Toto Recall

There's an unfortunate trend in musical theater, a genre of live performance that can hardly afford another deadfall these days. Book musicals, once based on literature (A Connecticut Yankee) or original stories (Showboat), are today more likely to be adapted from cheesy Hollywood musical films.

Recent Broadway audiences have had foisted on them a tuneless reworking of Victor/Victoria, as well as stage adaptations of crude hit-single machines like Footloose and Fame (a road company of which will land in Phoenix early next season).

Movies adapted from stage musicals are returning to their original incarnations as well: Recent big-budget productions of Grease and The Rocky Horror Show have both turned up as cheapjack homages to their culty film versions, rather than the crafty stage shows they were originally.

It was probably inevitable that we'd end up with a transliteration of The Wizard of Oz, the MGM musical that made a superstar of Judy Garland. Based not on L. Frank Baum's socially conscious children's books but on the famous film version, this Oz opened in New York in 1997 and has been trekking across the country, Mickey Rooney in tow, ever since.

Few other movies are as indelibly printed in our collective consciousness, and this is a production that begs comparisons: It's a dead-on rerun of the classic 1939 film, a production that itself deviates from Baum's books. Granted, that version has the best songs of any other musical adaptation of the story, and this live-stage homage has been a yellow-brick revolving door for some dynamic star talent (including Roseanne and Eartha Kitt). But critics have dismissed this production as little more than a big-budget drag show, with celebrity impersonations of long-dead MGM contract players as its secondary draw.

The show's primary attraction is its status as a rerun. Like most of its film-to-stage predecessors, The Wizard of Oz doesn't adapt the original so much as copy it. The show's mammoth media kit brags that the staging re-creates every nuance of the film, and press releases promise that we'll find our favorite moments from the movie, right down to the incidental music and the black-and-white-to-color conceit of the film. Even the movie's cheap painted backdrops, which set designer Michael Anania apparently copied stroke by stroke from their original Technicolor, are here.

The audience for this show isn't necessarily made up of musical-theater fans or L. Frank Baum aficionados. This Oz is for people who've watched the movie so often that they can recite the dialogue from memory; folks who collect licensed Oziana issued by the Franklin Mint and who cherish memories of their meeting with Margaret Pellegrini, the Sun City resident who played a Munchkin in the MGM movie. This is low art, targeted at the collective memory of 100 million yuppies who are now ready to take their kids to see the movie they grew up on.

"The only thing more sad than being in The Wizard of Oz is going to watch it," according to Mike Ford, who played a flying monkey in one of the New York productions. "When you're a flying monkey, you have to wear a really uncomfortable flying harness, and you're trapped in a costume that smells like an old woman's flannel nightie. It's creepy and bad to be collecting a paycheck for dressing like an ape, but worse to pay to watch a live enactment of some yucky old movie."

Not so, according to Jo Anne Worley, who is Oz's current Wicked Witch of the West. I called to ask the former Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In star about the wisdom of mounting a stage version of a movie musical, and got an earful about how different this production is.

"My witch is not the Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton played," she told me. "I'm playing it bigger--we're all playing bigger--because on the stage, you can't do the subtle things you can do in close-up in a movie."

Worley talked warmly about the production and how it "fulfills our memories of this beautifully made movie that everyone loves." (Anyone who defends the original film as high art hasn't seen it on the big screen, a mistake I made a few years ago when it was rereleased to theaters. Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz is the worst-edited big-budget movie MGM ever released, with some really crappy prosthetics and shabby scenic design, even by 1930s standards.)

Regardless of Oz's arguable entertainment value, it stands as little more than another stop on the low road that musical theater has taken, courting audiences with live-action reruns of already artless movies. For every Rent (based on Puccini's La Boheme and, depending on who you ask, a novel by Sarah Schulman), there are a half-dozen Saturday Night Fevers and Beauty and the Beasts treading the boards.

The genre is slowly sinking into a morass of movie cliches. While we wait for the tide to turn back to literate and original musicals, we can look forward to more of the same. I'm anticipating a big-budget bus-and-truck of Flashdance, starring Elaine Page and Tommy Tune as breakdancing teens.

Don't laugh. It could happen.

The Wizard of Oz continues through Sunday, June 13, at ASU's Gammage Auditorium in Tempe.