Oz Ever After: Cast members ponder classic’s enduring camp appeal

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Once again, everyone is off to see the Wizard: The newest stage adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” this one directed by Jeremy Sams and produced by musical theater colossus Andrew Lloyd Webber, is on its very first international tour. While it seems like anyone who grew up gay and up to their ears in “Oz” references would be one rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” away from a psychotic fit, the movie and the book consistently remain the bedrock of gay pop culture, as evidenced in part by the success of this new show.

Curious why Oz continues to be our hovering mothership even in the 21st century we wrangled actors Lee MacDougall, who plays the Cowardly Lion in this production, and Mike Jackson, the resident Tin Man, for some answers. 

429Magazine: No, seriously, what’s with the “Wizard of Oz” thing? 

MacDougall: Well, my friends and I quote the movie all the time, it’s the language we speak. We love the campiness, we love the costumes, and we love the Judy Garland element, because for some reason gays have always attached ourselves to Judy. I met my husband in a production of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1989. I was the Scarecrow and he was one of my backup dancer crows. So we really are the friends of Dorothy.

Jackson: Me, I’ve always enjoyed it as a movie, but I don’t feel much of an affinity for it in terms of gay identity. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on any one movie. I grew up in Vancouver, I didn’t need that. But there are still great things to say about it as an artistic accomplishment, and everyone, gay or straight, can find hope and inspiration in that.

MacDougall: But look at it this way: The little girl in this story is looking for home and family; the Scarecrow is looking for a brain, which means he’s looking for identity; the Tin Man’s heart is about looking for love, and the Lion wants confidence in himself. There’s a gay journey subtext for all of these characters. People want to see themselves in fairy tales.

429Mag: Is it generational? These days, folks are growing up with overtly queer cinema and theater, so maybe some of us feel like we need “Oz” less?

Jackson: I wonder if maybe it is changing. I know when I was a kid that association and that mantra were already in place, and it certainly does bring out a lot of impassioned literati to talk about it.  We have two or three gay culture in-jokes in this new show that always get big laughs. But maybe in the near future that’ll all slowly burn off and it’ll just be allowed to be a wonderful movie in its own right.

MacDougall: I don’t think it’s generational at all. Being in my 50s, I thought my experiences were on account of my age, but most of our fellow cast members are in their 20s, and every one of them knows and loves the film the same way I do. Even though they are getting a very different growing-up-gay experience than I did, they still attach to “The Wizard of Oz,” and I think it’s always going to be a part of the identity. Gay kids are watching it right now and swooning without even understanding why. 

429Mag: These characters have become such archetypes, so how did you feel about the casting? It almost feels like psychological profiling.

Jackson: You pretty much know what character you’re most like, so it was no surprise for me. I’m about the right age, and the vocals suit me, and there are physical considerations; I’m 6’2 and 225 lbs. On some level you always wonder why you’re picked for any part, but I’m a quiet person and very sensitive, so it feels right. My favorite part of this new show is the end, when I finally get my heart and realize that I love this girl [Dorothy], and my heart breaks because she’s going to leave. Come to think of it, I also played the Tin Man in high school, when I was 16.

MacDougall: I originally auditioned in Toronto to play Wizard. I thought I wasn’t old enough for it, but that’s what the casting agents wanted me to read. I went through the entire audition process and then at the last callback they said, “Yeah, you’re a little too young for this, but we still need a Lion, would you be interested in that?” This was the final audition and I had an hour to prepare. I guess they saw just something Cowardly Lionish in me in the end, and it’s lucky they did.

429Mag: What’s the most difficult thing about the roles?

MacDougall: The costume, definitely. I mean, mine is really well designed, so I’m ventilated and my body can breathe, but there’s still padding and fur and a headpiece. It’s basically an aerobic machine that I’m wearing. I call it “Sweating with the Oldies.” And the tail is huge. For weeks I was hitting people with it anytime I turned.

Jackson: Mine is about fifteen pieces, with heavy athletic padding wrapped in leather, and they all have to fit together perfectly. It’s custom-made for my body so that I can just barely move my arms and legs, and the whole thing is beautifully restrictive. And then I’m wearing tap shoes with it. I’ve been very lucky, because if any piece of it breaks during a show I’m going to be rendered useless.

“The Wizard of Oz” moves to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre October 16. Then it goes on to Vancouver in November and St Paul, Minnesota in December, and will continue touring North America through next summer.

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