Being principal cast members means that there are key aspects of the new Andrew Lloyd Webber production of The Wizard of Oz that Eli Cooper, Alex Rathgeber and John Xintavelonis are yet to experience.
In a conversation with Theatre People just hours before opening night in Sydney, discussion turns to the remarkable projection technology utilised in the show.
“Apparently, it’s extraordinary,” Xintavelonis says. “We’ve never been able to watch it!
“We can’t tell the vastness of it or the beauty of it, because we can’t see it. But the reports we’re hearing back from people out there is that it looks quite amazing.”
Cooper recalls getting a glimpse of the impressive effects last week during tech rehearsals.
“We were able to catch on a monitor the flying monkeys kidnapping Dorothy, and that is the first time I’ve seen any of the projections,” he says. “And it was terrifying!”
Until 4 February, the Capitol Theatre is hosting the new production of The Wizard of Oz, first staged at the London Palladium Theatre seven years ago and directed by British theatre director Jeremy Sams. Developed from the film’s screenplay, the production contains the iconic music of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, as well as additional songs written by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (whose prior collaborations include the scores of Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat).
“The new songs that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have written are great,” says Xintavelonis. “They blend in perfectly to the point where, if you haven’t seen the [film] in a while, you wouldn’t be able to tell what was and what wasn’t in the original. They’re that well written.”
These performers have been tasked with taking on three of the most iconic roles in cinema and theatre – the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Cooper shares his admiration of the man responsible for portraying the Scarecrow on the big screen, and the need to put his own stamp on the role.
“I grew up so in awe of Ray Bolger,” he says. “When I was given the opportunity to play the Scarecrow, I deliberately made the choice to be completely opposite to him, because I am so in love with the way he did it [and] I know I’ll never be able to do it like he did.”
Xintavelonis says a fresh approach to the roles was precisely what the creative team had wanted.
“They were very particular about us not being carbon copies or caricatures of the characters in the movie [and] very much making them our own,” he says. “So, that’s what we’ve done.”
According to Rathgeber, the importance of creating their own distinct characters has been reinforced throughout the process.
“The directors and choreographers … have kept reminding us consistently to come back to our own truth, which is us,” he explains. “They’ve said, ‘We want to see you, we’ve hired you because of your vulnerability and your ability to act this character’. So, we have to keep trusting that we’re allowed to show ourselves within these iconic roles.”
Xintavelonis provides an insight into what we can expect from the much-loved characters in the new production.
“Eli’s physicality in his role [of the Scarecrow] is just extraordinary,” he says. “You see him throw himself around like a rag doll in a graceful way … and it’s because of the fact that he’s an extraordinary dancer that he has the ability to do that.”
Xintavelonis continues: “With my character [The Lion], it’s basically all the comedy shtick that I’ve done all through my life that I bring to the show, and my nasally Nathan Lane-type voice that I use in the show … A lot of people have compared him to Nathan Lane.
“It’s very camp, [but] it’s not too camp. It apparently got a bit out of control overseas, so we’ve pulled it back.”
Rathgeber describes Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz as far less “polite” than the film.
“It doesn’t have that 1930s, sugar-coatedness about it,” he explains. “It’s very now in the way that all of the three of us speak to one another. We bicker like brothers, which is fun.”
Cooper speaks to the high attention to detail across all facets of the show, as well as the efforts made to ensure a fresh production.
“The choreography is so fresh, and it takes you instantly to the different worlds that we’re seeing, just by the way that the ensemble is moving,” says Cooper. “As well, the set and the costume and make up design and even the direction have [made] it just a little fresher.”
Rathgeber reinforces that despite the updates, the production is still at its heart the revered story in the 1939 film.
“They’ve held onto all the things that, nostalgically, everyone loves about The Wizard of Oz,” he says. “They haven’t discarded any of the guts of the piece. That’s really important. But then, on top of that, they’ve layered all of this beautiful comedy and … a modern sense of humour. That really flies with the audience.”
In fact, Xintavelonis says audiences have been surprised by the level of humour in the show.
“There are a lot of modern quips that we get to do,” he says. “It’s actually quite a funny show, and I think that catches people off-guard.”
Cooper thinks audiences also find themselves surprised by how moved they feel.
“I think a lot of people come to this show thinking, ‘I’m an adult now. This touched me as a kid, but I’m done with that’,” he says.
The universal themes embedded in the story have ensured The Wizard of Oz has retained its relevance to contemporary audiences almost 80 years on from the film’s debut, and well over 100 years since L. Frank Baum’s original novel.
Cooper singles out acceptance as the key theme at the crux of the show.
“I think it’s acceptance of yourself, specifically,” he says. “One of the things that people often think about The Wizard of Oz is that there’s no place like home, or home is the message. When I watch it and listen to the show every night, I take away the message of believing in yourself and that you have what you want. In the end, we [our characters] all already had a brain, a heart and courage, and Dorothy had the power to get home. We just didn’t believe in ourselves.”
Rathgeber says that that’s an important message regardless of point in time.
“We accept each other as we meet one another on the yellow brick road. Without blinking an eye, we say to the Lion we’re happy for him to come along, even though he feels like he has no courage, because we can see that the ‘man’ is greater than what he feels are his flaws,” says Rathgeber.
“I like to think once you have the ability to accept the things that you may not have originally liked about yourself, then you’re more likely to accept the differences that you see in others. And it really is about that community, that togetherness despite everyone’s differences.”
THE WIZARD OF OZ – AUSTRALIAN TOUR DETAILS
Venue: Capitol Theatre, Campbell Street, Haymarket
Season: Playing now until 4 February
Performance Times: Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Tues & Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm*
Prices: From $49.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267, Groups 12+ call 1300 889 278
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: From 3 April 2018
Performance Times: Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: bass.net.au or 131 246, Groups 12+ 08 8205 2220
Venue: Regent Theatre
Season: From 15 May 2018
Performance Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm*
Prices: From $59.90**
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100, Groups 12+ 1300 889 278
* Performance times vary weekly
** Transaction fees apply