‘Oz and the
Musical’ meshes life and career for Ryan Bunch ’97
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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