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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

What's Behind the Curtain at Barter Theatre?

Rick McVey begins the process to become the Cowardly Lion in Barter Theatre's <em>The Wizard of Oz</em>.
Rick McVey begins the process to become the Cowardly Lion in Barter Theatre's The Wizard of Oz.
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Behind the Scenes of 'The Wizard of Oz'


For Barter Theatre's upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, A! Magazine for the Arts talked to Producing Artistic Director Richard Rose about what goes on "behind the scenes" at the historic State Theatre of Virginia in Abingdon.

Rose explains, "Theatre has a very disciplined process. We have deadlines for designs and budgeting, decisions to be made, and redesigning. All of this is extremely orderly while being extremely creative. And, the entire process begins months in advance of the first rehearsal and does not end until the show opens for the public."

He notes, "There is an old adage in the theatre, 'Shows are never finished, just abandoned.' We are extremely creative people and could continue to work on a show almost endlessly. At some point, we have to put our product in front of an audience and let it live on its own without our further interference."

As Barter began conducting read-throughs, rehearsals and costume fittings, Rose answered the rest of our questions.

Why was The Wizard of Oz selected for the 2009 season?

There are several reasons...

From an artistic viewpoint, the theme of Barter's entire season is a look at dreams — how we dream, the American dream, and how these dreams have impact on our lives.

There is almost no greater story with dreams at its core than The Wizard of Oz and the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" — and maybe no greater message about dreams and dreaming than the moral of the story: "there's no place like home." This message is quintessentially Appalachian, as we all know there truly is no place like being home in Appalachia.

The message of this story is also one of embracing yourself and your roots and loving who and what you are. There may be no greater message in any American play, which, in my opinion, makes The Wizard of Oz such an enduring classic.

As for societal considerations, L. Frank Baum wrote the original book of this series at a time of great economic recession and hardship much like our own. He wrote it in part to give Americans a sense of foundation in their lives and a sense of hope for the future. What could be more appropriate for today's audiences?

From a practical point of view, Barter Theatre has a resident acting company of great professionals who are very well suited for the roles in The Wizard of Oz. It will be great fun for our audiences to see Rick McVey as the Cowardly Lion, Michael Ostroski as The Tin Woodsman, Amy Baldwin as The Scarecrow, Eugene Wolf as Professor Marvel and The Wizard, Tricia Matthews as Miss Gulch and The Wicked Witch of the West, and Gwen Edwards as Dorothy. And it will be fun and challenging for our actors to perform these roles as well.

Further, Barter, over the last several years — think Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Oliver! — has developed a family audience, which had not previously been part of Barter's demographic over the years. Obviously, this show fits in beautifully with the desire for patrons to come to Barter shows with their children and as an entire family instead of just a night out for the adults.

And, of course, we now have the design and technical capabilities of doing this show, which will be both challenging to our technical staff and a great deal of creative and wonderful fun.

Is Barter's production of Oz a musical?

Yes, with the same music as in the movie. As I have said in my director's notes for the souvenir program, I bet everyone can sing every song from this show; we know them all by heart.

That being said, The Wizard of Oz is really, by volume, a play with music. It probably has fewer songs in it than any major musical in musical theatre history. But it has a lot of dance, and the songs are truly memorable, so they have incredible impact on the audience.

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is still a hit song that everyone knows more than 70 years after it was written. How's that for lasting impact? In fact, while in New York City recently, I heard versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" either in background and elevator music or from live musicians, one on the street and another in a cabaret performance, no less than five times in about a six-hour period. Absolutely true!

Rumor has it that Andrew Lloyd Webber is writing additional music for a new version of the show. I cannot imagine how he can make it any better than it already is.

Who will perform the music? At what point is that added to rehearsals?

The Musical Director is responsible for all of the music. Music and musicians will be added during the rehearsal and technical process and rehearsed accordingly.

When you refer to "musicians" are you talking about the orchestra in the pit and the singers?

There are no "singers" other than the cast members. There are no on-stage instrumentalists; so as to "musicians" I am referring to anyone playing an instrument or otherwise involved in the music of the show other than the cast; i.e., sound, special effects music, etc. Of course, we teach the music to the cast and choreograph with live piano from the very first day of rehearsal. Learning and working with the music is the first thing that anyone does in putting together a musical.

What instruments are in the pit orchestra? How are orchestra members selected?

In a modern musical, orchestration is always a combination of live and some electronically controlled music (tracks and/or synthesized sounds from keyboards). Besides our Musical Director Tim Robertson and our Associate Musical Director Steve Sensing, we won't know for a bit what other musicians will make up the pit orchestra for this show. Orchestrations, as they are done for Broadway shows, are put together over the course of rehearsals and based on what you need to create the effects that you want.

Do the actors rehearse with a music director at the piano long before the orchestra is added "in the technical process"?

Yes, and sometimes with other components or musicians such as percussion. For instance, we might need to take more time with one musician than the technical rehearsal will allow in order to develop timing between an actor and that musician.

Does your musical director actually conduct the orchestra and the singers, or is he an observer on opening night?

Tim Robertson, our resident conductor, will conduct and play (electronic keyboard and piano) every performance. You'll see his head and arms sticking out from the orchestra pit.

Paperwork: What (briefly) is entailed in paperwork, contracts, royalties?

There are mountains of contracts and paperwork to do on such a large production: from securing the licenses, to researching and contracting the company to do all of the flying effects in the show, to contracting designers for sets and lights, to making sure you have insurance to cover all of the effects in the show, to contracting all of the actors and musicians, including a dog to play Toto.

Barter has it easier in this respect than some theatres since we have resident company members, a resident choreographer (Amanda Aldridge), a resident music director (Tim Robertson), and other resident artists who are here year-round. We are most fortunate, for instance, to have a resident craftsperson in Krista Guffy Poisson and a resident wig master in Ryan Fischer, as finding and contracting those positions could be extremely difficult. Our resident personnel have the skills and the background to be able to do such a complicated show as this. However, there are always specialty skills that you need to find and contract. I'd say it's a month's worth of work to put all of the paperwork together on this show.

What to Do With a Mountain of Research: How is research conducted? For example, for set design or costumes?

While, in the age of the Internet, research has certainly gotten easier, there is still a lot of research that must happen off the Internet.

The collaborative team at Barter has had the joy of going back and reading Baum's original book (the first in the series). In my case, I'm working my way through the entire series again, which I have not read since I was a child.

Then, there's Wicked. Certainly, any current production of The Wizard of Oz cannot ignore the influence of the book and the Broadway musical of Wicked, particularly on the design of the show. [Editor's Note: Wicked is the story of Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, and her relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The plot is set before Dorothy's arrival from Kansas and includes references to well-known scenes and dialogue in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.]

Then there is research about what others have done with the show, currently and throughout history, including the very first Broadway show and tour — a non-musical — back in the early 1900s.

For our craftspeople and props artisans, there is research on the various ways that all of the special effects in the show have been accomplished: How does the broom fire work? How does the Wicked Witch throw the ball of fire? How do the ruby slippers get from the dead witch to Dorothy's feet? There is a mountain of information about how others have done these things in other productions.

Researching is not really the issue; there is a lot available, including the original movie. It's deciding what to do with this mountain of research. How much of this do you want the actors to see? How much of the original film are you trying to emulate and how much are we making our own? Do any of the ways in which certain effects have been done in the past apply to how we might be doing the show? Do the costumes or the set accommodate for the way this or that effect was done in the past? What are the audience's expectations in seeing the show, and how do we satisfy those expectations in a live theatre production versus the original film?

Questions of this sort are almost endless. So, what's important is the picking and choosing of the research and focusing in on how to use research in a creative way so that you are not just copying what has gone on in the past and can still meet the expectations of the audience and make them love your production as much or even more than the original movie.

Shaping the Production
Tricks of the Trade
"All About Oz" at Star Museum in Abingdon.

Barter Theatre's Costume Shop attached rhinestones one by one to create the Dorothy's famous ruby slippers.

"Toto" had to audition, too. Now he's training Gwen Edwards, who will portray Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.