Life Again in Oz
Playwright Suzan Zeder Revisits Oz and Finds Part of Herself
By C. Denby Swanson
APRIL 24, 2000: Suzan Zeder has a dog named Ozma. The dog is 20 years old. "We got her with the first royalty check," she grins, from her play Ozma of Oz, an adaptation of the Frank Baum book. "Twice a day, for 20 years, I thought through what I had to write while walking that dog."
Not only does this tell you how Zeder inscribes her life with her writing, but it also tells you something about her baffling well of energy. Suzan Zeder is the queen of multitasking. Her office in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, where she heads the Playwriting Program and holds the Endowed Chair for Theatre for Youth, is a command center for a number of parallel theatrical worlds. Walk into it and you'll likely find her (if she's not double-scheduled in committees, that is) in a meeting with a student and on the phone and answering e-mail and typing a letter of recommendation and reading applications of potential graduate playwrights for both the Department of Theatre & Dance and the Michener Center for Writers.
Zeder has claimed low energy only once. That was in the spring of 1998, when she apologized in advance to her graduate playwrights. She told them she would be coming straight to class from chemotherapy. She had breast cancer. Her students (I was among them) said, "Suzan, what are you doing here? You have CANCER. GO TO THE BEACH." She smiled, popped open the bottle of fruit juice provided as a pick-me-up by a teaching assistant, and quickly started us on our assignment: adaptation for the stage. It was a year that walloped her over and over and over with personal crises. But Suzan Zeder is a bulwark in any fierce storm.
In January 1999, the storm broke, and Zeder began working with composer Richard Gray on a new version of Ozma of Oz. The play premiered in Seattle in 1979, and for its 20th anniversary, the folks at Seattle Children's Theatre suggested a revival, but one with music. "At the time," Zeder says, "they thought it just meant adding some songs." The twinkle of Santa's mischievous eyes finds its summer home in Suzan Zeder. "Not!"
She and Gray laugh together and Zeder continues: "I asked them to take on this mythical composer" whom she had never met. "I had seen a piece that he had had something to do with in Seattle." After speaking on the phone, they each wrote down a list of places in the script that could be enhanced by music. Their lists were virtually identical. It was a dramaturgical blind date.
Ozma of Oz, Zeder says, "had been a play I had always felt was unfinished. I wrote it for SCT, very quickly, and it's been done a lot, but I always felt there was something missing. It never felt it had found its voice. So when Linda Hartzell [SCT artistic director and a cast member of the 1979 production] suggested musicalizing it, it seemed like a pretty good idea. There was a lot of stuff in the play that would lend itself to that. But even more importantly, it wasn't just a matter of taking the flashy characters and giving them production 'numbahs.' Dramaturgically, it looked like music would help us track the primary relationship between Dorothy and her aging Uncle Henry. We found it enormously challenging and a different kind of project."
Enormous is a very appropriate word. The adaptation, now called Time Again in Oz, is huge. The musical just might be like a stage version of what goes on in Zeder's head on a daily basis: Dorothy and Uncle Henry start on an ocean liner, then are blown off and land in Oz, where, Zeder informs me, "We've got Wheelers on roller skates, we've got a woman with 30 heads, we've got Roquat the Gnome King, who lives underground and captures people and turns them into jewels. We've got a Mangaboo, a 28-foot God-Knows-What who swallows people. We've got a huge staircase and a flying green carpet." It's big. It's crazy. And really, it's probably much more truthful and organic to the writer than her 1981 publication note about the play: "Be simple" with Ozma, she wrote, because "it tends to invite overproduction." Gray points out, "There are a lot of distractions from the main heart of the story -- it's fabulous, it's extremely entertaining," but they still care about Dorothy.
Zeder made a few changes to the plot when she adapted Baum's original story to the stage. "I chose to have Uncle Henry blow off the boat with Dorothy," she says. "So, rather than just have Do go on this adventure by herself and collect bits of wisdom, I chose to -- there was one little line in the book: 'Uncle Henry as you know wasn't feeling very well, so he was going to Australia for a rest cure.' So I took that and ran with it. And I put Uncle Henry in a wheelchair; I made him have a stroke. I blew him off the boat with Dorothy. The original play of Ozma of Oz -- my play -- is really at its core the exploration of a now teenaged Dorothy."
Gray continues: "In our journey on this play, we knew all of the things Dorothy didn't want in her life. She didn't want to have to take care of Uncle Henry. She didn't want to go back to Oz. She had this whole list of things she didn't want and we had to go, 'OK, we can't get behind a character that only says the things she doesn't want.' We had to really figure out what Dorothy wants -- that's what happened between the Seattle production and the UT production. And what we boiled it down to is: She wants to go back to before Uncle Henry had the stroke, before she was being asked to be more of an adult, back when things were simple."
There was a year when things were definitely not simple in Suzan Zeder's life. In December 1997, her colleague David Mark Cohen was killed in a car accident, leaving her bereft of a friendship, alone with massive departmental commitments, and faced with a flood of applications for graduate positions. Then came the cancer diagnosis. In November 1998, Suzan's younger sister Wendy committed suicide. Two weeks later, her mother passed away. Zeder has always been very open about these tragedies. She felt it was better to have direct conversations and stem the tide of destructive rumor. Her relationship to these dramatic events is something I still find extraordinary and admirable. Faced with something similar the year before, I found I couldn't talk at all.
Zeder's remarkable openness certainly helped when this new collaboration started. Gray admits, "It took about six months to have that conversation. We were kind of dating. We were waiting as we were dating; we had done some personal history, but then we just kind of laid everything on the table."
Yet the creative partnership between Zeder and Gray was blessed with a shared sensibility from the beginning. "As soon as we met and started talking, we knew we were interested in writing the same play," Gray says. "As a collaboration, that's really important. Collaboration on a musical cannot be a compromise. When I see what Suzan's written, I know that's in the same play I'm writing. When she hears the music I've written, she knows it's the same play. Both of us wanted to write the same play."
Zeder agrees. "We see the same play with different eyes and in this case, different ears."
They have a history now together with the character of Dorothy. Gray says drolly, "We went through a Reviving Ophelia phase."
Zeder jumps in: "I said, 'You gotta read this book. This is our Dorothy.'" Gray shrugs: "But I think what we did, we kinda went through that phase. We didn't like her."
"I wanted to send her to her room," says Zeder. Gray pushes forward: "She still has wants, she still has desires. What we had written was all the things we see as an adult and we're looking at a girl at that age."
The story they developed during their year of writing Time Again in Oz was energizing for both of them. Gray says, "Dorothy was going to turn time backward so that Uncle Henry is before the stroke. So having her state that is what propels her into the story. Then she's granted that wish and she realizes, 'Is that really the answer?'"
Zeder says that the dilemma of the teenager is, "I want to go back when things were simple and yet I'm not a little girl. I don't want to be a little girl. So you get this interesting positive parallel. Wanting to go back and recapture that simplicity but wanting to go forward and be treated like an adult."
The whole notion that Dorothy might not want to return to Oz might be a hard one for people to wrap their brain around at first. Everybody loves that movie. As Gray says, "You can do what you want with Uncle Henry, you can kind of do what you want with Oz, but you can't mess with Dorothy. People say, 'Well she's not Judy Garland.' And Judy Garland wasn't the Dorothy in the book." But if you really look at it, Zeder encourages, she spends the entire time trying to go home. "So we have a song here called 'Back in Oz' right after Dorothy and Bill the talking chicken land. People say, 'I love that.' It's designed to overturn our expectations.
"There's an enormous legacy from The Wizard of Oz," Zeder notes, "and you can fight it or you can embrace it. We've chosen not only to embrace it, but to dance with it."
This is the thing with Suzan. She gets all "magic realism" on you and you go for it. It's believable with her. "One of the structural aspects of [the film] The Wizard of Oz is, of course, you meet most of the major characters in the prologue, before Dorothy gets picked up by the cyclone -- which, by the way, is not in the book, that all was added in the film -- and then, in the epilogue, she comes back. So that transformation of character in magical time and magical space is something we also chose to embrace. It was something that Rich actually suggested first. He said, 'Maybe what we could do is introduce some of these characters on the boat prior to everybody blowing off.' That led us to a change of period for the play."
When she wrote Ozma of Oz in the Seventies, Zeder used a contemporary setting. She mocks herself when she says, "At that time it seemed like a cool thing to do. Now it seems dated and passé. So we decided to do something truly radical and put it back in the period in which it was written. Part of it, quite frankly, was also we realized that if we put it back in that time, we've got an ocean liner here. We have a woman, a character in Oz, and she has 30 heads, and when we thought of the Grande Dame doing the ocean tour, it just called out for that turn-of-the-century time. We also have a character who's very important in Oz, Roquat the Gnome King, who is all into evil possessions, etc. Well he is J.P. Morgan. He's the tycoon. So in that kind of turn-of-the-century ragtime period, you have the absolute essence of that kind of greed and Gibson Girl fading beauty."
She really is excited. It feels like it's all coming together. "What happens is that Dorothy and Uncle Henry come into a world where there is no time, which is Oz, and they find TicToc, the Mechanical Man from the book, and they start time in Oz. So we thought, Who would the character of TicToc be on the boat? And he's become this kind of metaphysical character, who starts the play really. We call him the Mysterious Man, and he begins with singing the theme of the play, which is a metaphysical look at time and how time affects everybody on the boat. We frame the play in terms of a much deeper psychological look than the original play had 20 years ago."
Now, she says, "Uncle Henry has a beautiful song called 'When Did I Get Old.'" Zeder is energized by this. "Dorothy has seen him humiliated for the first time and he sings to her. And it breaks your heart. And Dorothy decides to turn time back and give him back what he lost. Rich thought, I need to give her a response to that, and he's written a gorgeous song called 'What I Wouldn't Do for You,' and Dorothy sings it to the sleeping Uncle Henry, and it becomes the theme of her longing, of what she's willing to give up for him -- and now, dramaturgically, this is what's very exciting. The end of the play, they're faced with a decision: Do they stay in Oz where Uncle Henry can be well and strong but Dorothy has to remain a child? Or do they go back and embrace all the complexity that life has to offer? And for Uncle Henry, that means getting in the chair. It means, 'I give up being able to walk again because I want to go home.' So. How to handle that moment." Gray says, "You hear the theme again."
Zeder says, "When we first started, I thought, Oh, this is the perfect project for me because it had been a kind of emotional firestorm in the year before." She was relieved to work on Time Again in Oz because she thought, This play has nothing to do with my life right now.
Of course, she was mistaken. The writing and the living are mutually inscribed. "Part of that has been the developing relationship of the material," Zeder comments, "but frankly, part of it has been the developing relationship with Rich. I have found so many deeper resonances with this play that are exactly where my life is. I have found so much texture that is emotional and that is rich and deeply personal that I never knew was there, and part of that is getting beneath those characters. For example, one of the keys to Dorothy is that she's being a caretaker. She's being asked to be in a role for a child that is far too mature for her. Once I got the idea that Dorothy was really compulsively caretaking, then it gave her something for me that I could say, 'I understand that about that kid.' And it was something I admired about her. And when Rich gives that caretaker voice in 'What I Wouldn't Do for You,' all of a sudden, I was like, 'It was always there, we just needed different spectacles to see it. We needed musical spectacles.'"
Gray shakes his head, bewildered. "It's fascinating," he says, "because when Frank Baum originally wrote the first book, he had Dorothy in it, then he came out with a second book and it still took place in Oz, but Dorothy wasn't there. It was a bomb. Nobody read it. 'Where's Dorothy?' The third book, Ozma, he brought Dorothy back, and he realized he had to keep Dorothy in the book, so he kept coming up with all these crazy ... in this one, she's blown off in a typhoon; in another, she falls through a crack in the earth in an earthquake."
Suzan Zeder says, "Primary lesson: Stay out of the wind."
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