BRATTLEBORO—More than 100 community members have donated their time to help bring to the stage a new production of The Wizard of Oz at the New England Youth Theatre (NEYT) from Dec. 3 to 13.
“A village of artisans have come together to volunteer to build our production of The Wizard of Oz,” says Hallie Flower, NEYT’s new executive director of New England Youth Theatre (NEYT), as well as the theatrical director of this year’s Christmas musical, an adaptation of the 1939 MGM classic film.
“Theater always takes an army, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” she elaborates. “Over 12 costumers, handfuls of painters, textile artists, and prop builders — far beyond our usual in-house crew— have volunteered to give their time or loan their goods. The number of community members making even one custom prop come together is pretty amazing.”
NEYT is presenting The Wizard of Oz for 13 performances in its theater on 100 Flat St.
“Complete with gorgeous songs, high energy dances, and a timeless story filled with adventure and heart, The Wizard of Oz musical is filled with the memorable moments and music we all hold dear,” says Elissa Pine of NEYT.
With a cast of 42 young actors, plus a seven-piece pit band, this is large-scale production.
The story has become so etched into the fabric of our culture as to seem mythical: After longing for a better place to be, a tornado whisks young Kansas farm girl, Dorothy, over the rainbow to the magical land of Oz. Desperate to return home, she embarks on a quest to reach the all-powerful Wizard of Oz who can send her back to her family. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Cowardly Lion who help her on her journey, and truly discovers there’s no place like home.
Published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the initial novel of a beloved series of children’s books by L. Frank Baum. Almost immediately after it appeared, stage versions of the work began to proliferate. Baum himself staged several, as well as making a series of silent movies of his stories.
However, the most iconic version of the story undoubtedly is the 1939 MGM musical starring Judy Garland, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. While it was a box-office flop on its original release, it has since become a classic.
There have been many stage versions of Oz before and after the MGM movie, but the most successful and the one now being used by NEYT, is that by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
Adapted by John Kane using the screenplay and the songs from the MGM film, with background music by Herbert Stothart, dance and vocal arrangements by Peter Howard, and orchestration by Larry Wilcox, RSC’s The Wizard of Oz wanted to closely recreate the 1939 musical on stage more than any other version.
It was such a success that it has been given many revivals in various formats, including a concert arena version starring comedienne Roseanne Barr as the wicked witch, a television extravaganza “Wizard of Oz: Dreams Come True” on TNT, and even The Wizard of Oz on ice.
“While closely based on the movie, there are a few slight alterations, such as our Dorothy does not fall into the pig pen; but RSC came up with another theatrical effect to convey the same thing,” says Flower. “We use the complete score by Arlen and Harburg, and even a little more than what made it into the movie. For instance, we are included one number that was cut from the film, ‘The Jitterbug.’”
The Wizard of Oz is the first show Flower has directed for NEYT. Initially, Oz was scheduled to be directed by someone else.
“Our choreographer Alisa Hauser was supposed to direct this production, but she was offered a job change and found she couldn’t manage such a complex endeavor,” says Flower. “So NEYT invited me, and I was thrilled at the prospect.”
This was all before Flower became NEYT’s executive director. In fact, it was her insights and theatrical savvy at rehearsals which convinced Stephen Stearns and others at NEYT that she would be perfect for the job.
As artistic director of Apron Theater Company, and through involvement with many other theatrical companies in the past, Flower has directed many musicals, she says, but not in a long time.
“Musicals are very expensive to do,” she says, “and you invariably need a huge amount of people to collaborate with.”
But she quickly discovered that collaborative support for NEYT would turn out to be overwhelming.
“Frankly, I have never seen anything like it in my long theatrical career,” she says. “All in all, there have been over 100 people helping out, from all generations and walks of life. For instance, someone will say, ‘Hey I know a woodworker who would be great to craft the witch’s hourglass,’ and someone else would bring in recycled bottles that would be perfect for the hourglass.
“We have gotten help from the many other theatrical companies in the area. David Stern, the artistic director of Main Street Arts, is helping out with the set design because he loves the piece so much.
“We have seven musicians from the Brattleboro Music Center for our band. As we are rehearsing, parents of kids in the show will be in the kitchen making treats for our performers during breaks.”
Pine adds, “It has been an incredible undertaking to bring Oz about.”
Monika Grist-Weiner is leading the way. An NEYT alumna with a degree in costume design from Savannah College of Art and Design, she has worked at the Weston Playhouse and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
Becky Graber, longtime director of the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus, is the show’s music director. Alisa Hauser is the choreographer, Deniz Cordell is orchestra conductor, Dory Hamm is assistant director, and Eliza Price is student assistant director.
NEYT’s Rick Barron is the headman with the set design, with nine people helping with props and many parent volunteers.
“We even have a live Toto!” said Pine.
Flower says her favorite thing to do is to walk through the “rabbit warren” backstage at NEYT.
“Everywhere you look, there is busy creative activity,” she says. “Costumes are being sewn, huge floral displays are being assembled for Munchkinland, teens are coaching younger performers to work out their parts.
“I think what I found most stunning was coming backstage to put together the building of so many separate worlds. There is Kansas, and Oz has seven counties, all which need to come alive.”
With such a large cast, and nine featured roles, The Wizard of Oz includes some unusual characters that Flower has to direct, such as crows in a cornfield who do a vaudeville turn, and those human-trees that (under the witch’s prompting) terrorize the four friends.
Flower says that people familiar with NEYT shows will probably recognize the show’s leading players.
“Our Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion have been in many of our recent productions,” she says.
Flower says her job as a director is to work so that each performer understands his or her character in a very specific way.
She is not just referring to her principals, either.
“I want to help all actors in this play to move from a general to a very precise conception of character,” she says. “For example, I explain to the cast who portray the citizens in the city of Oz how they might be prejudiced about these four country bumpkins forcing their way in to see the wizard.”
Flower says she found everyone to be a joy to work with. Or, as she puts it quite simply, “It is a great cast.”