08 December 2015

Fierstein Adding “a Little More Sense” to Oz

Last week NBC broadcast a restaging of The Wiz that’s also slated for Broadway next year. It has a new book by Harvey Fierstein, who boasted about his improvements in an interview with BroadwayWorld:
I've loved Wizard of Oz my whole life but have had questions. I was always a questioning kind of kid. I got to answer all the questions that I had. Where did Dorothy's parents go? There's this girl living with her aunt and uncle... well I killed off the uncle; he doesn't do anything anyway. Do we care about him just sitting on the porch rocking away? You have a girl living with her aunt, and it's never mentioned what happened to her parents. Dorothy's such a victim. She didn't create that storm; she gets taken away. She doesn't kill the witch; the house falls on her. She doesn't kill the other witch; she throws water to save her friend. She's just a victim. I said, "Why should she be just a victim? It's her dream! It's her fantasy!"

So I gave her a story, and we open with her running away from home trying to get home to Omaha where she was actually born. Her parents are dead. She hates her school; she hates Kansas. "I hate this place; I hate being out in the cornfield. I want to go home." Her answer is this is your home but your too old for me to tell you what to do. I could keep you here and force you, but at some point in your life you have to figure out where you really belong. She's sent off on this very different journey of going home to Omaha. She ends up in this place that's not Omaha and becomes much more of an active participant in it. In the end, when the Wiz turns out to be from Omaha when they get in the balloon. Instead of missing the balloon, I have her walk away from the balloon an say you're going to your home, I'm headed somewhere else. She finally figures out home is not where your feet are; it's where your heart is.
Clearly Fierstein’s playing off the 1939 MGM adaptation rather than L. Frank Baum’s novel. In the original, Dorothy doesn’t throw water on the Wicked Witch of the West to save the Scarecrow; she does so because she’s ticked off (a situation Fierstein rediscovered). Uncle Henry does more than sit on a rocker.

Fierstein’s characterization of Dorothy makes sense only if she’s a teenager, like nineteen-year-old Shanice Williams. Judy Garland was a teen, of course, but she played a younger girl. The Dorothy of the books is younger still.

In Baum’s books, the Wicked Witch of the East enchants the Tin Woodman because she (or another old woman) doesn’t want to lose the services of his beloved. Fierstein instead put those three characters into a love triangle:
I gave each of those characters a backstory that makes a little more sense. The Tin Man got turned into the Tin Man by the Wicked Witch because she had a thing for him. She caught him with this girl, and she blasted his ass and stole his heart. She said, "If I can't have your heart, no one can."
That “makes a little more sense” for an older audience, perhaps. But children haven’t had trouble understanding Baum’s original motivation for the witch.

Evidently the choice to cast Queen Latifah as the Wiz prompted Fierstein’s thinking about that character:
Queen Latifah's backstory [as the Wiz] is that she was a magician's assistant at a carnival so they gave balloon rides and all of that but you ever meet the person that is not bad enough they're unhappy, they have to make everyone unhappy and that was this guy. She jumps in the balloon to piss him off and this balloon landed me in Oz. Everyone came running so I put on the magic hat and did the magic act. They put me in here and I've been hiding ever since so nobody finds out that I'm not anything. I was the assistant. She is a woman escaping the world of men, which I thought would give a different color to Dorothy as well. It all has to come out of a little girl's imagination. If you don't believe it came out of her imagination it doesn't work.
Because then Oz would just be real, and who wants that?


rocketdave said...

Funnily enough, given that The Wiz has a few more nods to the books than the 1939 movie, combined with the fact that at the end of the show, Dorothy talked about how she hoped to return to Oz someday, I thought they were acknowledging her further adventures in later books and that Oz was a real place. I guess I was mistaken.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I like that Fierstein wrote a teenage version of the story for the young woman who plays the protagonist.

Baum's original did not feature a teen so the story's been a little bit of an odd fit for the more mature actresses.

David Maxine said...

It seems such a tragedy that Fierstein has de-Baumified THE WIZ and given it such a big dose of "teenager" "it's all a dream" MGM crap.

THE original WIZ was explicitly an adaptation of the Baum book, indeed they felt it necessary to get as far from MGM as they could. They wanted as few comparisons as possible with the MGM film. They wrote many songs for different places in the story and added such things as the Kalidahs and Field Mice, honoring the Baum color scheme, etc.

And most importantly Dorothy was a very young and per-pubescent little girl. Despite Mills being 17 - it worked wonderfully, the very tiny Mills scampere,d and peeved, focused only on play and her little dog - all the time wearing her "best Sunday-school dress."

Fierstein seems indeed to have run into the issues as he was, as you mention, trying to view Dorothy as a teenager - not a child of eight or so. Just what we needed - another pseudo MGM take on one of the great Broadway shows and most Baumian of adaptations.

J. L. Bell said...

I'll have more to say about what I perceived as MGM influence on the TV production tomorrow.