Hello, Yellow Brick Road

Clive Bloom ponders the enduring popularity and cultural significance of L. Frank Baum's wonderful world of Oz

March 17, 2011



Credit: Kobal


"We're off to see the wizard..." Well, we're off to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz, based on the 1939 film version, itself an adaptation of the stage play The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), an early rendition of L. Frank Baum's original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

It's always been like that with Oz: so many wheels within wheels. Baum's original book was, of course, written for the children who would gather at his home to hear his "updated" fairy tale of Dorothy and her dog Toto, who are whirled away from Kansas and her hard-working Uncle Henry and her sour-faced Aunt Em to the land of Munchkins, deadly opium poppies and ferocious lions, tigers and bears (oh my). A cyclone picks Dorothy's house up and deposits it on the Wicked Witch of the East. Baum, asked by one child for the name of the magic land, caught sight of a filing cabinet in his office and improvised: "O-Z".

In the novel, the Wicked Witch of the East wears silver shoes, which are given to Dorothy as a present. The discovery of the Yellow Brick Road and the befriending of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion on the way to meet the Great Oz in Emerald City (where "everyone seemed happy and contented") forms the basis of a quest narrative that ends in the defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West and the safe return of Dorothy to Kansas.

The books, of which there are many, trace the further adventures and bizarreries of Oz and have spawned a whole popular culture of their own. This culture really began with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Garland's slippers became ruby and Hamilton was painted bright green to accentuate the film's new colour processes, pioneered by Disney in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). But despite the bright Technicolor hues, the film took on a gothic and sinister tone, with Hamilton, dressed in full witch's attire, giving the most genuinely child-scaring performance in cinema history, a malevolent creature surrounded by flying monkeys.

The film was outlandish and expensive. At least 20 writers tweaked the screenplay and six directors took walk-on parts to get the show finished. It won two Academy Awards, one for Over the Rainbow (Best Original Song), but it did not recoup its money at the box office, at least not until it was first broadcast on television in 1956, after which the film went on to become the most watched movie of all time.

Since the original film there have been a large number of versions and even sequels, including The Wiz starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross (1979) and Return to Oz (1985), which depicted Dorothy enduring electroconvulsive therapy to get the nightmares of Oz out of her head. Another Oz tale is being filmed at the moment, directed by Drew Barrymore, but the most successful version of all has to be Wicked, the musical which first came to the stage in 2003 and follows the adventures of Elphaba, the (not-so) Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good.

This extravagant retelling of the early life of two peripheral characters emphasises the centrality of women and female virtues to the Ozverse and has been a runaway hit with post-feminist hen parties and young girls who like to dress up as witches (of whom there seem to be many, judging by the audience participation).

Now we have Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version, which opened at the London Palladium on 1 March, starring Michael Crawford and Danielle Hope, who won the 2010 BBC One talent show Over the Rainbow to take the role of Dorothy. Arlene Phillips, perhaps best known for her stint as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, is the choreographer. All the tricks of the film have been incorporated and updated and every moment is filled with spectacular effects. Advance ticket sales reportedly already top £10 million. But with all that money riding on its success, who is the star of the show? Why, the little dog "playing" Toto, of course, whose every wriggle elicits "oohs" and "aahs" from the audience.

I saw the ruby slippers from the original film once. They were in a glass cabinet at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington DC (next to Muhammad Ali's red boxing gloves). There was a colour theme, no doubt, but there was also something much more powerful and memorable going on. These insignificant movie props were, in their own way, the modern equivalent of medieval relics, and I was an accidental pilgrim to the shrine of mass culture.

The aura of those slippers is difficult to describe. Perhaps it was sheer familiarity with objects seen only in the virtual reality of televisual space (for I have never seen the film on the big screen, as, I suspect, few of us have), or perhaps the sentimentality attached to the dreams of childhood that the film exemplifies. Either way, the impression of those slippers has remained long after many more "important" works of art have faded.

Their essence is a reminder of that sentimentality in art that Americans do so well, which unites things as disparate as the Disney Corporation, Oscar Night and films such as White Christmas (1954) or ET (1982); it infuses American art at all levels, from Edward Hopper to Jeff Koons. It may be cloying, something intellectual Europeans shy away from, but there is no doubt that Dorothy's footwear is as American as apple pie, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, Elvis Presley or even Mickey Mouse.

Like Mickey, those slippers are slightly outdated, somewhat nostalgic. Their magic is to act as a synecdoche, not only for the memory of the film as a whole, but also for a "lost" innocence that is beyond the film and partly to do with a secret part of each of us: a nostalgia for what was "lost" somewhere along the way but is now unrecoverable, a yellow brick road that never really existed, but which should have - a trace memory of loss, or what Sigmund Freud dubbed "melancholia".

There is, as Dorothy says, "no place like home". In times like these, this is the nearest one gets to spiritual guidance.

At the centre of the tale is not a damsel in distress, but a girl learning a few life lessons about coping. We live in hard times, the original book was written in hard times and the film was made in eye-watering Technicolor during the dark days of the Great Depression. In hard times, variations of the book or film return to tell us that everything will be OK, at least for the duration of the experience. Ultimately the film is about the little people: the Munchkins and Aunt Em back in Kansas. It's about self-help democracy in an age when no one is there to help.

It does not matter that beyond the road paved with yellow bricks there may be a wizard who will let us down: the journey is only superficially about finding him. The journey finds us and we find ourselves - our brains, hearts and courage.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," says Oz. No wonder, because he's a fraud, "just a common man" from Omaha, as he admits to Dorothy.

When we leave Lloyd Webber's latest feel-good and heart-warming spectacular, we will have to wake up, but by then we'll know that "we're not in Kansas any more".

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