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Taking a Detour Along the Yellow Brick Road

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No ruby slippers? No witch on a bicycle? No “Surrender, Dorothy”? So what remains of “The Wizard of Oz” for an all-star radio production airing Thanksgiving Day?

Memorable aspects of the classic 1939 movie are present in this four-hour dramatization, but it’s a noticeably different version. Characters and adventures left out of the movie are featured and some dialogue has been updated, but it largely remains true to L. Frank Baum’s book--hailed as the first American fairy tale--and celebrates the centennial of its publication in 1900.

Produced by the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles and recorded in July, the show features a cast that includes Harry Anderson as the Wizard, Annette Bening as Glinda the Good Witch, Phyllis Diller as the Wicked Witch of the West, John Goodman as the Guardian of the Gate, Robert Guillaume as the Cowardly Lion, Mark Hamill as Munch the Munchkin and pioneering radio dramatist Norman Corwin as an old crow.

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It also includes commentary by author Ray Bradbury and will air Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9). The show is being distributed to 100 stations nationwide by Public Radio International.

Many more people have seen the movie than have read the book (titled “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”), so the radio production will require imagination. “Here’s a chance to reinterpret that which is so well-known, but is really not known,” said Ed Myerson, executive vice chairman of the museum’s board, who served as co-executive producer. “Because we do the whole book, and because it’s audio, the listener gets to go on the journey. Sound really carries you.”

Michelle Trachtenberg, 15, who stars as Dawn, sister of the title character on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” plays Dorothy. Comparing the radio show and the Judy Garland movie, she said, “We were going for a completely different thing. There’s no ‘Over the Rainbow,’ there’s no ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.’ ”

“That’s a wonderful movie, but it’s very different from what we’re doing,” said Candace Barrett, executive director of the Children’s Museum, who also plays Mrs. Quadling in the Oz dramatization. “There are certainly going to be comparisons at the outset, but it’s such a different take. It’s so much about audio; we’re trying to get the kids to make the visuals in their own minds.”

The chance to help the Children’s Museum and to revisit an American classic meant “nobody said no to us,” Barrett said. But everyone involved faced the challenge of an audience with a vivid and iconic vision of Oz. “The thing people will always remember is 1939,” said David Ossman, who wrote the radio dramatization. “What we wanted to do was open it out for them, turn their expectations around.”

The radio production incorporates unfamiliar aspects of the book but it doesn’t stop there. “It’s unexpected to hear the Tin Man sounding like a Latino from New York. It’s unexpected to hear the Lion sound like an old black guy,” said Ossman, a founding member of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe, also heard in the production.

“We wanted to make this kind of universal, more updated,” said Nestor Serrano, who plays the Tin Man. “He’s a little bit more of a Latin lover. He’s much more sentimental. He’s more of a romantic. He misses the days when he was a human.”

Serrano, who has appeared on Broadway and in movies including “Bringing Out the Dead” and “The Insider,” said the Oz story was an important part of his childhood, as it is for his 11-year-old son, Spike. Ironically, though, the Tin Woodman (as he’s known in the book) was always Serrano’s least favorite character.

“It was only after I played it that I really recognized his compassion,” he said. “He cared about all the creatures in the forest. Clearly he didn’t need a heart, it was all in his mind.”

Guillaume, the Emmy Award-winning actor who most recently appeared on ABC’s “Sports Night,” reunites with his “Benson” co-star Rene Auberjonois, who plays the Scarecrow.

To portray the Cowardly Lion, Ossman said Guillaume “found this really kind of grumpy, dyspeptic character. It made him a much fuller and rounder character.” But Guillaume said he was fighting to avoid imitating what he called Bert Lahr’s “consummate rendition.”

“The first actor--whoever does it--if he’s successful, his ghost inhabits the role,” Guillaume said. “I was simply trying to get out with my skin.”

As for Diller, she had two advantages. First, she’s played the role before, in a 1992 stage run at the St. Louis Metropolitan Opera House, and again in Kansas City. Also, she had never seen the movie before that, so she had no preconceived ideas about the Wicked Witch of the West.

“Which I am in person. There’s no separation between me and it,” said the veteran comedian and actress. “I love that role--she’s adorable. Those are the fun roles.”

Diller said she expects the show will fire children’s imagination. “I think it’s terribly important to have children interested in literature and theater--the younger the better,” she said.

“I think it’s better than television, because you have your own pictures. It develops your cranial powers because you’re thinking.”

New to listeners unfamiliar with Baum’s book will be an encounter with the Hammerheads and a visit with the brittle porcelain China People, who spend their time ad-libbing opera.

Entertainment First, Fund-Raising Second

The music for the radio production includes songs from the 1902 stage version of Oz, as well as other songs that Baum himself wrote, but none of the familiar songs from the movie.

“For adults or hip listeners there are hidden references to the movie, little inside jokes,” Ossman said.

Proceeds from the sale of CD and cassette recordings of the dramatization will benefit the museum--which since 1979 has offered hands-on exhibits, reading and recycling programs--as well as sponsorship of a Girl Scout troop for disadvantaged girls, among other activities.

The museum closed its Main Street site in August and will be replaced by two new campuses, in Arts Park in downtown Los Angeles and at the Hansen Dam Recreational Area in Lake View Terrace. Those won’t be open for a few years, but they will increase the museum’s available space fivefold. The museum will continue its outreach program, though, bringing exhibits to schools and groups throughout the city.

But Barrett said the radio show’s fund-raising potential was secondary to museum officials’ desire to create a high-quality production and make a new version of a classic story available.

“Our basic mission is to empower, educate and entertain kids and the adults who care for them. And we look for ways we can do all three of those at the same time,” Barrett said. “This particular story gives us a jumping-off place for the things we do every day.”

The CDs and cassettes will include activity books and games related to the story. And “Oz” is just the first production of what museum officials are calling their “legacy series.”

“The way kids feel about Harry Potter today, that is the same huge influence L. Frank Baum had at the time,” said Judith Walcutt, Ossman’s wife, who co-produced and directed with him. “It’s just a seminal work of the American imagination.”

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* “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” airs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday on KCRW-FM (89.9). Recordings on four CDs ($39.95) or three cassettes ($29.95) are available at (800) 411-MIND or https://www.wizardorder.com.


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