Arts Spotlight: It’s not your mother’s “Wizard of Oz”

It’s no secret that COVID-19 changed a lot about the ways we gather, the ways we celebrate and the ways we collaborate. Our annual musical at Mayfield is a combination of all three elements. It is a gathering, a joyful celebration of talent, and a result of a deep collaboration between several conservatories: theatre, tech theatre, dance, vocal music and instrumental music. Although all of those conservatories have returned to performing and/or operating again this year individually, this production of “The Wizard of Oz” will be the first time everyone is joining forces together for a truly meaningful performance, with the talents of so many groups on display. 
It was this time two years ago when Mayfield’s production of “Oliver!” had to close prematurely as COVID-19 shut-downs were first barreling into place. It feels a bit like a spring miracle to find ourselves on the exact opposite side of that spectrum now—as COVID-19 restrictions are finally loosening up enough to bring a sense of hope rushing through our student performers and faculty collaborators alike. “As far as mounting the first musical in two years, it's definitely been challenging,” says Theatre Director Maryanne Householder. But she also explains that it’s been “a wonderful experience” and especially “nice being able to collaborate with other artists. It’s just been so rewarding, being able to work with my fellow arts faculty.”

Director of Instrumental Music, Christin Hablewitz echoes that appreciation for this collaborative environment. “It has been so great to see students and teachers work together again to create a production.” She explains, “I love musicals, it's a cross-disciplinary integration of the four magical elements of songs, dialogue, acting and dance all tied together with a story.” 

The tale of a windswept Kansas girl arriving in a magical land is a timeless one, but don’t expect this production to be your mother’s “Wizard of Oz” either. It’s not just the masks worn by the performers (although this COVID-restriction will soon be a thing of the past soon enough). It’s an entirely different musical score, not the MGM songbook popularized by Judy Garland. There will be no physical yellow brick road, no wires dangling from the ceiling lowering good witches from the sky or bulky set pieces built to appear like houses with bad witches buried below them. Ms. Householder elected for a “black box” approach for her personal Oz—minimal production elements for sets and costumes—but maximum potential for imagination.

Black box theatre creates a much more pared-down environment for everyone, and something that Ms. Householder feels is fertile ground for performers. She explains it gives students an “opportunity to really work on their vocal range and their character expressions and who they are as an actor, rather than dealing with a clunky set or other parts…that really add to theater, but also can take away from the actor’s experience.”

Marina Muridian ‘23, one of the two performers playing the Wicked Witch of the West. felt liberated by the theatrical device, saying, “The black box environment allowed me to further explore the stage and have more creative freedom.” And Anna Pruyn ‘23, one of the two Glinda the Goods, agrees, “it gives us so much more room on the stage…gave us the opportunity to focus more closely on our acting.”

Something that might be new to some Mayfield audience members (but not at all new to professional theatre practices) is Ms. Householder’s decision to create alternating casts for this show. Why two Wicked Witches and Glindas (etc) playing on different nights? “COVID was a part of it,” explains Ms. Householder. But she also feels this arrangement gives “students the experience of dual casting, because in the real world of performing arts, you do have swing actors and you have understudies and you have all of these people learning multiple roles.” 

These alternating casts didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the performers in the slightest. Lily Salazar ‘23, one of the actresses playing Dorothy, raved about the process. “Everyone had a lot of fun putting it together and telling a very unconventional version of the Wizard of Oz. I personally found this way of putting on a show to be really great…and I've learned a lot more about how much conveying a story matters in theatre.” Her fellow Dorothy Eliana Andrea ‘25 goes on to describe a nurturing environment, all about collaboration as opposed to competition, “Working as a freshman in the play was definitely an adjustment, but I think that the group was just so supportive and kind.”

Being a musical, the singing and the dancing is always a big part of the draw. And Vocal Music Director, Andrew Alvarez, remarks that, “Students were able to come to rehearsals with joy and enthusiasm.” Although there had been some initial timing challenges with this production, Mr. Alvarez says he was “very proud of our achievements” and it had been “a pleasure to watch students grow artistically and musically.”

Choreographer Denise Leitner praises the eagerness of this group of students as well. She explains that “sometimes actors hesitate to learn movement” but added she was “surprised and happy to see how receptive the performers were as they learned choreography…students were open and did a wonderful job as they learned the dances.”

The Mayfield family will be saddened that this will be Ms. Leitner’s last collaboration of this sort, as she announced her retirement this year. “As this is my last musical, I will walk away with appreciation for my colleagues” and “will miss the camaraderie that we share,” having the utmost “respect for them as artists and humans.” And what does Ms. Leitner’s hope for those seeing this unique version of Oz? “I think the audience will be delighted with the wonderful talent that the Mayfield technicians, actors, singers and dancers will share with each performance.”
Ms. Householder hopes this production of Oz challenges expectations, seeing this familiar story in new ways. And she says launching this production comes with great relief: “We are moving towards a world with live performances again!” Ms. Householder thinks it’s self-evident that the students worked incredibly hard on this show, saying they “put everything they had into this production during this challenging time.” Ultimately she wants this show to bring people together. Above all else, she says she wants students and audience members alike “to feel a sense of community.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.