Brian Laul's “The Wizard of Oz Show”, a fresh take on a century-old story, has been a popular and long-running children's show in Australia.
It was in the mid-1980s that I met Brian Laul, a young freelancer who was contributing to Aside, the country's first city magazine and one with which I was associated so long as it focused on Madras. In fact, it was this journal that got me hooked on the city and, if it had not veered away from its chosen path, Madras Musings, which I now edit, would not have become necessary. But that's another story. My story today is about where Laul went from his fledgling days with Aside. Or, rather, to where he has gone today. And that is not just to Australia but to a kind of a ‘top of the pops'.
He has hit the headlines in many parts of the world with a brainchild of his, an innovative, interactive version of The Wizard of Oz, which has been staged 2800 times in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. between mid-2000 and January 2011! Described as “one of Australia's top children's shows,” Laul's Wizard must be one of the longest running children's shows in the world. Its success is attributed to it being “a fresh take on a century-old story.”
In the show, the Tin Man is a rapper, the Lion sings the blues, Dorothy dances, the Scarecrow is a country singer, and the Wicked Witch rocks! No wonder the young — as well as their parents and grandparents — love it. Particularly Laul, who plays a comical Shakey the Scarecrow.
“The Wizard of Oz Show”, as it is titled, had the privilege of being invited to the world's largest Wizard of Oz festival held in Indiana, US, in September 2006. There the cast met the descendants of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz (1900, Chicago), and Laul recalls, “Robert Baum, the grandson of Frank Baum, burst into the green room after one of our performances and told us that if his great-grandpa had been alive he'd have been clapping, singing and dancing along with us.”
At the Festival, Laul also met and performed with the last living Munchkins from the 1939 Judy Garland movie, Lollipop Kid Jerry Maren, Coroner Meinhardt Raabe and flowerpot Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini. The 80-year-old Pellegrini told the media, “I've seen lots of Oz productions, but this one was truly extraordinary.”
Laul who arrived in Australia at the end of 1998, struck a path different from the beaten track that most qualified Indians follow in their countries of adoption. He, together with wife Christrine and son Christopher, got into children's entertainment, a field in which they had made their mark in Madras. Laul had been one of the earliest directors of a mini-series for Doordarshan's then children's programme, “Wonder Balloon”. Then they founded, with the late Mithran Devanesan's encouragement, Youngstars Productions which produced “The Sound of Music”, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, and “Annie”. Laul recalls that many a Chennai star of today, like Pop Shalini, Andrea Jeremiah and Nabarun Ghosh, were launched by Youngstars.
Within a couple of months of his arrival in Australia, Laul formed his own theatre group, ‘ Youngstars2.com' and it got down to its first production, “The Wizard of Oz”, which opened in June 1999 at Sydney's oldest surviving theatre, The Independent, as a full-scale musical. It had a cast of 30 adults and 20 children “drawn through audition notices in the Sydney Morning Herald and our theatre classes.” It brought the house down — and has never looked back since, though by July 2000 he had adapted it as the shorter, interactive “The Wizard of Oz Show”, which is what the group stages these days with a 12- member cast working full-time and part-timers joining in whenever needed. The decision to rework “The Wizard” as “The Wizard of Oz Show” was because it would travel better and reach out to audiences even in small towns, which is what Laul always wanted to do.
Now, more than in theatres, the show plays in community and local council halls, schools, libraries and children's hospitals and wards. Youngstars2.com's focus on getting the community together, particularly the multicultural communities that are developing in Australia, has got the group honourable mention not only in the media but in Parliament as well.
A serendipitous fall-out of all the gruelling travel the group has done is a DVD Laul is producing. “The Spirit of Australia” is for children and features Australian heritage filmed in over 350 locations around the country and based on interaction with the local communities. “History and geography will never be so much fun as this,” chuckles Laul.
After launching the ‘Wizard” show, Laul and his family started “The Wizard of Oz Funland” in Sydney in July 2008. This is a fully themed centre for children based on The Wizard of Oz and offers an interactive creative and fun space for children where they can play, learn and party. “The Centre will enable us to spot talent and use them in performances to entertain the numerous local communities around a specific venue, giving them greater opportunities to get together.”
Your obsession with The Wizard is like mine with Madras, I laugh. “Yes, it's been with me since I was a child when I discovered the book and fell in love with it,” Laul says, and goes on to explain how he still sees it: “It is an unusual story that teaches children hope and has such a positive message of self-empowerment, dare-to-dream and belief in yourself, that you can accomplish anything. It's like many of our Indian folk tales in that it is a journey of self-discovery.”
Speaking of India, Laul mentions plans to organise an Indian mela later this year in a Sydney suburb and stage a play based on the book In the Land of the Blue Jasmine by Amit Dasgupta, the Consul General for India in Sydney. But what he is looking forward most to is a visit to Delhi in September to participate in the International Storytellers' Festival and then a workshop production of “The Wizard of Oz Show” in Chennai.
And on that note Brian and I were back to recalling the good times with Aside when it was at its best. “What fun it was working with the Eralys and the rest of the team. What's happened to all those exceptional writers?” At times I wonder too at the waste of that talent.