The strange journey of Dorothy, courtesy of a tornado, from Kansas to Oz was so indelibly committed to celluloid in 1939 that it might seem unnecessary — even a little sacrilegious — to transform the MGM classic into a stage show.
But given the film's colorful story, its no-place-like-home message and brilliant Harold Arlen songs, it's easy to understand the temptation.
Only a few years after it hit the screen, "The Wizard of Oz" was adapted by the Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis. In the late 1980s, the Royal Shakespeare Company unveiled a theatrical version in London.
In 2011, another staging appeared in London and ran for a year and a half. This production came with one of the biggest names in musical theater attached — Andrew Lloyd Webber.
This latest treatment of "The Wizard of Oz" reaches the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Wednesday for a five-day run, bringing with it several new songs, a cast of about two dozen, lots of scenery and costumes, an orchestra of 10 — and Toto, too.
To fashion this project, Webber reunited with Tim Rice, his lyricist for such 1970s hits as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." The composer, whose celebrated works (with other lyricists) also include "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Sunset Boulevard," co-wrote the adaptation with Jeremy Sams, who is the production's director.
"A lot of thought went into this show," says Madeline Paul, associate director for "The Wizard of Oz." "The challenge was keeping intact the wonderful characters and songs that already existed in the film, and adding a new brightness to it."
The creative team attempted to deliver that brightness first by filling out the score to make this an all-out musical.
As fans of the "Oz" movie know, it has a musical imbalance — after such now-classic songs as "Over the Rainbow," "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" and "If I Only had a Brain," the second half or so of the film is pretty much just dialogue.
Webber and Rice fashioned a showpiece for the Wicked Witch of the West, who expresses her obsession with a pair of ruby slippers by belting out "Red Shoe Blues." There's also a number for Glinda, the good witch, when she reminds Dorothy that she always had the power within herself to get back home.
"The movie has no song for Professor Marvel, who is quite an important character in Dorothy's journey," Paul says. "In this show, he sings 'Wonders of the World' as he gives Dorothy a world tour with the use of slides. The final slide is a cottage with a white picket fence. He tells her, 'Home is one of the wonders of the world as well.' Dorothy has to run away to find that out."
As for Dorothy, she gets a new song early in the musical, before the one everyone is expecting, "Over the Rainbow." It's called "Nobody Understands Me."
"It's designed to introduce her as an angst-ridden teenager who feels her voice isn't being heard," Paul says.
The voice that will be heard in Baltimore belongs to Julia McClellan, a Canadian who has been on the "Wizard of Oz" tour since it launched last fall, after the show's eight-month run in Toronto. (Most of the tour has featured Danielle Wade, who was cast as Dorothy after winning a talent competition on Canadian television to fill the role.)
McClellan, barely into her 20s, remembers the 1939 movie being on TV while growing up — "It was my grandmother's favorite," she says — but did not watch it all the way through until she got a chance to audition for the musical.
"Now I love it to death," McClellan says. "I get why this is such an iconic film. But when I saw it, I didn't understand why Dorothy wanted to leave home. She had a beautiful dress and an awesome dog, and it didn't seem like she had to do any work. Why would she want to leave? One of my favorite things about our version is that it shows why."
The girl who laments that nobody understands her turns out to be ready for anything when she winds up in Oz.
Sams and Webber have "created a new Dorothy," McClellan says. "She's a bit feistier. She's funny; she stands up for her friends; she saves lives. That's a pretty strong female. She's a cool chick in this version."
This Dorothy learns the same lesson in the end.
"It's so universal," McClellan says. "It's about going away, only to find out that everything you wanted you already had."