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Oz the great and powerful

We’re off to see the wizard, live

The Wizard of Oz playing Tacoma and Olympia this week is a huge production. Photo credit:

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For readers of a certain age, MGM's 1939 musical version of The Wizard of Oz was less of a movie and more of an annual holiday rite. In the decades before ubiquitous home video and content streaming, Judy Garland and cohorts were given featured TV broadcasts, originally between Thanksgiving and Christmas, later around Easter and Passover -- and often with special guest hosts and wraparound content. It was aired in color before most home consoles were even capable of receiving it, thereby taking advantage of director Victor Fleming's shift from sepia-toned Kansas to the three-strip Technicolor of Munchkinland and the Emerald City.

The film was, of course, based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first in a series that stretched to 14 books. Publisher George M. Hill benefitted from a 1902 stage version created by and for the Chicago Grand Opera House. The book sold over a million copies in its first decade alone and has been hailed as "America's greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale" by the Library of Congress. Baum was overtly inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, but also by his illustrator W. W. Denslow and the "O-Z" label on one of his office file cabinet drawers. In the book, the McGuffin is a pair of silver slippers; Dorothy's famous ruby slippers, since valued at millions of dollars a pair, were crafted to pop on color screens.

The Library of Congress says The Wizard of Oz "has been seen by more viewers than any other movie." Given Oz's sacred-ground position in family cinema, it's no surprise people have been fascinated by trivia about its production. Yes, Jack Haley replaced Buddy Ebsen of The Beverly Hillbillies fame as the Tin Man after Ebsen's allergic reaction to aluminum makeup powder. Less well-known is the fact that Margaret Hamilton was only 36 when she played the Wicked Witch of the West. No, there weren't any suicides on the Munchkinland set, but Hamilton was seriously burned in a smoke effect gone wrong. The movie benefits from an amazing coincidence. Costume designers found the tattered, Prince Albert coat worn by Frank Morgan's "Professor Marvel" at a thrift store. Only later did someone notice the name stitched into the pocket lining: the coat's previous owner, author L. Frank Baum. Snopes finds that story dubious, but unit publicist Mary Mayer swears it's true. It's an undeniable fact that Baum lived in Hollywood, California, then a small town, years before the movie.

Of course, today's kids grow up in an age of computer-rendered impossibilities on all sizes of screen, so perhaps a panty-hose tornado ain't so special in 2019. Luckily, it all still looks wonderful presented live on stage. The Chicago musical was followed by a St. Louis Municipal Opera version based largely on the film. The book entered the public domain in 1956, and that enabled such adaptations as The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical in 1974, an Andrew Lloyd Weber presentation in 2011 and Gregory Maguire's popular novel and musical Wicked in 1995 and 2003, respectively. The version of The Wizard of Oz touring through the South Sound this month uses songs from the movie (by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E. Y. Harburg), with a script by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It's a huge production that fills three tractor trailers and two touring buses. The Washington Center, for example, will provide nearly 50 crew members including a 15-person running complement. "The show is filled with special effects," noted Roger W. McIntosh, production manager for the venue, including "strobe lights, theatrical haze and fog. The magic is part of the show and since we do not issue seatbelts, you may want to hang on for a wild ride."

Actor Michael Weaver was born in Bremerton, grew up in Port Orchard and attended Olympic College. Now he plays Uncle Henry and the Emerald City gatekeeper. After some 280 performances spanning a year and four months, he finds he's still moved by the show's reminder that "a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved." He added, "It's about looking for things you already have ... The show is really, I think, about female empowerment, because all of the women are strong. ... All of the men are flawed or humbugs or not able to live life fully, and all of the women ... are absolutely in control and are the powerful characters in the play. ... Everybody else wants to give up, and (Dorothy) says, ‘Nope, let's keep going. Look, it's the Emerald City. Let's run!'"

THE WIZARD OF OZ, 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 15, Tacoma Arts Live, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $55-$139, 253.591.5890,

THE WIZARD OF OZ, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 16, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $55-$120, 360.753.8586,

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