Revelers at "Sing-A-long Wizard of Oz
Revelers at "Sing-A-long Wizard of Oz
According to legend, it all started in Manhattan's Bryant Park in the summer of 1996 -- and I was there, so I can support the legend's accuracy. At a screening of The Sound of Music during the park's summer film festival, people were twirling as if they were Julie Andrews on an alp, singing along with "Do-Re-Mi," and generally making highly entertaining spectacles of themselves. (One particular young man in lederhosen was cited by the media for being so visibly carried away by the film.) The response of the audience that night supposedly inspired "Sing-A-Long Sound of Music," an audience participatory happening that first happened in England but was later imported to the U.S. with great success.

Another classic movie musical, M-G-M's The Wizard of Oz, was shown in Bryant Park in 1997 and had more than its share of audience interaction on that occasion -- little girls toddling around in blue gingham dresses, gay men screaming "And your little dog, too!" en masse, etc. Sure enough, that kind of affection has inspired "Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz," a program that has already gone over like gangbusters in Chicago. Actor George Keating hosted the festivities in the Windy City and will be doing so again for the New York engagement, June 12-29 at the Gershwin Theatre.

How did it all start? "Marc Robin had been hired as director in Chicago," Keating relates, "and I was invited over to his house as part of a test market of what they'd come up with so far. They had made a print of the movie with the lyrics and certain lines of dialogue on screen. We watched it with a group of actors and we gave our feedback. One of the women there asked, 'How does this work?' and Marc said, 'Well, there's going to be a host. We're thinking of a character type, someone older.' And the woman said, 'Oh, no. You need somebody young, like George!' We all laughed but, many months later, I got a call asking me, 'Do you want to come and audition for this thing?'"

Apparently, the audition went well. "There's a basic skeleton of a script, but there are plenty of holes in it because you have to interact with the audience so much. So I looked at the script and then did my thing; I entertained the hell out of myself and had a really great time at the audition, but everyone was just sort of staring at me. I thought, 'Well, clearly, they thought I was not funny at all.' But then, later that day, they called me -- and that's how I got involved." According to Keating, audiences in Chicago ate up the concept: "It ended up being a great experience. People just loved it. There was something so exciting about seeing this movie on the big screen in a beautiful theater. It really was an event."

While some folks may blanch at the thought of one of the most beloved films of all time becoming the basis for a camp-fest, Keating insists that they may rest easy. "It's so much cooler than I ever thought it would be," he says. "Marc Robin has really kept it from being just a cheesy cash cow. It really is a wonderful sort of communal experience. We do it with a great deal of reverence, and we're certainly aware of the different kinds of people this appeals to -- families, kids, the gay audience. I think the whole fun of it is that it's so inclusive: You interact with the people around you in a really positive way. Kids come in and play together, grown-ups talk to each other about their costumes, and people sing along at the top of their lungs -- although no one tries to out-sing Judy Garland in 'Over the Rainbow!'"

"We want to see the Wizard!"
"We want to see the Wizard!"
As per a press release for the show, "'Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz' invites audiences of all ages to journey from Kansas to Oz and back again with Dorothy...To enchance their powers while they are in the magical land of Oz, every audience member will receive a 'Perform-A-Long Fun Pack' including a kazoo, mystic bubbles, a noisemaker, and a magic wand." But Keating maintains that the audience participation aspect of the event is very much under control: "I do a monologue at the beginning, and then we have this costume parade. Let me tell you, some of the costumes people come up with are just hilarious. They provide endless material for me! The thing is, anyone who wants to be in the spotlight can do it during the costume parade. I think that gets it out of their systems, so there's no need for them to yell and scream during the movie and try to make it all about them."

Even those who very much enjoy an event like this would agree that not every musical film is appropriate for similar treatment. When I tell Keating that I remember reading of a sing-along event centered around West Side Story, he responds: "Oh, good Lord. That doesn't sound like fun at all!" But The Wizard of Oz is something else again. "There's the whole misfit element of the movie," notes Keating. "I love it that the people who are outside the loop end up being the cool ones: The Scarecrow really is the smartest, the Tin Man does have a heart, and the Lion is courageous, yet they're all perceived as being flawed in some way. I think that's what appeals to a gay audience. Of course, the movie is universal; there's definitely room for everyone. The kids don't get some of my humor but it's not going to hurt them. If I say something about 'queens,' they think of royal ladies. They're not aware that they're missing out on anything, so there's no exclusion."

With the elaborate "Jitterbug" number and the sequence of Dorothy and friends' triumphal return to Oz after "liquidating" the Wicked Witch of the West having been excised from the film before it opened, the songs stop about two-thirds of the way into The Wizard of Oz. So, does audience participation at the sing-along screenings continue beyond that point? "Oh yeah," says George Keating. "There are the famous lines of dialogue that everyone responds to. But the participation does sort of peter out towards the end, because people want to watch the movie!"