Behind The Curtain At The Wizard Of Oz

Apr 3, 2014

The Cascade Theatre in Redding is halfway through the two-week run of its annual spring musical. With almost 8,000 tickets sold already, the Wizard of Oz is poised to become the biggest grossing production the theater has ever presented. But it’s also one of the most complicated. Valerie Ing went behind the curtain with the show’s creators to find out about the technical magic that went in to putting together the production.

When the Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, it was one of the most technologically advanced and creatively elaborate films ever made. When the Cascade Theatre decided to put on a stage version of that story, it was a gigantic task to take on. Executive producer Jana Leard …

Jana Leard: “A close director friend of mine who works up at College of the Siskiyous, when I told her we were going to do this she said, ‘Wow, do you really know how big of an undertaking that is?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, I know it’ll be big’, but I didn’t know it was going to be this big. It is challenging. We threw in more technical elements, probably, than were needed, but it really does help make the show. And paying the tribute to the classic film with a stage production, intertwining the two has really been a fun challenge.”

Challenging, and expensive. Theater Manager Jeff Darling says the cost of putting a big production like this was huge. The price tag on the costumes, music and rights was almost $25,000. The cast, if you count Toto, is close to 40. And you should count the little dog, she had to try out for her part, just like everybody else.

Jana Leard: “We had Toto auditions. Over a dozen dogs came out for Toto, and Ebbe, who’s handlers are Bob & Diane Madgic, she’s been there long hours like we do, and lots of training. She and I have really bonded. And she has a big part. She’s not off-stage very often. So she has a little dressing room downstairs.”

Leard says the elaborate costumes and quick changes in the show require a lot of of people crammed into the small spaces backstage.

Jana Leard: “Even with our cast of 38, we have another dozen to 15 people backstage helping just for sets, and another five to eight people down in the green room just for makeup, but the cast is all doubling up. So if they’re not onstage, they’re either moving sets or doing makeup, and everybody is working as a team to make it happen. So there’s a good 100 people around there that are making it happen for every show.”

Leard says creating an authentic homage to the film with a stage show has been very complex.  Remember, when you saw The Wizard of Oz  - the film – for the first time, being blown away when what you thought was a black & white film suddenly turned into Technicolor? The crew wanted to give that same experience to the audience for the stage production. So how did they do it?

Jana Leard: “The whole first quarter of the first act is in sepia tone. All the costumes are in sepia tone. Everything was purposely designed to convey that black & white feel. And then when you come to Munchkinland she wakes up and the whole backdrop is as bright as we could make it. We glued gems all over the backdrop so it even sparkles more. And like Dorothy’s dress. She has two dresses. One’s in sepia. One’s in blue. Her white socks in the beginning are sepia tone. And when she gets to Munchkinland, they’re blue. We tried to pay attention to every single detail.”

Other moments of the production required more than creative costuming and makeup to bring to life. Moments that required the talents of a video & graphic special effects team, led by Jefferson Thomas. Thomas learned some of his trade while working as an intern on Tim Burton’s film “Nightmare Before Christmas,” creating effects like sparkles and flames.

Audiences will see some of Thomas’ special effects every time Glinda the Good Witch arrives in her sparkly pink bubble. A few other moments in the play that the special effects team has been working on since last September include the 25-foot tall head of the Great and Powerful Oz, and, of course, the tornado.

To figure out how to do all of this, Thomas looked back at how effects were created for the 1939 movie.

Jefferson Thomas: “It was a little daunting at first because you look at the original Wizard of Oz, and there were tons of special effects in that film. Things you wouldn’t even expect, like matte paintings and puppets and compositing and all this really great classical effects work. And I researched how the effects were done, and some of them were really funny.”

But Thomas is pretty reluctant to divulge how he created some of his effects, especially the tornado.

Jefferson Thomas: “That’s kind of a secret, Valerie. That’s Top Secret. But I set out to make the effects special in the true meaning of the sense ‘special.’ A lot of effects today are done today using fancy 3D software and expensive after effects. But I’m really in love with stop-motion animation, and I wanted to give it a certain texture, an old style feel. Sort of trying to give it that old-timey film look.”

Thomas’ film effects were even used to create opening and closing titles on film to give the impression that a classic film is truly coming to life on the stage.

The Wizard of Oz continues through the weekend at the Cascade Theatre.