The band plays on, and so does ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for a new generation

08/10/2014 7:00 AM

08/10/2014 6:10 PM

A high school football field. A marching band. A blue-sky morning. Then, the playful strains of a most familiar piece of music.

So familiar that the words to the tune come automatically, like breathing: “That’s how we laugh the day away in the merry old land of Oz.”

Automatically, at least, for many of us, those of a certain age.

As it happens, the Shawnee Mission Northwest Marching Cougar Pride is in the midst of practicing its halftime show, “The Wizard of Oz Meets the Wiz,” just as the 1939 movie musical celebrates its 75th anniversary this month.

Most boomers, of course, can belt out the tunes and nail the lyrics with little prompting. The much-loved annual telecast, a family event that began in the 1950s, was a big deal for them.

But these current high schoolers weren’t so indoctrinated. Could it be that “the hinges started to unhitch,” as the Munchkin Land song goes, for this younger generation and Oz?

While some marching band members at the school in Shawnee admitted they didn’t know the words to all the selections, the story and music are familiar to them — in part because “you know, Kansas.”

At least one had never seen the classic movie, but even he says it hardly matters.

“You hear the music,” says freshman Camden Obertop. “I know the premise of the movie. I know everything about it. And I have seen the Muppet version.”

Many had watched the 1939 classic with their families at least once. And Halloween seems to be keeping Judy Garland’s Dorothy front and center.

“I was really into ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when I was little,” says junior Hannah Lane. “Those songs were always my favorite to sing. I dressed up as Dorothy one year. I had the red shoes, too.”

“I was Dorothy for Halloween three years in a row, and my cousin was a flying monkey,” says senior Maddie Roberts, the band’s field captain.

“I even wore the slippers to church a couple times,” Maddie says. “In fact, we just got rid of the costume. The wig was all messed up. It had to go, but the ruby slippers got passed along to someone.”

Turns out the Oz indoctrination continues but by means other than the annual telecast. And it doesn’t stop with Halloween. The many reworkings of the Oz story on stage and screen serve as serial rejuvenators of the much-loved film.

Mary Harzman, a junior, saw the movie as a youngster but really got into the Oz story in eighth grade. That’s when her dad happened to play the soundtrack from “Wicked” in the car. The prequel musical premiered in 2003.

Mary loved how “Wicked” told the earlier stories of the characters. For a while, she read everything she could about the Oz tales, although that was a few years ago.

“But I still like the music,” Mary says. “It’s definitely on my iPod.”

Not everybody enjoys the various takes on the Oz story and on MGM’s Technicolor film.

“Honestly, the spinoff movies?” says freshman Devin Keeney. “I’m not sure if they work. They seem to change the moral of the story.”

Gabriela Basel, a senior and drum major, says she probably was in fourth grade the last time she watched “The Wizard of Oz” but still could easily sing all the songs.

When she heard about the Oz theme for this fall’s band show, she was concerned at first about the cliche aspect of it — a Kansas high school band doing “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I’ll admit it,” she says, “I was hesitant. But I like how it’s mixed with music from ‘The Wiz.’ That jazzes it up.”

“Yeah,” says Maddie, “we were a little afraid it would be cheesy, but it’s not at all.”

In fact, now they’re ready to ham it up, too, contemplating an Oz-ish exit, something like their “so long, farewell” sign-off after they performed “The Sound of Music” a few years ago.

“We’re trying to work in ‘lions and tigers and bears’ somewhere,” Maddie says.

The Varsity Cougar Classics drill team is doing its part with an unusual tack: The four officers of the 23-member team will wear Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man costumes, changed up a bit to also reflect the 1970s-era “The Wiz,” says Christin LaMourie, the team’s faculty sponsor.

Costumes for the other members will represent all four characters with some fake fur for the lion and fabrics of silver, patchwork and gingham.

The show offers more dancing than the usual predominance of flag work, LaMourie says, providing lots of opportunities to play up the four characters. Flags in rainbow colors will be on the field for “Over the Rainbow.”

Shawnee Mission Northwest band director Penny Snead came clean that her music choice this year was a happy coincidence.

“I would love to tell you that I thought about the 75th anniversary,” Snead says, “but really I just thought the music would fit the band.”

Intentional or not, Oz music will be in the autumn air. Blue Valley North High School, for example, is working on its halftime show featuring music from the 1939 movie and “Wicked” along with other Kansas-themed selections. And the University of Kansas Marching Jayhawks will present a show based on the classic movie at the Oct. 11 game against Oklahoma State in Lawrence.

Director Matthew Smith says the anniversary did indeed spark the idea to reprise the show with music arranged in the late 1970s by James Barnes, the University of Kansas’ renowned composer.

“With a university marching band, it’s great to have a built-in connection to an iconic piece of popular culture,” Smith says, “in this case a musical that is so identified with the state of Kansas.”

Barnes, a composition professor who’s retiring this year after 41 years at KU, says he can’t recall exactly what motivated the creation of the Oz show, except “It’s so Kansas, I guess.” One part is an all-tuba feature of “If I Only Had a Brain.”

“Tuba players the world over give me trouble for that,” he says.

The show’s final selection is “Over the Rainbow,” which won an Academy Award for the movie’s composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. It’s also likely to be the final song in Shawnee Mission Northwest’s show.

“I wrote over 200 arrangements for the marching band over the years,” Barnes says, “and the reaction to that show was probably the best we ever got.”

Of course, Smith says, the band finds ways to reference the movie during most games. Spectators hear snippets of the “Wicked Witch of the West” theme and the castle guards’ “oh-we-oh” chant at appropriate times between plays.

“It has a great story, great music, great visuals, great themes,” Smith says about the movie. “It brings together these unusual characters who work together for a common purpose.

“Plus, it’s Kansas.”

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/eeveld.

Help us go over the rainbow

Calling all (real) Dorothys and Toto dogs … and anyone else who’s a big fan of the 1939 movie.

The Star is celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie with a story every day.

Here’s how you can participate:

A group picture: Dress as your favorite “Oz” character (or object) and come to the Kansas Speedway at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 16. The Star will take a group photo and aim for the record books. There will be raffles for prizes and, of course, lollipops. Let us know you’re coming by registering at http://wizardofozrecordbreaking.eventbrite.com.

“Oz” memories: Share a personal anecdote about the movie. As a kid did you flee the living room when the flying monkeys attacked? Did your family watch it on TV every year? Email your story (no more than 150 words, please), along with your name, phone number and city, to starfyi@gmail.com. Put “Oz memory” in the subject line. Deadline for submissions: 11:59 p.m. Aug. 18.

Local Dorothys: If your name is Dorothy, we want to hear from you. Tell us how you came to be a Dorothy and about life with that name. Send an email to starfyi@gmail.com and include your name, age, city and phone number. Put “Dorothy” in the subject line. Deadline: 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Toto dogs: Do you own a cairn terrier or a dog named Toto? We want to see your pictures! Upload them into our photo gallery at Mingle.KansasCity.com. Make sure to tell us your name, city and contact information. If you submit your photo by Wednesday, we might select it for the print edition as well.

Coming Tuesday in FYI: Want to dress up for our big “Oz” photo shoot? We have costume ideas.

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