In 1903, years before MGM made its musical version of Oz, a stage musical based on L. Frank Baum’s book became a Broadway hit.
Before he began writing children’s books, L. Frank Baum worked as a playwright, an actor and a theater manager, though bad luck and accidents dogged his career. After Wizard of Oz was published, Baum, a Chicago resident at the time, began working with composer Paul Tietjens on a musical adaptation that would be faithful to the book.
Baum Finds a Director
At first, no-one wanted to handle Baum’s script. Finally, Chicago director Julian Mitchell agreed to take on The Wizard of Oz with the understanding he could rework the script as he chose. Mitchell turned the Baum/Tietjens version into a musical “extravaganza,” a gaudy spectacle in which the story served as an excuse for songs and production numbers.
Mitchell’s version of Oz
In the show Mitchell created, the tornado brings Dorothy to Oz as a young woman, along with her pet cow, Imogen, and Pastoria, the rightful king of Oz deposed by the Wizard years before and exiled to Kansas.
The Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Woodman join Pastoria’s quest to overthrow the Wizard. At the end, Pastoria wins back the throne of Oz and Dorothy wins the heart of Dashemoff, an Oz poet.
Baum has a hit
The Wizard of Oz opened in Chicago in 1902 to huge acclaim, and Baum admitted Mitchell’s flashy production worked much better than his script would have. The extravaganza opened on Broadway the next year, running almost 300 performances, then toured the country until 1909. Baum’s share of the royalties made him a wealthy man.
Montgomery and Stone
The secret of the show’s success wasn’t the script or the songs but the casting of vaudeville comic duo Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman respectively. Montgomery and Stone filled out their scenes with their vaudeville routines and added several touches, such as a wobbly walk for the straw-legged Scarecrow.
The Land of Oz
Baum wrote several more plays, but failed to find backers. Then it occurred to him that if he wrote a second Oz book and adapted that for the stage, he could have another hit.
Baum wrote The Land of Oz with the stage in mind, including an all-girl army for chorus numbers, special effects scenes, lots of puns and enlarged roles for the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman so that Montgomery and Stone could repeat their roles.
Exit Montgomery and Stone
To Baum’s disappointment, Montgomery and Stone tired of their roles after a couple of years and refused to recreate them in a new show. Rather than replace them in the parts they’d made famous, Baum created two new characters, Jack Pumpkinhead and the Woggle-Bug and made them the comic team.
The Woggle-Bug opened in 1905. Baum had followed Mitchell’s formula closely, but it wasn’t a style that suited him and the show soon closed. As one reviewer put it, it “failed to woggle.”
Stone’s impact on MGM’s Oz
Thirty years after the play stopped touring, it had an unexpected effect on MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Ray Bolger had been cast as the Tin Man, but as a fan of Stone’s, he wanted to play the Scarecrow, and convinced MGM to let him swap roles with Buddy Ebsen. When Ebsen proved allergic to the tin makeup, he was replaced by Jack Haley.
Oz Before the Rainbow by Mark Evan Swartz goes into more detail on the Mitchell play.