Monday, 17 December 2007

We Represent The Lollipop Guild

There are many things that sum up Christmas. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The weather men talking of that elusive white Christmas. Small terraced houses covered with thousand of pounds worth of flashing lights. Perhaps, even going through the advent calendar and eating all the chocolates before the first week of December has passed. For many of us though, much of what sums up Christmas is to be found on our television screen. The Queens speech of course, a vintage Morecambe And Wise Christmas show and now it seems we have a seasonal episode of Doctor Who. However, for most of us, it’s probably a movie that captures our imaginations more than anything. I am of course talking about that classic 1939 picture – a seasonal essential musical – “The Wizard Of Oz”. As I write I haven’t seen the Radio Times double edition but I am sure it will be lurking in the schedules somewhere. You can count on it!

I must have been around five or six when I first saw this most magical of screen musicals. I can recall it’s monochrome beginning and my Nan saying she thought it was supposed to be in colour. But no, Dorothy’s mundane Kansas existence was definitely black and white. But the lack of colour did nothing to spoil my pleasure as the evil Miss Gulch attempted to take Dorothy’s dog Toto. Then it happened, the twister hit, and the little farmhouse was blown away to the enchanted land of Oz. Next, the house landed with a bump, Dorothy opened the door and as she did it happened. Technicolor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I ran to my Nan in excitement “it IS in colour” I cried with great excitement before settling down to watch the rest of the movie. Now friend of Dorothy or otherwise I doubt there are very many readers who haven’t seen this movie at some point. So to tell you of the munchkins and flying monkeys is kind of superfluous. You know the difference between a good witch and a bad witch and also know that the yellowbrick road leads to the Emerald City. It’s not without good reason that almost seventy years after it’s original release this movie continues to hold each new generation of children spellbound. It isn’t so long ago since my nine year old little brother came to stay and insisted on watching it over and over. And over and over and over. It was ten years before I could face it again!

Making the movie was not without it’s problems. The first disaster was possibly the failure to get the chosen actress to play Dorothy. How different would it have been if, first choice, Shirley Temple had been transported beyond the rainbow? The casting of the Tinman also was subject to change as Buddy Ebsen had to withdraw from the role because of a reaction to the lead in the silver make up. Further difficulties have often been cited as down to the munchkins. Allegedly more than a few of the munchkin performers had a predisposition towards fornication and drink! To put that into perspective though many of the diminutive cast had come from communities where they were the only small person. Imagine meeting someone like themselves for the first time – who could blame them for getting excited? With more than one director attached to the project at different times there were so many reasons that the movie should be a failure. History of course tells us otherwise. Despite a successful launch in the States it initially failed to meet it’s expectations worldwide due to the outset of war, but over the years it touched the hearts of each passing generation, sealing it’s success as one of the all time greats.

There are some great (albeit silly) songs in the movie such as “We’re Off To See The Wizard”, “If I Only Had A Brain” and “FollowThe Yellow BrickRoad” but special mention should of course go to one particular song that was almost cut before the movie was released. I speak of course about “Over The Rainbow”. It’s simple sentiments were perfect for a time when most of the planet were facing a long and terrible war, and it became a song beloved by the troops, and also those left behind at home. Is it a coincidence that in the first few years of this new millennium that the song has achieved a renewed popularity? It’s very much a song that everyone has done, be it Eva Cassidy, Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr or even Shayne Ward – but until recently the song was so strongly identified with one particular performer that it was very unusual for any one to record a cover version….

Judy Garland. How could I have written so much about “The Wizard Of Oz” without mentioning her name until now. If there was ever anyone who “owned” a song it had to be Judy Garland and “Over The Rainbow”. The serendipity of her casting in the defining role of her early career. Whoever may sing the song I suspect it’s Judy that people think of. Can you even imagine the movie if it had been Shirley Temple not her? No, I thought not! Needless to say “Over The Rainbow” was the song that Judy continued singing over her entire career. Even here at the London Palladium where there is a special plaque commemorating her long association with the theatre.

There have been many attempts to recreate what the original movie had. The first official stage version based on the movie was produced by the RSC in the late eighties with Imelda Staunton for a Christmas season, returning a year later with a different cast – this time generating a cast recording. A stage version also appeared at New York’s Madison Square Garden for a couple of seasons. Prior to these productions the early seventies saw a brand new stage musical based on Frank L.Baum’s original book. This of course was “The Wiz” with an all black cast. A big hit on Broadway the show was transferred to film where it’s cast included Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and a slightly implausible Diana Ross as Dorothy. Aside from “The Wizard Of Oz” Baum wrote many more Oz novels, although with the notable exception of Disney’s “Return To Oz” adaptations to other mediums have been pretty thin on the ground. Today it’s through re-invention that the magical journey to Oz has continued…..

Of course if I am to speak of the movie version of “The Wizard Of Oz” then I must mention the current hit show “Wicked”. Are there any of you who haven’t seen it? Probably not that many. The show ( and Gregory Maguires novel that preceded it) takes a very different spin on Baum’s magical world by telling the story from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. This show has really captured the publics imagination and I suspect that a large part of this is because of that old movie musical that first got shown back in 1939.

But anyway, here I am talking about the film and you should really be tidying up your desk and going home to watch it! So all that is left is to wish a happy Christmas to you all.


p.s. don’t eat too many mince pies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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