Monday, March 30, 2015

The Wiz on NBC

It has been announced that following NBC's live productions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, we will be getting The Wiz this year, which I hoped this trend of live musicals on TV would lead to. They are partnering with Cirque du Soleil, who will follow the TV production with a revival on Broadway. The TV broadcast will occur December 3.

So, here's some questions I haven't been asked, but I have seen these statements pop up online a lot.

  • This is gonna be awful! To be honest, it could be. Also, Avengers: Age of Ultron could be awful. Some casting choices aside, NBC's Sound of Music wasn't that bad. I wasn't big on their Peter Pan, but I've never liked that adaptation of Barrie's story in the first place.
  • Why are they remaking the movie? This little thing has been frustrating because not only have online commenters run with this idea, but so have big websites who report such things. Let's get one thing straight: THEY ARE DOING A LIVE PRODUCTION OF THE PLAY. The movie adaptation of The Wiz literally tossed out the original book and they had Joel Schumacher pen a new EST-infused screenplay. The songs may be the same, but the script is quite different.
  • No one will top Michael Jackson's "You Can't Win." In the original production, the Scarecrow sang "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday." "You Can't Win" was written for the play, but was shifted around before finally being dropped. In the movie, they had the Scarecrow sing it instead of his original song. Some productions since have added it to the Scarecrow scene or had it replace the original song. Whether it will be in NBC's production remains to be seen. Personally, "I Was Born..." is a more optimistic song, so I hope they use it. In addition, even if they use that song, please cut the actors some slack and enjoy their interpretation for what it is. Michael Jackson's version will still be around afterwards.
  • Will they cast this right? No cast has been announced yet. Let's hope so.
  • Will the same cast be in the Broadway revival? From early news reports, it sounds as if the TV cast and Broadway cast will be separate, however I wouldn't be surprised to see some crossover. They may have some of the big roles filled with more notable names for the TV version.
  • Are they going to make the cast multi-ethnic? Possibly. Personally, I hope they try to keep the cast African-American as The Wiz was created as an African-American interpretation of the Oz story.
  • Will there be a DVD of the performance? Given that DVDs of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan were released shortly after their broadcasts, we can say an optimistic "Yes." No Blu-Rays were issued, however, HD versions can be bought on streaming video sites. In addition, cast albums were made for the previous musicals, so not only will The Wiz be on TV, but we'll also have a new home video version and a new music album available.
  • What will be different from the movie? The script is likely going to see some revision, and leaves some wiggle room for alteration, so I can't quite say. However, I'm hopeful that songs like "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind," "So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard," "Y'All Got It," and "Who Do You Think You Are?" will appear in NBC's production, particularly the last one. Stephanie Mills also sang the song "Wonder, Wonder Why" in the 1984 revival and who knows? It could end up in NBC's version.
  • Will you be watching live? Unless something big comes up that night or my antenna suddenly can't get NBC, you bet!
  • Will you blog about it? Definitely.

Disney's Return to Oz on Blu-Ray at last

I'd presumed recently that if Disney released Return to Oz on Blu-Ray, that it would be as a Disney Movie Club exclusive. With it being a niche (if very popular) title, Disney would presume mainly collectors would want it. After all, if popular live action classics like Pollyanna, Old Yeller and The Love Bug are only getting Blu-Ray releases in Disney Movie Club, what chance did a critical and commercial flop from 1985 have, even with its cult following?

There would be good things and not so good things about this. On one hand, you would have the movie in high definition on a physical disc: no sudden compression issues due to internet streaming. On the other hand, it would be unlikely for there to be an extensive restoration of the film, and no new—if any!—bonus features on the disc.

However, Return to Oz on a plain vanilla Blu-Ray would certainly be better better than not having it on Blu-Ray at all. And thank goodness, because Return to Oz has been confirmed for such an edition, officially releasing April 14.

The only other downside is that as an exclusive, people with easy access to it would be members of Disney Movie Club. It is not unheard of for DMC exclusives to turn up on eBay or through Amazon Marketplace. But prices there often wind up being $10 over what Disney would ask its club members to pay for the title without discount.

Disney Movie Club is Disney's direct-to-the-customer home video program, including some hard to find titles in their library of animated and live action offerings, as well as titles from Marvel Studios, Pixar and Studio Ghibli. You won't find officially "vaulted" titles (so no Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or The Lion King right now), but when you do find titles that have run into short supply everywhere else, you won't find them charging exorbitant prices for them. And once you complete your VIP status through the introductory offer, you get a pretty good discount on everything in the store.

When I joined last year, I planned to slowly complete my VIP status with some upcoming Marvel and Disney titles. However, in early November (less than six months after I joined), I completed it. I didn't quite go about it the smartest way, but there's some good resources online about how to cheaply and quickly do so. As with any offer, I recommend you read up and make a decision on whether or not to join based on your own situation.

And if you decide not to but still want Return to Oz on Blu-Ray, remember that your chances of getting it will at least be higher now that a Blu-Ray of the title actually exists!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Volkov-thon: The Yellow Fog

On to the penultimate book in Volkov's series. It didn't matter that I'd read them out of order because Volkov wrote the books so that they could be read individually. Baum did the same thing, but they did them differently. Baum would just fill you in on the information you needed to know. Volkov, however, would tend to recap the entire series so far.

In The Yellow Fog, he at least has a nice reason for doing so. He opens thousands of years in the past, telling how the wizard Hurricap (who created Magic Land, pretty much Volkov's Lurline... noticing something?) battled the Witch Arachna, who was also a giantess. Upon victory, he put her in an enchanted sleep instead of killing her. The tribe of tiny gnomes (actual tiny little men, no relation to the Nomes we know from Oz) refreshes Arachna's clothes and a food supply and her magic flying carpet as she sleeps for five thousand years. They also keep a record of everything that is happening in Magic Land for her to read when she awakens.

In this way, I was kind of reminded of not a Baum book, but Rachel Cosgrove Payes' The Wicked Witch of Oz in which a witch awakens from a long, enchanted sleep. As Cosgrove wrote her book in the 1950s but it went unpublished until 1993, and Volkov's book came out in 1974, there is no chance of one inspiring the other.

As it happens, Arachna awakens one year after the events of The Fiery God of the Marrans and reads the record to get up to speed on Magic Land. So here is where Volkov takes two chapters to recap the entire series for people like me who began with this book.

After finishing the chronicle, Arachna decides to take over Magic Land, and she has the Nomes send for a henchman in her schemes: Urfin Jus!

Volkov goes back to Urfin and Guamoko's fates after their defeat in the previous book. There was nothing left for Urfin to do but return to his home in Munchkin Land, feeling defeated and sorry for himself, but along the way, the Munchkins open their doors to him, letting him have food and shelter. And so, touched by their kindness, Urfin begins to think about how he's been living. Returning home, he finds the plants he made his Powder of Life from respawned. He briefly considers building a new army, but then uproots the plants and destroys them and builds a new home elsewhere. He's done enough to the people of Magic Land who have repaid his foul behavior with kindness.

I was developing my book Outsiders from Oz when I first read The Yellow Fog and at the time, Ruggedo the ex-Nome King had not joined the story. I'd seen people compare Urfin to Ruggedo due to his repeated plots to conquer the Kingdom, so when I read these chapters, it gave me the idea not only to include Ruggedo, but also what to do for his character arc. I added some twists and Ruggedo's story is quite different from Urfin's, but it did prove my inspiration.

So, when the gnomes arrive to fetch Urfin to consult with Arachna (he gives them some gifts and carries them in a wheelbarrow to make the trip faster), he refuses to help her. She says that he will regret it and he leaves, noting that other gnomes fetched another potential henchman: Ruf Bilan. He had just awaken from drinking the Soporific Water and was being re-educated when the gnomes fetched him. Arachna has him learn his past life from the Record and he agrees to help her, assuring her that the people of Magic Land will swiftly surrender.

That is not the case. Word spreads quickly in Magic Land and all the people Arachna tries to conquer: the Marrans, the Winkies, the Emerald City, the Ore-Diggers and even the Munchkins are all able to repel her attempts at conquest. Oyho the Dragon even manages to rip off a piece of the Magic Carpet which Rujero uses as its own carpet.

So Arachna sets her next plan in motion: the Yellow Fog. This fog covers Blue Land, Violet Land, and the Emerald Kingdom, and at first seems to be harmless, but after some time, people begin coughing from its effects. But the doctors Robil and Boril discover that wearing raffaloo leaves over your mouth and nostrils will ease your breathing. Urfin Jus—who is brought to the Emerald Island after Strasheela discovers his reformation—also shows that the fog can be repelled with smoke.

Soon, the fog begins affecting vision as well, and everyone is required to wear glasses. Finally, the fog brings cold weather and snow—previously unknown to the people of Magic Land—and Strasheela sends Oyho and Faramant to fetch Annie and Tim to show them how to prepare for winter.

In Kansas, the mechanical mules have been helping John not only plow his own fields, but also that of his neighbors, increasing his income. At the time Oyho and Faramant arrive, Charlie Black has been visiting and Tim is interested in going to sea with the old sailor.

There is one bit that Tim quotes that kind of set me off: "Men are obliged to seek their fortunes in foreign climes, while it's the lot of the women to keep the home fires burning." This rather old-fashioned maxim does give us a little reminder about one of the differences between Volkov's Magic Land and Baum's Oz. Baum had women take lead roles. They're allowed to do as they please. However, Volkov's women are either villains, the rarely seen Villina and Stella, or simply assist the male characters. Even as Annie returns to Magic Land, it's really Charlie and Tim who lead the action.

Arriving in Magic Land, Strasheela and the Iron Woodman confer with Charlie on how to openly attack Arachna. They wind up building a giant mechanical man they call Tilly-Willy, and with his fierce, ugly face, is sure to frighten even the giant witch. Tilly-Willy comes to life after construction and begins to speak like Charlie. This giant will fight Arachna, and Tim will help sneak mice into her lair to devour her magic carpet to prevent a getaway. After a long, hard journey (many mice perish on the way), they manage to surprise Arachna with Tilly-Willy and destroy the carpet. In an amusing twist, the bits of the magic carpet allow the mice to fly away from the wildcats Arachna summons. Volkov mentions that they lost the power to fly and the magic carpets remnants were spread all over Magic Land. Those who know how digestive systems work realize what Volkov just said without actually saying it.

Little fun bit, in James Patrick Doyle's song "Pull Together" for his musical adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Queen of the Field Mice sings "We can even learn to fly!" I can't help but mentally connect that verse and this scene in The Yellow Fog.

Annie goes to get Carfax the Eagle, who assists Tilly-Willy in his fight against Arachna, using his giant sword to break her club, and eventually pushing her over a cliff, where she perishes.

Charlie and Annie find the spell to lift the Yellow Fog in Arachna's magic book, and after the fog is gone, the book is burned to prevent anyone from using it again. The gnomes do not miss their old mistress and Strasheela tasks them with maintaining their record of the events of Magic Land. (So, this could be Volkov's take on the Book of Records.) The book wraps up with a celebration in the Emerald City as Oyho prepares to take Annie, Tim and Charlie back to Kansas.

The Yellow Fog is a good story on its own, and what I appreciated when I first read it was that Annie and her companions are not called to save Magic Land. The people of Magic Land were defying Arachna on their own and only called for them to learn how to survive during the Winter.

One little thing does bug me: why is such a huge disaster happening in the rest of Magic Land and Villina and Stella are just doing nothing? Volkov rarely used these characters after the first book, and in a contrast to Baum's books, Villina the Good Witch of the North gets more appearances in these books than Glinda's counterpart, Stella. Still, Ruf Bilan suggests that the Flying Monkeys could overpower Arachna. Did it occur to no one that calling on these two sorceresses might help?

Well, we have one more book. Then I can get on some proper Oz books I got recently.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Volkov-thon: The Fiery God of the Marrans

On to Book 4. Translator Peter Blystone noted that The Fiery God of the Marrans was Volkov's weakest in the series. Let's see what he meant.

Reminder that Volkov had previously prevented Ellie from returning to Magic Land by means of saying she wouldn't return, so how was the series going to continue?

Speaking of which, in the last blog, Sam commented that he hoped there would be an explanation as to why Ellie would not return to Magic Land. Commenter Marc Berezin (who also assisted Blystone on the recent editions of the translations) said that it seemed to be because Ellie was growing up. This seems to be accurate as Underground Kings had her parents put a lot of emphasis on her need to go to school and learn more about the world. This almost seems to be a concept lifted out of The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the Pevensie children are told they need to grow closer to their own world as they get older.

In The Fiery God of the Marrans, Volkov doesn't keep Ellie out of the picture, revealing that she studied to become a teacher after her final visit to Magic Land. He also reveals that while she having her third adventure, her mother gave birth to another daughter, Annie.

The early chapters mainly focus on the new designs of Urfin Jus after his famous defeat in the second book. He of course isn't happy about his defeat and wants to conquer the Emerald City again. After waiting for a new chance for years, he gets one when he hears about the Marrans from Carfax, the eagle he helps. He sends Eot Ling the wooden clown to investigate further.

The Marrans were introduced back in The Wizard of the Emerald City in place of the Hammerheads. The short people can jump high and far and are nicknamed the Leapers. They're also very good at throwing punches. They live in their mountain and have never used fire.

It just so happens that Urfin managed to get a hold of a spare cigarette lighter that Charlie Black had when he visited Magic Land, so he has Carfax carry him to the Marrans and with his ability to call forth a flame instantly, he gets them to hail him as a god. He teaches them to cook, then build nice houses. (The noble Carfax eventually realizes Urfin's deceitful game and leaves him.) Soon, he has an army ready to march on the Emerald City.

Meantime, Strasheela has busied himself with digging a deep trench around the Emerald City to turn it into an island. Aside from the wall, this adds extra protection to the city by stopping a Deadwood Oak-manned ferry should enemies attack. Stella the Good Witch sends him a small box with a frosted glass side that will show him whoever of whatever he wishes to see by chanting a rhyme and requesting what he wants to see. (The "magic television set" is Volkov's portable version of the Magic Picture.) However, it can only show him people and places in Magic Land.

When Urfin attacks the Emerald City, Strasheela and his forces put up a mighty effort, but the Marrans eventually break in and conquer the City. This leaves Kaggi-Karr at a loss as to what to do next.

In Kansas, Annie is about seven years old and is obsessed with Ellie's tales of Magic Land. Ellie even gives her the whistle that can summon Ramina. She shares her obsession with her friend Tim O'Kelly, and when Fred Canning sends them solar-powered mechanical mules named Hannibal and Caesar, they prepare to ride them all the way to Magic Land! Hannibal and Caesar begin speaking when they arrive in Magic Land, and I couldn't help but think of them as some combination of the Sawhorse and Tik-Tok. Also accompanying them is a puppy Totoshka fathered named Artoshka, or Arto for short.

After being helped into Magic Land proper by Carfax, Annie manages to rescue a talking fox who is the king of a community of foxes (basically, a less-anthropomorphized version of Foxville), who gives Annie a silver circlet with a ruby that will make her invisible. Arriving in Munchkin Land, Annie discovers what has befallen Strasheela and the Iron Woodcutter (who's also been locked away by Urfin), so she heads to the Emerald City, where using the circlet, Soporific Water from Underground Land and the whistle, manages to free Strasheela, the Iron Woodcutter and steal the Magic Television Set from Urfin. Then, they head west.

Urfin tells the Marrans that a group of them who were attacking Winkie Country were killed and their bodies cut up and fed to pigs. This spurs them to march to Winkie Country, but Strasheela's use of the Magic Television Set warned him and they do the most surprising way to counter the attack: they have a volleyball game with the supposedly slaughtered Marrans. The incoming Marrans see their supposed dead friends and relatives still alive and realize Urfin was lying to them this entire time and chase him away. Ellie and Tim return home on the mules.

Quite a few more things happened in the book as well, but my above summary gives you the most plot-important bits. The Fiery God of the Marrans works well to introduce Annie and open the door for further adventures, but unfortunately, so much time is spent setting up the siege on the Emerald City that the sudden and quick wrap up with the volleyball game feels quite dissatisfying. It's fun, but I would have preferred a little more of Urfin getting a comeuppance.

Volkov has an afterword where he mentions he considered having this book be the final one, but he wound up starting a fifth book. That was actually the first of the series I'd read, and it wound up having a bit of inspiration for my own Oz spin-off Outsiders from Oz. But just to be fair, I'm going to read it again.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Volkov-thon: The Seven Underground Kings

On to book 3! I hadn't read this one before, but I'd seen the stop-motion adaptation of it, but now that I've read the book, I can tell that that was a very abbreviated version of this story.

Now, one thing Volkov did quite differently from Baum was setting up a backstory. In Baum's books, things are there, and why they're there isn't always explored.

At the start of The Seven Underground Kings, Volkov takes us back to the Land of the Underground Ore-Diggers, explaining why these people live underground. They have seven brothers for kings, and they each one rule one month in turn and each king has his own court. This was very draining on the resources of the Underground Land until they discovered the Soporific Water, which makes someone enter a sleep for a time and when they awaken, they have to be reeducated on who they are. (Basically, Volkov's take on the Water of Oblivion.) The Kings agree that to ease the burden on the kingdom, they and their courts will use the water and sleep in between their reigns.

This system works fine until the close of Urfin Jus and his Wooden Soldiers. The traitor Ruf Bilan fled underground, and while doing so, accidentally damaged the spring the Soporific Water came from, preventing them from using it. Over the months that follow, the Kings and their courts awaken and become a burden on the people again. The Kings finally have to decide to dismiss most of their courts and have one shared court.

Back in Kansas, Ellie goes to school for some months after her last return from Magic Land, before being invited to spend time with her cousin Fred Canning, who prides himself on his adventures until he hears Ellie's tales of Magic Land. The two decide to go visit a cave with Totoshka, but are trapped by a rockslide. They travel underground for many days, nearly starving, until they find Underground Land.

Upon seeing Ellie, Ruf Bilan calls her a powerful fairy and suggests she restore the spring of the Soporific Water before she can leave. Ellie objects since she's just a little girl, but the king sides with Ruf. They are able to send Totoshka to the surface, to Munchkin Country, where he's able to get the word out that Ellie is in Underground Land and being held prisoner. Strasheela plans to attack Underground Land until they get Fred out to Munchkin Country and to the Emerald City to explain the full details. This lets the mechanic Lestar decide that it would be a better idea to find the source of Soporific Water and set up a pump

So it is that Strasheela, the Iron Woodman, the Courageous Lion, Lestar and a regiment of Deadwood Oaks arrive in Underground Land with many gifts. While Lestar works on the pump, Ellie's friends begin to suffer from the damp, requiring Strasheela to stay near a forge (but not too close!) to stay dry, the Iron Woodman to stay in a tank of oil to prevent himself from rusting away, and the Lion has to continually consume medicine for his cold as the Deadwood Oaks begin to swell.

As they hit the water, they discover its vapor can send people to sleep as well, unless they're wearing diamonds. The Kings begin to plot against the each other, wanting to put all the others to sleep so they can rule continually. So the timekeeper Rujero decides that maybe the time of having Seven Kings needs to come to an end, and Strasheela suggests that all the kings and their courts be put to sleep, and instead of reeducating them back into their old lives, to send them into being contributing members of society who will work to keep Underground Land from starving again, and Rujero will move from timekeeper (who kept an eye on the hourglasses to measure when the Kings' time would be up) to the new, single King of Underground Land. This measure is agreed to and they manage to expose all the kings and their courts to the water at the same time.

After the Kings are reeducated, the end of Underground Land arrives. It is decided that it would be best if the Underground people didn't stay underground and move to the surface. They agree to this, though given that many of them are used to living with low light, they will need to adjust to living in the sunlight.

Ellie calls Ramina, the Queen of the Field Mice, who tells her that she can see into the future and that Ellie will not be returning to Magic Land. Ellie says a tearful goodbye to her friends, wanting to hide from them the notion that she won't be back, even though the Iron Woodman feels it in his heart. She, Totoshka and Fred are carried back to Kansas by Oyho the Dragon from Underground Land.
Here we see Volkov fully branching into his own stories. Is the existence of an underground kingdom inspired by the Nome Kingdom? Maybe. The Soporific Water is certainly based on the Water of Oblivion, but its abilities to put people to sleep is an invention of Volkov, as is the idea that with a little reeducation, the people exposed to the water can regain a sense of who they were.

More importantly, Volkov was able to put an end to Ellie's adventures and send her home, while Baum had Dorothy move to Oz. Yet the stories of Magic Land were not concluded. Volkov wrote three more books in his series, so how would they continue?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Sound of Oz Indiegogo

Sometime back, I noted that there really wasn't a specific piece about the music of the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Well, now film critic Ryan Jay and Aaron Harburg, great-grandson of MGM laureate E.Y. "Yip" Harburg have something in mind: a documentary!

To do it the way they want it done, they've launched an Indiegogo to raise funds!

As always, there are perks from t-shirts to posters, from digital copies to DVDs and Blu-Rays, from special credit to an invitation to the premiere! Check it out, donate and share!