Andrew. Lloyd. And Webber. Three words that strike fear into my music-loving heart.
Musicals are just not my thing. But a week ago, we took the children for a pre-Christmas treat to the London Palladium to see Lloyd-Webber‘s staging of The Wizard Of Oz, complete with the additional songs that he and Tim Rice have written to fill out the famous Hollywood film into a full musical.
And I have to say, that while it is not my taste, I had to admire the quality of the production – the staging, the singing, the special effects, the lot. For our children’s first ever visit to a West End production, it was pretty unbeatable.
But me being me, I was sitting through it pondering deeper meanings. I have thought for a while that The Wizard Of Oz was a prime text for post-Enlightenment modernists, with its unveiling of the Wizard as a mere mortal, whose apparent supernatural abilities are unmasked as mere human trickery. Is this the musical the New Atheists would like? I know, I should have been enjoying the show, but my mind was exploring tangents. And furthermore, I was wrong anyway. Reading the programme afterwards, I discovered that L Frank Baum, who wrote the story, had a completely different meaning in mind. My response was a classic of reader-response theory, you could say.
Baum’s meanings were all to do with the economic and political situation of the 1890s. The brick road was yellow to represent the gold standard. Dorothy’s slippers were silver (they only became red in the film to promote the virtues of Technicolor) to stand for those who also thought free silver should play a part in the economy. The Kansas farmers were poor agricultural victims of the economic times. The scarecrow is the farmers, the tin man the troubled industrial workers and the cowardly lion is unsuccessful Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who refused to support the Spanish-American war. The Wicked Witch of the East stood for the evil financial institutions. The Wicked Witch of the West was the climactic conditions that ruined lives. The good witch came about, because Baum was a devotee of Theosophy and Spiritualism. The Wizard himself was almost any post-civil war US President, including perhaps William McKinley, who defeated Bryan. They were to be seen, in Dorothy’s terms, as ‘humbug’.
Which raises different questions today from the one I thought the story asked: why do we still expect our political leaders to be wizards? Why do we complain when their wizardry is unmasked? And can we ever expect more than humbug from them? What, in short, is a realistic expectation of our politicians, especially at a time of economic difficulty, such as our current circumstances?