fred Hamlin's Extravaganza The Wizard of Oz. Produced by Julian Mitchell.,Fred A. Stone as The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz., Digital ID psnypl_the_4302, New York Public Library

Like many who spent their early childhood in those years before home video technology (VCRs, DVDs, Netflix, etc.) became ubquitous, I have fond memories of watching the annual television broadcasts of the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz with my family.  Unlike most children, though, I spent much of my later childhood obsessed with the story.  As a six year old, I became a card-carrying member of The International Wizard of Oz Club, read all 14 Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and hunted in used-bookstores for the additional authorized books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Jack Snow, and Dick Martin.  I vaguely knew that there were dramatic adaptations of The Wizard of Oz before Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr followed the yellow-brick road, but living as I did in the Midwest in those days before the commercial Internet, I suspected I would never get a chance to read or see them.

There are plenty of (mostly) rational adults who remain as obsessed with the world of Oz as I was as a child, but as I entered pre-adolescence the Oz books went into the basement and I, like any normal tween-age boy, became more interested in well…the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (but that’s another story for another time).   I mostly forgot my visits across the Deadly Desert into Munchkinland until, several years ago, on a visit to a favorite independent bookstore in Annapolis, Maryland I happened upon Mark Evan Swartz’s excellent book “Oz Before the Rainbow”, which chronicles the many stage and screen adaptations before the iconic 1939 movie.  In part, it was this book that inspired the Musical of the Month team to select one of the first such adaptations for our December Musical of the Musical.  

In the coming days several Oz scholars and fans will be contributing blogs about the history of this particular text, and I fear that anything I could offer would be at best incomplete and more than likely inaccurate compared to their superior knowledge of the subject.  I therefore leave most of the historical contextualization of this adaptation to them.  I will only note that this play provides a fascinating look into one of the great American myths before it had fully solidified in the national consciousness.  In this version of the story, the Lion is never described as Cowardly, never becomes a friend of Dorothy, and cannot speak.  The Wicked Witch of the West never appears and so cannot be melted.  There are no slippers, ruby, silver, or otherwise, and Dorothy’s journey to find her way home is often eclipsed by a story about a political rebellion in the Land of Oz.  Despite being written by the creator of the land of Oz, the script just doesn’t feel very Oz-like.

Montgomery and Stone as the Tin Man and Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz., Digital ID TH-37687, New York Public Library

Still, the success of this adaptation seems to have been at least partly responsible for pushing Oz beyond its roots as a charming turn-of-the-century fairy-tale and transforming it into the cultural myth and commercial industry it is today.  In the introduction to the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, published one year after this musical opened in New York, Baum writes that he promised one little girl who had asked for a sequel that when “a thousand little girls had written[…]a thousand little letters asking for another story” he would grant her request.   Baum observes that “the success of the stage production [...] made new friends for the story” and inspired the requisite “thousand letters.”  Baum went on to write twelve more sequels, a set of set short stories, and a comic strip about Oz, and produced three silent movies using his characters.  By building Oz into a brand, Baum turned his story into a reliable commercial property with a value that gave MGM the confidence to invest the money to make the movie that led so many of us “over the rainbow.”

 In that movie, before we see Dorothy and Toto running down the dusty, sepia, Kansas road, a card appears which reads

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. To those of you who have been faithful to it in return...and to the Young in Heart...we dedicate this picture.

It has now been over a century since that first cyclone, but allowing for this adjustment in the time, I would like to appropriate these words for this first web publication of the first dramatic adaptation of this story.  To all those who still carry your Oz club cards, and to those who remember them fondly, I dedicate this Musical of the Month.  Happy Holidays.

The text below was transcribed by project assistant Ann Fraistat from the 1903 copyright deposit at the Library of Congress and encoded for electronic publication by Doug Reside.  Special thanks to project advisor Larry Moore who provided me with a photocopy of the Library of Congress text.

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