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Once Upon a Time in Oz


Last week I visited the magical Land of Oz. Sitting in Seattle’s Paramount Theater auditorium, I traveled via the musical notes and flashing lighting displayed in Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz. And I wondered, what is it about Oz that brings us back to the story generation after generation?


Oz is a peculiar place. Most Americans started visiting in 1939 when MGM released Wizard of Oz.



Judy Garland as Dorothy, the girl who wanted to go back to Kansas,

Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow who wanted a brain,

Jack Haley, the Tin Man who wanted a heart, and

Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion who wanted courage.

The motley crew believed if they could just visit the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City, their wishes would come true.

MGM Publicity Photo. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Glinda the Good Witch with her tiara, star topped magic wand, and glistening white dress advised Dorothy to put on the dead witch’s ruby red slippers. Then, “all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

[Sidebar: One of the remaining pairs sold for $666,000 in 2000. More recently, a Los Angeles auction house valued the slippers at $2-3 million.]


Cover from 1900 Edition. Illustration by W. W. Denslow. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899. His protagonist Dorothy lived in Kansas with her dog Toto. Tornados were common and one particular storm picked up Dorothy’s entire house and dropped it in the Land of Oz . . . on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, told Dorothy to wear the dead witch’s SILVER shoes and hotfoot it down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

Dorothy and Toto start the trek, adding Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion to their entourage. [Sidebar: Have you ever wondered why Lion is stuck with “Cowardly” as a first name? It’s not Brainless Scarecrow or Heartless Tin Man. But I digress.]

Dorothy Meets the Cowardly Lion. 1900 Illustration by W. W. Denslow. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Wizard said he would help after Dorothy and Company defeated the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m guessing Wizard didn’t expect to make good on the deal.

The witch sent a pack of wolves to tear her motley enemies apart. Tin Man killed them with his axe. She sent wild crows to peck out her attackers’ eyes. Scarecrow broke their necks. [Can you believe this is a children’s story?] The witch sent a swarm of black bees. Scarecrow used his straw to hide everyone except Tin Man. The bees stung Tin Man and died. The witch sent soldiers. Cowardly Lion repelled them. Finally, the witch sent her Winged Monkeys to capture everyone. They grabbed Dorothy, Toto, and Cowardly Lion. They also unstuffed Scarecrow and dented Tin Man. Could things get worse?

Wicked Witch Melts After Dorothy Throws Water at Her. 1900 Illustration by W. W. Denslow. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Yes! The dastardly witch wanted Dorothy’s silver shoes and managed to get one. Dorothy was so angry she threw a bucket of water on the witch, who immediately melted. Hence the famous phrase: “I’m meeeeeeltiiiing!”

In the end, Wizard turned out to be a man from Omaha who arrived in Oz via hot air balloon. To keep his end of the bargain, Wizard gave Scarecrow a head full of bran, pins, and needles. In short, Scarecrow received “a lot of bran-new brains.”  Wizard presented Tin Man with a red silk heart stuffed with sawdust. I suppose Tin Man hadn’t specified what he meant by the word “heart.” As for Cowardly Lion, he’s given a magic potion of courage, which he drinks.

What did Dorothy get? Well, after her dog exposed the wizard as a fraud, he suggested they go home together in a hot air balloon. But the dog chased a cat; Dorothy chased her dog, and the balloon left without her. Fortunately the Glinda the Good Witch reappeared. She’s the one who told Dorothy she had to follow the Yellow Brick Road. Now she says all Dorothy has to do is click her shoes three times and she’ll be able to go home. I think it would have been kinder to tell Dorothy the secret in the first place. But then, the book would have been too short.

Playbill from Seattle production of Wicked. Illustration by Douglas Smith. Photo of program by author.

I submit the Good Witch was a bit devious with her information. One could argue she sent Dorothy to the Emerald City because she knew Wizard would enlist the child to remove the Wicked Witch of the West.

The same thought may have occurred to Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Unlike Frank Baum, Maguire didn’t write a children’s book. Maguire wanted to explore the eternal questions of good and evil. Stephen Schwartz thought Maguire’s adult fairy tale had potential as a family-friendly musical. He was right.

Events in Maguire’s book happen before Dorothy shows up in Oz. It’s the story of Elphaba, a child despised by her parents in part because she’s green. [As Kermit the Frog has observed, “It’s not easy being green.”]

Elphaba has a sister named Nessarose. It seems an appropriate name since this child came out pink in the book, though not in the play. In the book, Nessa is born without arms. Schwartz and his partner Winnie Holzman changed Nessa’s character by giving her arms. Instead, they confined Nessa to a wheelchair. Elphaba’s alterego is Galinda (later shortened to Glinda) who is everything Elphaba is not. Beautiful, popular, self-centered. But, of course, the two eventually become friends . . . sort of.

Elphaba has supernatural powers and a book of spells. When she discovers the Wizard wants to remove the power of speech from the animals, Elphaba becomes an animal rights activist. Elphaba’s apparent power and unpopular politics lead to fantastical rumors of her wicked intent. And so a Wicked Witch is born. But the audience knows the truth. Elphaba isn’t really wicked. The evidence is purely circumstantial.

Like the 1939 MGM movie, Wicked has is enormously popular. Since it’s premier on Broadway in 2003, Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz has grossed over $3 billion worldwide. By the end of 2013, Wicked had been performed in thirteen countries and translated into Japanese, German, Dutch, Spanish and Korean.


If there’s any lesson to be found in these three stories about Oz, it’s that we all experience exclusion. We all wish a wizard would solve our problems. But, in the end, the wizard doesn’t exist. We have to face our fears alone and become the intelligent, courageous, compassionate people we wish to be.


Featured Image: I’m standing outside the Paramount Theater, Seattle.

Interesting Factoid: Stephen Schwartz used L. Frank Baum’s initials L-F-B to create the name Elphaba.

Judy Garland’s Ruby Slippers. Here.

“Wizard of Oz” ruby slippers find home at film academy.” Reuters. February 22, 2012. Here.

David Steward. “10 things You Didn’t Know About Wicked.” October 21, 2013. Here.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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