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Author Q&A: Book Rooted in Author’s Affection for Oz

‘Oz and the Musical’ meshes life and career for Ryan Bunch ’97

CONWAY, Arkansas (December 5, 2022)—If Hendrix students in the mid-1990s knew one thing about Ryan Bunch ’97, it was that he loved all things related to The Wizard of Oz. Since graduating from Hendrix, Bunch has earned a master’s degree in historical musicology from the University of Maryland, provided music direction for school and community musical theatre projects, been an adjunct professor and voice lesson instructor, and worked with an east coast puppetry company.  

Now well established in the community of musical theatre scholars, Bunch is the current vice president and presumptive president of the International Wizard of Oz Club. He currently is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers writing his dissertation in childhood studies, a multidisciplinary field incorporating children’s literature, sociology, children’s rights, the cultural meanings of childhood, and how kids themselves are participants in the world, among other topics. But before the dissertation defense, a book launch: Oz and the Musical: Performing the American Fairy Tale (Oxford University Press, December 20, 2022).

Bunch reconnected recently with fellow Hendrix Choir alum Amy Meredith Forbus ’96; below are excerpts of their conversation.

Most people don’t write a book while getting a Ph.D. How did that happen for you?

It was an accident of timing. The idea for the book began to develop over a period of years, beginning with my master’s thesis, which was on “Over the Rainbow” as a queer anthem and The Wizard of Oz in the mythology of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. Then I put that away for a while. When I came back to scholarly work, I dusted it off. Really, The Wizard of Oz was what I took with me when I started doing musical theatre scholarship, and I began to see that it was growing into something broader. Musical theatre became the unifying theme of my scholarly and musical activities.

Oxford University Press has a strong relationship with the music performance and dance and theater societies. I wound up talking to an editor from Oxford who is often present at those society events and proposing the book. It happened to be around the same time that I decided I was ready to finish my education. I really thought I would finish the book by the time I was done with coursework so that I would be doing the book and dissertation in sequence. But things take time; a book is a big project.

 In our time together as Hendrix students, one of the first things I knew about you was your affection for The Wizard of Oz. It seems a given that you would write a book about it.

One of my proudest accomplishments at Hendrix is making the President’s Medal Odds List. At the end of the year, they would always post all the reasons why different people wouldn’t get it. Mine was “doesn’t come with ruby slippers,” and I was very pleased. I’m still proud that I made the list in that way.

ryanbunch_headshot_web.jpgIn some respects, this is a book that only I could write, and there’s a lot of me in it. I talk about my experience growing up as a Wizard of Oz fan, so it’s kind of autobiographical; I weave personal experiences through the literary analysis that I do. It really is the culmination of a whole part of my life and career.

When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz came on TV every year; it was highly anticipated, almost like a religious ritual. And in between, it would surface in your play activities. My memory that begins the book is being at summer camp with some other kids, walking down a path in the woods and somebody started skipping, and we joined arms and started singing, “We’re off to see the wizard.…” Then other kids pretended to be winged monkeys and started chasing us. Nobody said, “Let’s play ‘The Wizard of Oz.’” The song prompted the play.

The central thesis of the book is that musical adaptations of The Wizard of Oz make it participatory. The Wizard of Oz is often called “the American Fairy Tale,” not only because it’s this huge cultural phenomenon, but it also has a deep fairy tale structure and symbolism. My argument is that because it became popular in the form of a musical, it became a participatory myth.

Right. Nobody’s reading the book every year. They’re watching the movie or going to see the musical.

Yes. The song and dance keep it in your bodily memory, and that scripts the performance of the story. Kids used to do that all the time; the day after seeing the movie, they would reenact it with siblings and friends. Part of what I’ve done in the book is interview people about those experiences.

Because it keeps being re-adapted and its most successful versions are musicals, the people who do those performative retellings are always recreating it in terms of its inclusiveness of what it is to be American. I talk about four major musicals in the book. The first was the Broadway extravaganza of 1903, which was a huge hit. Then I look at the classic MGM film, and then The Wiz and Wicked. The last chapter is about home Oz play and school musicals.

My personal journey with Oz intensified after having loved the movie for a long time—well, “a long time” when I was nine years old. I like to say the movie is one I’ve always already seen, because my earliest memory of it is that it was coming on TV, I’d seen it before, and I was excited to see it again.

It’s rare that we have something that predates our active memory that is also a cultural touchstone.

Yeah, and it doesn’t have the same ubiquity that it once did because we have everything on demand now. The annual broadcasts aren’t as big a thing. It’s interesting to discover the ways that young people now encounter The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes it is through other adaptations like Oz the Great and Powerful or the musical Wicked. They know the movie, but it’s an old classic to them. Kids may get introduced to it because their school is doing the musical and they watch the movie to learn about it.

I remember being at the library as a kid and my mom pointed out the whole series of Oz books. I plowed through all of them, and it’s through reading those books that I found out about the International Wizard of Oz Club. My parents started taking me to those conventions when I was 11. Their support is a big part of how this interest was sustained for me.

You mentioned The Wizard of Oz and the mythology of the LGBTQIA+ community. We have recent news of another nightclub shooting; in a community that still experiences persecution, what does this mythology mean for folks?

Expression of utopian desire is the central part of what I think The Wizard of Oz is about. Oz musicals serve as touchstones of inclusion and exclusion in American life. The LGBTQ+ mythology around it is usually framed something like this: You have a girl who’s kind of a misfit on the farm. And Judy Garland—who becomes an icon for a lot of queer people, particularly later in her career—she’s playing this role where she’s obviously misfit in it. She knows there’s something better out there, which becomes a metaphor for queer people who have to find their communities and chosen families, often by going to the city, so the Emerald City becomes a metaphor for San Francisco or New York.

There is this longing for a better, safer place, and our social spaces become that literally. Several LGBTQ bars around the country have Oz themes. When those spaces lose their safety, that mythology becomes all the more important—this feeling that we’re always on the move toward that utopian ideal that’s always a little bit out of reach. It gives us something we can use to keep moving forward.

These coping mechanisms or survival strategies of minorities in the U.S. are deeply embedded. A lot of people we would now recognize as being LGBTQ worked on the MGM film. It’s such a symbol of mainstream white America but has this camp and subversive element to it. It sends up conventional American culture with this affectionate exaggeration of earnestness and innocence. There are a lot of ways in which it has people in minority communities encoding themselves. Part of why it became a cult camp classic years later is because audiences who were in the know could decode those things.

The coming together of fairy tale elements and musical theater make space for people to bring themselves into the story. The Wiz is a really good example of Black theatre artists making a claim on the American fairy tale. It’s become an important musical in the Black community, and to the continually expanding idea of what it is to act, sing, and dance “American.”

At the same time, I am always trying to recognize exclusions or stereotypes. There wasn’t literal blackface, but there were minstrel show elements in that first version in 1903, and I argue that it is something that gets reworked and reclaimed in The Wiz. Also, L. Frank Baum wrote an editorial essentially calling for Native American genocide, so I wrote a bit about exclusions and questionable representations of Native Americans in some of the Oz texts. Sometimes one person’s idea of home or utopia is built on somebody else’s exclusion or dispossession.

It is a mostly celebratory book about Oz and musicals. But I don’t want to seem like it isn’t work to make those inclusive performances of American life. It is something that we’re still working at, it’s ongoing, just like those queer spaces.