LONDON — They're off to see the wizard at the Royal Shakespeare Company this season, as Britain's leading classical theater troupe brings "The Wizard of Oz" to the London stage.
"You only have to say it to people, and a smile comes on their face," director Ian Judge said of the show, adapted from the beloved 1939 MGM movie.
The stage production opens today at the company's mainstage Barbican Theater. It plays in repertory with Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Winter's Tale" through Feb. 27, 1988.
The British company, all experienced RSC performers, includes Imelda Staunton as Dorothy and her husband, Jim Carter, as the Cowardly Lion. The Wicked Witch of the West is played by a man, Bille Brown. Millie, an 18-month-old Cairn terrier, makes her stage debut as Toto, Dorothy's dog.
Twenty-six children, ages 6-14, play the Munchkins, who were seen in rehearsal kicking up their tiny heels on "Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead," under the watchful eye of choreographer Sheila Falconer.
Judge said the production came about when Terry Hands, artistic director of the company, asked for a show that could be performed annually over the Christmas season, as a revival of J.M. Barrie's play "Peter Pan" had been previously.
"When you're in the Barbican, there's no point in doing anything that's not in some way epic," said Judge. "Musical comedy in itself has the energy to fill houses, and I knew it had to be a classic that appealed to children and grown-ups--particularly to grown-ups. That was what interested me: the child in you."
The movie, directed by Mervyn Le Roy, was adapted from the book by L. Frank Baum, which delighted readers with its tale of a Kansas girl whisked away in a tornado to the Emerald City of Oz.
"It's a classical text," Judge said. "I remember all the lines; I can say them. It's moved into people's memories."
Judge obtained the rights to the film from Tams Witmark Music Library in New York, a licensing company. He has retained all the songs from Harold Arlen and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg's classic score. An additional verse has been put back into the Academy Award-winning song "Over the Rainbow," as well as an entire number, "The Jitterbug," that was cut from the movie.
Every word of the screenplay has been left in. "We've just fattened it out a little bit because you need a few more words in the theater than you need in the movies."
Judge said he screened the movie for the company at the Barbican Cinema on the first Friday of rehearsals so as "to lay (its) ghost to rest."
"Our catastrophe would be to go about the movie and try and repeat everything as it was on-stage.
"It was something wonderful," he said. "We all loved it, but it was absolutely fixed. Ours is at least changeable and workable."
His production treats the material straight and without parody.
"I think I'm responding very simply to it. I'm delighted by it and always have been and would like to find out how it works and how it delights people--and try and delight them more."
Staunton agreed. "It's not worth doing if you're going to send it up," said the 31-year-old actress who most recently starred in a RSC adaptation of Sydney Pollack's 1969 film, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
"Oh, it's just wonderful. You see all these cynical actors going, 'The Tin Man gets a heart,' " she said, feigning tears. "Dorothy is beautifully innocent and vulnerable, but when there's any trouble, when she has to do something, she does."
Judge commended his cast and played down the significance of casting a man as the Wicked Witch of the West. "If we were doing this on Broadway, there would be a serious article in the New York Times saying how many times he'd been married and how many children he has and a lot of hysteria."
"Here, there's no problem," he said. "Bille's a big man, not even a camp, hysterical one."
Toto, Judge said, was easy to cast: "Millie walked in and that was it. We just knew. We said, 'You are my Toto.' "
"She just renders people helpless," he said.