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The audience crowds the lobby of DPAC before a performance of Wicked.
Photo: Dorrie Casey

The crowds are turning out for Wicked. Now in the final week of its month-long run at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the touring production has sold out all performances. And that’s not surprising — the stage musical, based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, has been enormously popular since opening on Broadway in 2003, setting box-office records there, in other productions around the world, and with its two national touring companies.

But it’s not the first hit stage musical about Oz. In 1903, one hundred years earlier, a musical version of the original novel became one of the greatest successes in Broadway history to that point.

Here’s guest blogger Marshall Botvinick with the story:

Written by Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. In 1902, Baum, at the urging of his illustrator W.W. Denslow, wrote the libretto for a musical version of the novel, and Paul Tietjens composed the music. Producer Fred Hamlin took on the production, hiring director Julian Mitchel, who extensively rewrote the script and brought in new songwriters. Surprisingly, Baum went along with the changes, which among other revisions, removed both the Wicked Witch of the West and Toto from the story. The production eventually caused a split between Baum and his illustrator Denslow, in a dispute about the distribution of royalties.

The show, with the slightly abbreviated title The Wizard of Oz, opened in Chicago in 1903, then moved to Broadway, where it ran for 293 performances. After closing in New York, the production continued with the original cast as a touring road show, which ran for another decade. Despite its success, this particular stage version has not been fully produced in over eighty years; however, the Canton Comic Opera Company has plans to produce it in July of 2010.

After the release of the 1939 film, stage versions of The Wizard of Oz have looked to the movie, or at least the songs from the movie, for inspiration, but until Wicked none have achieved the success of the first version. Currently, two versions of The Wizard of Oz can be licensed for production: the 1940’s version, created by the St. Louis Opera Company, and the 1987 version, created by the Royal Shakespeare Company. While both adaptations feature songs from the movie, only the RSC version uses dialogue from the MGM film. The St. Louis version, on the other hand, more closely resembles the story of Baum’s novel. There are also several less conventional adaptations of Baum’s novel, most notably the 1975 musical The Wiz, which features an all-black cast and uses Motown-style songs.

Still, Wicked and the original Wizard are likely to remain the record holders for a long, long time. And as the song says:

Don’t worry, I’m determined to succeed!
Follow my lead, and yes indeed, you will be
Popular! You’re gonna be popular!

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