Thursday, July 30, 2015

NBC's The Wiz Live! — Who's Cast, Who Could Be, and Who Should Be

Earlier this week, NBC announced the addition of Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige to the cast of The Wiz Live!, which airs December 3rd.

Latifah will play the Wiz, described as "the mysterious and powerful wizard who holds the keys to the Emerald City, but whose metamorphosis from ordinary to extraordinary is itself a hoax," and Blige (a nine-time Grammy Award-winner) will play Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, who "captures Dorothy and her friends to avenge the unintentional murder of her evil sister, Evvamean, and to get back the powerful silver slippers given to Dorothy by the Good Witch of the North." They join original Broadway cast member Stephanie Mills, who was previously announced to play Aunt Em.

E! Online and a number of other entertainment news outlets are reporting that music superstar Beyonce has been offered the role of Glinda - a move that could result in massive ratings for NBC. According to Entertainment Weekly, however, Beyonce has declined multiple offers from NBC, though it's still possible that she could end up signing on. If not, the role could go to Uzo Aduba, star of Netflix's Orange is the New Black. But for now, "Beyonce is only a rumor," says producer Craig Zadan.

As for Dorothy, the creative team is adamant about casting a fresh face, despite Brandy Norwood's shameless campaigning for the role across Twitter, YouTube, and even the New York subways. "I feel like I'm the one to do it," she said in an interview with Playbill, "and I just want Kenny Leon and whoever else who is doing it to let me prove it to them. Give me the opportunity, and I will make them so proud and inspire the world with that role."

Personally, I share many people's concern that Brandy, 36, might be too old for the part (though, in her defense, Diana Ross was 34 when she played Dorothy in the 1978 film). Having said that, I do think that she should be given a chance. She's not quite as much of a "household name" as Queen Latifah or Mary J. Blige, but she would bring some more star power to the production and she's clearly got the talent and passion for the project.

So, who else could we see in NBC's Wiz? Audra McDonald is a good bet, as she appeared in The Sound of Music Live! for the network in 2013. I also wouldn't be surprised if actor/comedian Craig Robinson, best known for his role as Darryl in The Office, joins the cast, given his relationship with NBC with the upcoming sitcom Mr. Robinson. If you ask me, he'd make a pretty great Lion. Other names that have come up among fan discussions include Whoopi Goldberg, Broadway stars James Monroe Igleheart (Aladdin) and LaChanze (If/Then), Fantasia, and even Usher.

Expect to see the rest of the cast to fill up in the next month or two, but in the meantime, let the speculation and wishful thinking continue!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three Oz Books

The Speckled Rose of Oz by Donald Abbott
Another book set before the events of The Marvelous Land of Oz, Abbott gives the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion another adventure as the wicked Poison Oak and Sir Wiley Gyle (brother of the Wicked Witches) try to turn Oz into a swamp by killing the Speckled Rose of Oz.

Abbott is imaginative here, even if the flow of his stories is still a bit too uneven. Not highly recommended, but not one to avoid either.

The Unwinged Monkey of Oz by Peter Schulenberg
Paramount the monkey has a problem: he was born without wings! Having had enough of feeling like he doesn't belong, he runs away from home and encounters some strange new friends, such as a man who inexplicably turns into a Gump but has no memory of either life, and a cavern full of people made of wet clay. Along the way, Paramount gets wind of a plot by a wicked witch and does what he can to stop her.

Schulenberg improves over past stories by including an antagonist. That said, the antagonist is defeated fairly easily. Still, Schulenberg definitely knows his Oz and clearly displays it here.

The Patchwork Bride of Oz by Gilbert M. Sprague
A short story sees the Scarecrow and Scraps get married. There's a nice twist at the end.

Only complaint? It's far too short. It should have been a centerpiece in a book of short stories, not a book of its own. Still, if you can track it down, enjoy!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Royal Podcast of Oz: Good News of 1939

As a bonus episode, The Royal Podcast of Oz presents this old time radio production. Maxwell House's Good News would feature actors from MGM's films, often as promotion for those films. The June 29, 1939 episode featured the upcoming film The Wizard of Oz, including appearances by Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, and the original Broadway Scarecrow, Fred Stone. It's also noteworthy that this was the first time the public heard many of the songs that would become so beloved in the classic film. Please note that most of the behind the scenes stories heard are not accurate to life.

Download this episode (right click and save)

You can also subscribe to the Royal Podcast of Oz at the podcast website.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Royal Podcast of Oz - The Movies of Oz: The Tin Woodman of Oz

Sam and Jared examine Hash Inc's animated adaptation of The Tin Woodman of Oz, created with the Animation Master software. Plus, a special announcement about the next episode!

Download this episode (right click and save)

Also, you can subscribe to the podcast at the Royal Podcast of Oz website!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Oz and the Vulnerable Male

Sometime back, I wrote a blog offering my take on why Oz appeals to gay men. It wasn't a very well thought-out blog, but sometimes ideas are best to say once and then build on later. But here's another thought, which doesn't really explain why gay men love Oz, but why men of all types sometimes embrace it.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many of its sequels are noted for their strong female characters who take the lead. But this is not to say that there's a lack of male characters. But where are the big, self-confident heroes in Oz?

The answer is that Baum eschewed the typical depiction of male heroes in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and instead gave us male heroes who were not only vulnerable, but were self-aware of their vulnerabilities and open about them.

A good many male heroes are often depicted without many personal vulnerabilities. These are often glossed over or sometimes played down. Take Batman, for example. Depending on the writer, Batman can appear to be just a force of violence who stops short of killing his enemies. Yet he is supposed to have a tender side where he'll relate to the victims of the criminals because he was once victimized himself, and will also refuse to kill or use firearms. But sometimes, fans and even the writers themselves can seem to gloss over Batman's more human side.

In the case of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, every major male character (with the exception of Toto) seems to have them. Uncle Henry seems to be emotionally closed (we are told that he never laughs and seldom speaks), and Baum leaves us to interpret it as we will. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion are very much defined by their vulnerabilities. They are each open about qualities they feel they lack and the plot of their stories focus on them trying to obtain these qualities, which they do through experience, though they aren't convinced they have them until the Wizard gives them items that pretty much can be seen as placebos.

The Wizard himself almost personifies the invulnerable man trope until he's exposed, then he reveals he's every bit as human as anyone else. Baum doesn't spend much time on his vulnerabilities, but when he returns in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, we hear more about his past and he even admits that he might die trying to defend Dorothy, Zeb and the animals.

Baum rarely puts such emphasis on the vulnerabilities of male characters again. Jack Pumpkinhead is cautious of his head, as he's very aware that it can spoil. The Frogman puts up a facade of being a wise man when he knows he's just a overgrown frog and the Truth Pond makes him admit this. In addition, Baum's boy characters have often been criticized as not being as well-developed as the girls.

Last year at Oz Con International, I was on a panel about Baum's boys, and while the host was skeptical about our views, John Bell, Paul Dana and I all seemed to think that Baum's boy characters weren't badly depicted. Button-Bright has ADHD or perhaps Aspbergers, Ojo has depression, and the thing is, that's perfectly okay in Oz.

It is no mystery that Baum believed in early feminist ideals. He had great respect for his mother in law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, founder of the Woman's National Liberal Union. Many have pointed to his depiction of female characters in the Oz series as evidence of his feminism. But a good part of feminism has been relieving society from ideals that over-glorify the role of men. This means that not only should women be held in equal esteem and allowed to be who they want to be, but men are free to be only themselves instead of living up to an idealized image.

I think this ideal of feminism is quite evident in the Oz series: strong male characters can be strong male characters. Vulnerable male characters can be vulnerable male characters. They are not trying to live up to some ideal. Women are allowed to be strong or vulnerable and one is not used to shame another.

For this reason, I think, we can point to one reason why the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeals to gay men: it is a story about empowerment that is not based on gender. Any character is allowed to be who they are, whether they want to improve themselves or just remain as they are and are thought of as worthy members of society.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bring it

So, there's news that director Tarsem Singh will be directing all ten episodes of NBC's show Emerald City, followed by some news about casting and brief character descriptions that sound interesting, but also sound like they have absolutely nothing to do with the Oz we know from Baum's books.

Now, I mean, to be honest, Tarsem Singh also directed Mirror Mirror, a heavy revising of the story of Snow White that altered the story so much, Snow White doesn't even bite an apple. But that movie was also highly entertaining, kind of like a more family-friendly Terry Gilliam film.

But while the director seems capable of handling Oz, fans are wondering if the series is a good idea or not. I can tell that already, the series will be decried by some Oz fans, probably even a majority. While I have my own apprehensions, I'll reserve my judgement and thoughts until I actually see the show.

And if it's bad... Well...

Bring it on!

Keep trying with Oz, Hollywood. Keep reworking and seeing what works and what doesn't. Perhaps one day, you'll finally find that perfect intermediate between what makes L. Frank Baum's work tick and what makes good film and television.

And while I don't think Emerald City quite sounds like it'll be the one, it nonetheless sounds interesting, and I'll keep an eye open for it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Land of Stories

It's not often I talk about non-Oz books on this blog. When I do, they have some connection to Oz, usually their author or illustrator. In this case, I initially had no intention to write about this series on this blog. But, well, when the latest volume has the Emerald City, the Tin Woodman and the Yellow Brick Road on the front cover, you gotta reconsider, right?

The series at hand is The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer, who is popular for playing Kurt Hummel on the TV series Glee. However, he branched out into writing with a screenplay titled Struck By Lightning and later got it produced, and also went into publishing with a novel adaptation of the screenplay as well as the series at hand.

I happened to pick up the first book in the series, The Wishing Spell, a couple years ago on a whim. The book follows the adventures of twins Alex and Conner Bailey (fraternal, Alex is a girl, Conner is a boy) as they discover the book of fairy tales their grandmother gave them contains a portal to the world where those classic fairy tales actually took place. In the first book, they go searching for the ingredients to perform the Wishing Spell so they can return home, except they're not the only ones as Snow White's evil stepmother is also searching for the ingredients.

The second book, The Enchantress Returns, finds the twins returning to the Land of Stories (often just called the fairy tale world) as their mother has been kidnapped by the Enchantress who cursed Sleeping Beauty. Their adventures lead them to build the Wand of Wonderment to defeat their nemesis. One chapter of note to Oz fans features Alex being knocked unconscious and in her delirium, she meets and speaks to heroines of her favorite stories: Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, in a case of copyright evasion, Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course, Dorothy Gale from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The third book, A Grimm Warning, finds Alex training to succeed Cinderella's fairy godmother as Conner is on a trip to Germany to hear some recently unearthed stories by the Brothers Grimm. The first two are stories from the fairy tale world that Conner had written down and presented for school assignments, but the third, he realizes, is a warning for the fairy tale world, and one of the best parts of the series finds Conner and his friend Bree and his new friend Emmerich hopping from Germany to England to Monte Carlo back to Germany to find a way back to the fairy tale world.

One of Napoleon's armies was attempting to march to the fairy tale world, but were fooled by the Brothers Grimm into a portal that was inactive. However, the portal is now active, and an army of thousands is arriving in the fairy tale world. With only a little time, the fairy tale kingdom must muster its forces to fight the invaders and a threat they haven't faced in centuries: a dragon.

This brings us to the fourth and latest volume, Beyond the Kingdoms, in which Alex and Conner are hot on the trail of the Masked Man who helped the army in the previous book. They discover he is now forming his own formidable army from fiction. A potion created by Cinderella's fairy godmother allows people to enter the worlds described in works of literature.

And yes, the first book they have to enter is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. They manage to get to a slightly different part of Oz and have the Tin Woodman join them as they hurry to stop the Masked Man from meeting the Wicked Witch of the West. However, things aren't going to be quite so easy. Their journeys will also lead them to meet Peter Pan, the Queen of Hearts, Merlin and Robin Hood.

Since Colfer's take on Oz is supposed to be them actually entering the book, he has his work cut out for him sticking to Baum's world. (So note, they don't actually go to Oz and mess up the story, they enter a realization of the book.) Colfer wisely limits his character use to just the Tin Woodman and Wicked Witch (with brief appearances by Dorothy and her family early in), and sticks to character quite well, actually. The Wicked Witch doesn't make much of an appearance, but Colfer describes her in a manner matching W.W. Denslow's pictures.

Colfer's writing style is quite enjoyable. His biggest strength is characterization, having a wide array of characters in his books. There's the lively Mother Goose, who has a wide variety of acquaintances when she visited "the Otherworld" (our world, as C.S. Lewis would call it) and enjoys a supply of "bubbly" with her giant goose Lester. There's renegade Goldilocks and her love Jack (who once climbed a beanstalk) and Queen Red Riding Hood who enjoys pretty dresses and high culture. And there's Froggy, who is seemingly based on a popular fairy tale, but also seems to owe a little wink and nod to a more obscure Oz character, the Frogman. And that's just some of the major characters in the series!

There also seems to be an overarching plot in the series, but to discuss that further might drop too many spoilers. It might be coming to a head at the end of Beyond the Kingdoms, or else we might be in for a huge twist.

Overall, I'm really enjoying the series and would recommend it to any Oz fan who might want to try some more recent fantasy series aimed at today's youth. (And, y'know, Chris, if you ever wanted to write an actual Oz book... we wouldn't say no...)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

An Abbott In Oz

In the 1990s, Books of Wonder supplemented their deluxe reprints of the Oz books (that's... probably the best term for them) with a host of brand new Oz stories, basically in an attempt to re-launch the Oz series.

One of the big contributors to this new line of Oz books was Donald Abbott, who preferred to illustrate his stories in a manner copying W.W. Denslow. (Books of Wonder had Abbott illustrate their new edition of Dot and Tot of Merryland, which led to some fans incorrectly thinking that they'd used the original Denslow illustrations.)

Abbott had previously written a short story titled "How The Wizard Came To Oz And What He Did There" for Oziana 1976. One of his first books was an expanded version of this story titled How The Wizard Came to Oz. While Joe Bongiorno rules the book version out of continuity in his timeline, he counts the short story, but the book isn't bad, even if it is a bit simple, neatly hitting the points required to neatly tell a Baum-compliant backstory about the Wizard. (It's certainly more book-friendly than Oz the Great and Powerful.)

It tells how Oscar was blown to Oz in his balloon and how he faced off against the Wicked Witches despite having no power, how he built the Emerald City and how Glinda helped him without letting him know who she was. It also tells how the Wicked Witch of the West got the Golden Cap and gives a peek at the origins of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion (even though I think all of them appear way too early in the Oz timeline to really work with the Baum stories).

This book was followed by a sequel titled How The Wizard Saved Oz in which the Queen of the Field Mice sneaks into the Wizard's throne room and begs him to help her find her missing subjects. The Wizard agrees and goes on a covert mission that makes a fun enough story in itself, and also explaining "the real" story behind his three visits to Mombi, because Mombi is behind the disappearance of the mice, along with Captain Riskitt (who was originally a character created for the 1902 musical extravaganza version of The Wizard of Oz) in a plot to concentrate all of the magic in Oz and conquer it.

I suppose it's a fine enough story, but so little happens (the book is less than 100 pages) that it's rather cut and dry. And a more satisfying account of the Wizard's dealing with Mombi was already told in Hugh Pendexter III's "Oz and the Three Witches." Joe doesn't list this Abbott story on his timeline at all.

Abbott then went on to write stories set after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but before The Marvelous Land of Oz, and one that Joe suggested I read for a story I was working on that's now been folded into my Outsiders from Oz sequel was The Amber Flute of Oz.

Blinkie the Witch of the South awakens the Sand Serpent: a beast that was created to protect the Land of Oz by patrolling the Deadly Desert, but had its mind poisoned over time and then turned to attack Oz. It was put to sleep with the legendary Amber Flute, but only one person knows where that is: the villainous wizard Ozwaldo. Can the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion trust a villain as they fight another villain?

While rather simple (Abbott cannot write a great plot twist), it was an enjoyable adventure story for our friends.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Revisiting the 1991 Wizard of Oz

(Don't let the headline there confuse you. I was born in 1998, but the Oz adaptation I'm writing about was released that year.)

The first Oz film I encountered after the MGM film was The Wizard of Oz, a twenty-six minute cartoon produced by Golden Films and something called the American Film Investment Corporation. Wizard was one of six animated films based on a fairy tale produced by Golden Films in 1990 and 1991 - all released direct-to-video and often packaged to resemble Disney titles.

My first copy of this Oz cartoon was a DVD from the United Kingdom that also included Jack and the Beanstalk (which I never cared to watch). My dad bought it for me on eBay when I was five or six years old, along with a coloring book, sticker book, and a few other things.

This was before I even knew that the MGM film was actually based on a book, so I assumed that this cartoon was just a short, animated remake of the film with some odd changes and additions. Though there are a number of elements from the book present in this adaptation (like the Silver Slippers and the Kalidahs), the voice acting and a lot of the dialogue are pretty similar to the 1939 film. Dorothy, for example, sounds so much like Judy Garland that the five-year-old Angelo assumed it was the same voice.

As you would expect, the animation is not particularly impressive, but it's watchable. I've never cared much for the character designs, though I guess it's good that none of the characters were drawn to resemble their MGM counterparts. The Good Witch of the North and the Wizard are probably the least appealing: the former looking oddly masculine, and the latter dressed in cliched sorcerer attire.

In the end, this is a harmless film. Sure, it's a little uninspired and simplistic, but it's short enough (and affordable enough) to be worth watching at least once if you haven't before. You can buy it on DVD for less than $1.00 here.