The Wizard of Oz holds a special place in the annals of the cinema. The movie may have lost best picture in 1939 to Gone with the Wind and not made back its initial investment right away, but it has made up for its slow start ever since. The Library of Congress named it as the most-watched film in history and it is on almost everyone's list of the top ten of all time.
You can experience this seminal film in a very special way this weekend, as the Fort Worth Symphony, under the direction of guest conductor Ron Spigelman, will play the lush musical score live as the movie is screened.
"The magic of digital editing dropped the orchestra out of the sound track, leaving the singing, dialogue and all of the other sound effects," Spigelman says. "They did a very good job and it is really enjoyable to conduct the score. This film in this version, and the orchestral score and parts, has been available for about five years and I have conducted it twice before."
Live orchestras were all the rage back in the silent film days, but only in the top theaters. In lesser venues, there was a small instrumental ensemble and sometimes just a pianist or organist. "Silent films gave a lot of musicians some employment at the time," Spigelman says.
In fact, the Dallas Chamber Symphony has included the screening of silent movies with newly composed scores as part of their inaugural season at the new City Performance Hall. However, a short comic silent film with a clever score, no matter how delightful, is not the same as hearing The Wizard of Oz with the Fort Worth Symphony. "It is like 3D, in a way, the music surrounds you in a manner speakers never can," Spigelman says.
The conductor has his work cut out for him coordinating the orchestra with the movie. "I have a clock and minutes and seconds are listed in my copy of the score," he says. That's it."
He has done several other films with a live orchestra, most recently the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but this one has the added difficultly of accompanying the singers. This is a hard job in live opera, but more so when the singers are frozen on the screen, endlessly repeating the identical performance. "One tough spot is the scene where the Munchkins welcome Dorothy to Oz. There are a lot of different soloists in the scene to try to follow," he says.
The score itself was a group effort. The songs were separate from the final score which was knit together by Herbert Stothart, who wrote everything except the songs. Those were written by lyricist E.Y. Harburg with the music of the great songwriter, Harold Arlen. Classical music fans are pleased, maybe even smug, to recognize bits of some classical masterpieces Stothart scattered here and there throughout the score. Keep your ears open for Stravinsky's Firebird, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe and even Mussorgsky's Night of Bald Mountain.
Spigelman says that the most challenging conducting in the film is the cyclone scene. This is where Dorothy's house is taken up in the air by the storm and transported to Oz, landing right on top of the Wicked Witch of the East with a thud. "The music starts with the dream sequence, builds and builds in a fantastic way, and then I have to hit last note when the house lands," he says. "But, just to be safe, I have the percussion ready to do another crash if I get to Oz ahead of the house."
As far as accompanying the singers, you would think that this would be easy with such outstanding musical actors as Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr. It was, for the most part, but Spigelman says that the trickiest part for him is the song "If I Only Had a Heart" with Jack Haley as the Tin Man. "He does a dance with vocals in between, so you have to watch his movements. It is hard to hit it exactly when he starts to sing again."
"It is such a wonderful movie you find yourself really putting out your best efforts to make it work," he adds. "I always wonder who is out there that has never seen it before. Maybe just a kid. But I always hope I am creating a 'wow' moment for someone in the audience."