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The Wizard of Oz: How one weird book spawned a whole pop culture

An all-Canadian cast stars, including Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson and ex-Canadian Tenor Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow).

Cylla von Tiedemann/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Adults and children will undoubtedly be in plentiful supply Sunday evening at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre as the curtain goes up on the premiere of a new Canadian production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. For decades, nothing has spelled "fun for the whole family" more than L. Frank Baum's most famous creation. With the possible exception of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, no ostensible children's story of the last century and a half has so successfully insinuated itself into virtually every facet of the popular culture. Whether as autonomous creation or font of umpteen riffs and references, The Wizard of Oz is simply a fact of life and art.

It hasn't always been thus, however. For all its seeming unassailability as both pop-culture inspiration and self-sustaining classic, The Wizard of Oz has had a fraught, contentious history, especially the original 1900 novel (published as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and the 13 sequels Baum composed before his death at 62 in 1919.

In the mid-1920s, for example, Detroit's library system removed Oz titles from its stacks and kept them out until the late 1950s. "This is not banning; this is selection" was the way the system's director defended the policy. Oz books, he argued, were poorly written, "old-fashioned," burdened with "too much exaggeration," and "negativism," embraced "a cowardly approach to life" and lacked the quality of the tales of the Brother Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. (When The Detroit Times discovered that Baum had been persona non grata for at least 30 years, it began a daily serialization of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in its pages.) Thirty years later, Christian fundamentalists in Tennessee succeeded in getting legal sanction to pull their children from public-school classes in which the Baum novel – to their eyes a work of "godless supernaturalism" – was being taught.

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There's no denying that Oz's universe of munchkins, witches (wicked and good), Yellow Brick Roads, Emerald Cities, endangered innocents (innocence) and anthropomorphic characters like the Cowardly Lion, is odd. But it's that very weirdness, its elusive and allusive ambiguity, its refusal to settle into one-size-fits-all didactic, that gives it the enduring vitality and porosity not found in, say, Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone or Horatio Alger's Luke Walton (the Chicago Newsboy), to cite some other children's texts from Baum's time. There's an Oz, it seems, to inform every era, technology and sensibility – be they those kids in the 1990s who synchronized the music of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with the 1939 Judy Garland movie, or the epic transmogrifications of Baumian themes in the panoramas of Chicago artist Henry Darger (1892-1973), or the way Sean Connery's reading of The Wizard of Oz at the conclusion of the trippy sci-fi drama Zardoz (1974) serves as a decoder of sorts for the film's hallucinatory logic. Coming in March is Sam Raimi's movie Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel of sorts to the original 1900 yarn with James Franco as a small-time circus magician transported to the Land of Oz where he meets, among others, Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams).

Writing in 1900, Baum claimed he conceived his "modernized fairy-tale ... solely to please children of today." Almost a century after his death, he's still succeeding.

The Wizard of Oz continues at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St., Toronto. Tickets at mirvish.com.

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James More

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