‘Wizard of Oz’ in the Queen City

118 years of friendship with Dorothy

“You have some queer friends, Dorothy,” says Polychrome in “The Road to Oz” (the 1909 sequel to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the first of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels). And of course Dorothy replies, “The queerness doesn’t matter, so long as they’re friends.” Granted, “queer” didn’t have the same connotation when the books were first written, but such is the evolving play of language.

There are many reasons why LGBTQ people were fascinated with the books, even before the movie was released in 1939. For starters, the story is the first fantasy series born entirely upon the culture and imagination of the USA and what it means to be American. With quotes like those above, Dorothy’s crush on a Chinese princess, a butch but sensitive “dandy lion,” several scenes of all-female conquering armies and Ozma being transformed into a boy and then marrying Dorothy… well, it’s easy to see why the stories captured the imaginations of LGBTQ people.

And then there’s the movie itself. Universally recognized as one of the “most fabulous” movies ever made, many critics and historians include “The Wizard of Oz” in their lists of the most accomplished productions in cinema history. And how could they not? When the drab, plain Kansas is peeled away to reveal a lush, colorful dreamland, how could the world not be entranced? (Is this gay gentrification at its best?) And how could marginalized people not want to be carried far away to a magical place? Judy Garland, perhaps the first universal gay icon, gave a performance that set the stage for an illustrious career. The movie has become a cultural phenomenon that is so ubiquitous that it would be strange to try to imagine the movie not being such a prominent influence in so many people’s childhoods.

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The Wizard (above) and Professor Marvel (left) both played by Kirk Lawrence with Dorothy (Kalie Kaimann) and Toto (Murphy). (Photo Credit: Denise S. Trupe)

So, if the movie (which is practically memorized verbatim by countless millions of people) were to be translated into a theater production that sought to “simply” copy-paste the movie onto a stage, why would anyone bother to go see it?

“Because of the magic of the story itself,” says Kirk Lawrence, the professional actor who brings the Wizard himself to life during each performance. “You get to see firsthand the stage turn from drab sepia washes in Kansas to the bright color of Oz. You get to see Dorothy, Toto, The Wicked Witch and all the other elements of the movie right there in front of you.” But I felt there must be something more than that.

“How do you feel about performing the same lines every night for dozens of performances? How do you remain engaged with the material?” I asked him.

“I take the energy from the people in the audience and their love for the story. It remains fresh for me, because it’s fresh for them. I still get nervous before performances! I know it will be time to bow out when that stops happening. Oh, and I love seeing people dressed as their favorite characters. There’s a really strong connection between the performers and the audience.”

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“But why is this particular story so enchanting and engaging still? Everyone knows the movie forward and backward. So why do we keep coming back to it? It can’t be nostalgia alone,” I said.

And then Kirk said something that I felt was very poignant, and which touches upon what makes the underlying narrative so compelling: “This is a story about going out to look for what you already have.”

That hit me pretty hard. I admit I was rather dismissive going into this conversation with Mr. Lawrence, because what could really be said about a musical production remake of a clichéd movie? Well, so much for my jaded cynicism.

It turns out I’d forgotten the impact I felt as a child the first time I heard the Wizard say, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” And then there’s Dorothy: “…if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

So then, why should you invest in seeing something that you already know so well? Because it’s a beautiful production of an encouraging story that reconnects you with gratitude. People (re: me) are often dismissive of “children’s stories” until they remember those deeper wisdoms.

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