If the phrase “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” sounds very familiar to you, if could be you are one of the many millions of fans and admirers of either the books by L. Frank Baum or the many products that continued the tales of Oz.
For nearly 120 years, the world of Oz with all its unique, strange and at the same time familiar characters has had a firm grip on America’s cultural landscape, not counting the many nations where fans of the wonderful world also go into the millions.
The children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900 by American author L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), very successfully establish a large fan base that begged for more stories of Oz. When he died, he left twelve follow-ups, many notes and a book manuscript.
The magic and commercial success of the book series can only be compared to the combined sales exploitation of maybe today’s Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars sagas. After his death, the Oz saga was continued by other authors and in other media as well. In 1939, MGM released the famous musical film (starring future superstar Judy Garland), that massively enlarged the fan base. Later adaptions of it followed, most prominently The Wiz (1978), Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) and the Broadway show Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz (2003), based loosely on both the Wicked book and Baum’s original title.
The ongoing fascination with the novel and its byproducts is the reason why the three authors in the title at hand dug deeper to find out the motor behind all this, or rather: how come this machine generates such fortunes over the decades?
What at first sounds like a clash between a safe, familiar place of one’s childhood and the dry, theoretical and mostly emotionless world of columns, reports and turnovers of an industry, actually is a journey to the mechanics of popular culture, its symbols and their respective connectedness to the national culture itself.
“As we shall see in our examination of the Oz narrative, a symbiotic relationship is in play here: In order for an artifact to sustain itself, it must help sustain the culture; and in order for a culture to sustain itself, it requires a set of cultural artifacts – myths, narratives, artworks, and symbols – to circumscribe its community and communicated its values.”
Naturally, the main reason behind the financial success, apart from the spell it put on children and young readers, was very clever marketing, that was closely connected to “cultural sustainability.” All intended to sell the same story over and over again, for more than 100 years. “How has Oz itself remained culturally sustainable? More specifically, how does Oz keep reinventing itself, such that it becomes newly relevant to new groups of consumers, without losing its established consumer base?”
This was not a simply process, argue the authors, as there are certain things any adaptation of the original source (Baum’s first book) needs to consider, if it wants to sustain any success. For example, referring to the original as close and exact as possible, but simultaneously trying to adapt to current developments, styles, contexts and generations. Otherwise, if the relation to the source (text) is recognizable, or does not connect to (pre) connected audiences, the recent adaptation will vanish into oblivion and will not be a successful product. As adaptations try to sell the same product and tell the same story again, just somewhat differently, meaning, if a new reader buys any part of the tale, he or she will be also very likely purchase all the other parts. (This concept, by the way, is also at work with any similar modern continued product like Star Wars or Harry Potter and their spin-offs.)
It is important to realize that the original source text does not lose its credibility or esteem it has for the individual; rather, it should be clear that consumers get manipulated very easily in their urge to want “more of the same,” and thereby willingly offer to spend billions of dollars (nationwide) to purchase it. This is how branded entertainment is successfully marketed.
The many requirements a product has to master (both on the levels of structural sustainability, popularity and marketability) are explained very well with examples from everyday items that are related to popcultural archives, items and memories. Finally, those mechanisms live on, and they promote cultural urges, mostly those that are related to consumption. These urges today can be satisfied by different media, such as fan fiction, movie spin-offs, dedicated websites or video games. “Media convergence allows corporations to coopt, then monetize, consumer’s desire for more by offering them multiple experiences of the narrative – each one reaching consumers where they live, play, and seek entertainment.”
The Road to Wicked is notable title that goes into the details of consumer-product relations and explains the many steps the industry in cooperation with the arts and entertainment industry prepares and carries out for the simple motive of commercial success.
The three authors, Professors/Associate Professors or either English, Marketing or Management, also provide a short (commercial) history of Baum’s time, the early 20th century, consumer markets, advertisement strategies and his very own strategies to promote his Oz sequels. Baum was very familiar with all of that due to his various other enterprises he started before becoming a professional writer. There are also chapters on the MGM movie set and film shooting, the TV broadcast in the US, and the following development (or rather the transformation) of the “one” Oz to many “Ozes,” watched by millions.
As the book’s title already indicates, the musical Wicked is at the center of it, so four chapters deal with the theatrical live experience like consumer responses and expectations, fandom and its meaning for the musical industry. The two final texts give an outlook on future attempts to cultural sustainability and (possibly) problematic new directions the tale may take when more and more relieved from the original text.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019
Kent Drummond, Susan Aronstein, Terri L. Rittenburg. The Road to Wicked: The Marketing and Consumption of Oz from L. Frank Baum to Broadway. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 336 p.