Jeremy and thestar.com discuss what goes into bringing a classic movie to the stage.We’re off to see the Wizard: the Wizard of Sams, that is.
Forget that old charlatan behind the curtain, Professor Marvel. If you’re looking for a new, up-to-the minute production of The Wizard of Oz, put your faith in theatre director Jeremy Sams.
Climb the gold and marble stairs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, where giant ruby slippers guard the way, tiptoe past the orchestra pit where “Over the Rainbow” is being played in a beautifully lush arrangement and carefully glide by the basement where the Wicked Witch of the West is cackling demonically.
This may sound like The Wizard of Oz that people have come to know from the 1939 MGM film, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Mirvish are the producers of this theatrical version: it’s in previews now before its Jan. 13 opening. And that’s a team that aims to make magic for their audiences with every production.
But Sams is truly the secret ingredient, an ebullient individual who sparkles like the headiest vintage champagne; a dazzler, as Toronto knows from the joy he brought to his 2008 production of The Sound of Music, where he made even the Alps revolve in a magical way.
He’s not just a director; he’s also equally at home as a writer, translator, orchestrator, lyricist and, well, overall wizard of musical theatre.
He leads a reporter down a choice patch of yellow brick road and sits down in the theatre balcony, bursting with wizardly delight as he shares his vision for the whole affair.
“I guess we can all blame Andrew, the cheeky monkey, since it was his idea. You see, the two big Christmas movies in England are The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. Since we’d already brought one to the stage, I guess he thought if we did the other, we’d have Christmas cornered,” says Sams.
Nice idea, but The Sound of Music began life as a stage show. While there have been dozens of attempts to bring The Wizard of Oz to the stage over the decades, none has really worked.
“That’s because none of them really went the distance and changed it into an actual musical comedy,” insists Sams. “My brief from Andrew was to give it the shape and feel of a classical theatrical musical.
“You see, movies are their own art form. They’re always about moving somewhere, getting someplace. I guess that’s why there’s no such thing as a road play. Sure, you can go on journeys onstage, but you have to travel vertically as well as horizontally. Distance isn’t enough. You need depth, too.”
Listening to Sams talk about his Wizard 2.0, you know he’s addressed that issue.
“I believe that for the story to work, really work, we have to understand that everything is in Dorothy’s mind already, before she leaves Kansas. It’s like Alice in Wonderland: everything comes from her subconscious.
“The groundwork for everything we find in Oz has to be planted in Kansas. I know there’s a certain amount of that in the film, but we took it further. Miss Gulch has a run-in with a hose that plants the witch’s fear of water. Professor Marvel has a song about the wonders of the world that paints Oz for us pretty clearly.”
Sams goes on to explain how the three farmhands have a much richer relationship with Dorothy this time around.
“Let’s be honest,” he says with one of his ingenuous grins, “we’ve come such a long way from the movie. Nobody is trying to play Bert Lahr or Judy Garland. If you set out to simply do an imitation of what someone else did in an earlier art form, you’re just doomed to failure.
“And let’s not forget something. The part is called Dorothy Gale, not Judy Garland. It’s a real young girl, not some hyper-theatrical pop icon.”
Sams feels our relationship with Dorothy is what makes the whole experience rise or fall.
“It’s such a brilliantly structured central journey for her. She wants to leave home and then she wants to go back home. Each part of the story feeds the other. It combines our longing to want things to be different with our desire to keep them all exactly the same.”
Sams’ eyes twinkle as he recalls a story.
“I had a friend who felt something wasn’t right in his life, so he went off to an ashram in India to discover it. And you know what? He discovered he was gay. Well, Lord, surely he could have discovered that a lot more easily and done a lot more about it by just staying home in South London.
“Everything you wanted all along is right there inside you, because that’s all you’ve got. That’s what makes it so hard to depict Kansas properly. It’s got to be unpleasant enough to make Dorothy want to leave, but pleasant enough for her to want to come back home to.”
In that part of the storytelling, Sams says he’s been aided by Danielle Wade, who won the role of Dorothy in front of all of Canada on the CBC-TV show Over the Rainbow.
“She’s been an absolute revelation,” Sams says. “I knew she was good, but I didn’t know she was this good. She’s a totally instinctive actress and everything she does comes from a place of absolute honesty.”
What would Sams say to those still wondering if this stage version can rival the MGM classic they’d loved for ages?
“Look, it’s the same story, it’s the same journey. I hope you’ll see a successful movie turned into an even more successful stage musical.
“We want to show you that the theatre can do everything the movies can do . . . only better.”
Posted on: 8th January 2013
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