The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was a best selling book in the year 1900. It appeared as a stage play in 1902 under the simplified name The Wizard of Oz. And the 1939 Warner Brothers movie adaptation remains an icon of pop culture, starring Judy Garland with Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Ray Bolger, and featuring a magnificent music score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Like other popular songwriters of his generation, jazz was a key component in everything Harold Arlen composed.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comes to life as Broadway actor Vernel Bagneris portrays all the characters of Oz in a new script for radio based on the original L. Frank Baum book. The brilliance of Harold Arlen’s art as a songwriter is displayed by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in new jazz arrangements and performances of Arlen's music from the movie score.
"Delightful madness...is how I would describe the experience of my role in the Riverwalk Jazz production of the Wizard. In a studio setting, holding on to the sound and vocal inflections of different characters would be challenging for any actor. But in front of a live audience, playing all of the parts was sheer lunacy. Luckily, 'The Landing' crowd embraced the audacious fun that the band and I were having, and cheered us on to the end. For that, I'm still grateful."
“I was actually soaked in New Orleans jazz as a child," Bagneris says, describing how live jazz music was simply a part of social and family functions in New Orleans. In high school, he said he became involved in the civil rights struggle, but turned his full attention back to music and theater in college.
Bagneris created and cast his international hit musical One Mo Time, with singers and dancers he knew from the city, including Thais Clark, with whom he loved to dance at clubs around town; and Topsy Chapman, who was working in a jewelry store on Royal Street: "I said to her, 'Didn't you say you sing?'" The group rehearsed in living rooms and kitchens, opening with one midnight show that grew into a long local run and eventually seven touring companies around the world.
His musical Jelly Roll, based on recorded interviews of jazz great Jelly Roll Morton by Alan Lomax, coincided with Jelly's Last Jam on Broadway. Whereas many Morton fans found the Broadway show inaccurate and disappointing; Bagneris' Morton musical biography won numerous awards.
More recently Bagneris finished working as assistant director and choreographer for Taylor Hackford's musical Louis Prima and Keely Smith Live at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles. He also has parts in two films, a comedy called Welcome to Academia and a drama The Way of War.
In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum explains what he was hoping to achieve with his tale:
"...the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale; its new wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."
Critics of the time lavished praise on L. Frank Baum's Wizard, and on the 154 illustrations by W.W. Denslow. It was 1900, when Dorothy first clicked her heels, longed for home and won her way into the hearts of children everywhere—and their parents, too.
With original jazz arrangements by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band and a tour de force performance by Vernel Bagneris, the Riverwalk Jazz Wizard is sure to please.
Photo credit for Home Page: Composer Harold Arlen. Photo courtesy of S.A Music Company.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011