There’s no place like ‘Oz’ on the big screen: Louisville Orchestra provides the soundtrack to ‘The Wizard of Oz’

“The Wizard of Oz” remains one of the most popular movies of all time, but few of us were around to view it in theaters when it debuted in 1939. Most people have seen the classic on television — first shown in 1956 on rabbit-ears black-and-white, then in color, then on videotape and, most recently, on DVD.
Now comes the latest — and some say the greatest — version of “Oz” of all: The actual movie, shown in a fabulous period theater of the day, with live orchestral accompaniment.

Saturday in two performances at the Palace Theater, the Louisville Orchestra will provide a live sound accompaniment of the famous film. The dialogue and singing remains — that’ll still be Judy Garland on the screen singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — but the orchestral musical track has been stripped from the film — now replaced with a live orchestra. The production is the brainchild of Emmy award-winning producer John Goberman (“Live at Lincoln Center”) and has played in several U.S. cities and overseas. Everywhere, it seems, the show has received critical acclaim.

That includes Cincinnati, where Louisville Orchestra executive director Brad Broecker saw the production, with the Northern Kentucky Orchestra providing all the notes of the Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart score. That’s when Broecker signed Louisville for the “Oz” tour, as part of the orchestra’s new WOW series.

“When you have the live musicians playing, it not only enhances the singing, but you also become aware of the beauty of the score, the background that we often take just for granted in a movie — like when you see the witch riding that bicycle, and the orchestra violins bowing tschut-tschut, tschut-tschut right with the action.”
Which is great. But it sounds like a real dilly of a deal to do.

In the first place, the idea of a live orchestra playing with a film is a reverse endeavor. It’s exactly the exact opposite, say, of an opera, in which the singers follow a musical score and take their cues from the pit orchestra conductor. Everyone follows that baton. But in this version of “Oz,” the singers are absolutely un-adjustable on film. They’re going to sing when they’re going to sing. And you can’t stop them. It would seem Louisville Pops Orchestra director Jason Weinberger would have zero room for error.
So how will they do it?

The answer, explained Jon Sharpe, the technical wizard of “The Wizard,” is that the conductor has a monitor equipped with a “Click Track” system that includes a video monitor and a timer that is synchronized with the film. “It’s up to the conductor to sit there and really lock in on the singers’ tempo,” said Sharpe.
The rest is accomplished the old-fashioned way: by the skill of the musicians.
But why go to the trouble?

That’s easy, said Sharpe. It’s the sound.
“You have to remember that in 1939, when ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was made, we were just 12 years into talking pictures,” Sharpe said. “It’s like listening to an old monaural record. They didn’t have 100-track Dolby Digital. Then it was just one track, and not anything like what modern movie viewers get today.”
So the live orchestra fills up that thin sound.

Goberman and Sharpe pioneered the concept several years ago with a live sound revival of “Alexander Nevsky,” a Russian classic made by cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein. The movie has a score written by famous composer Sergei Prokofiev, but Sharpe said the musical recording was so primitive that there were actually gaps where you could hear no music at all. Goberman staged the movie in New York with a full symphony — plus a 200-person chorus. (Bet you could hear that!)

“Nothing like this has ever been done in Louisville,” said Broecker. “This takes a known product, something as wonderful as ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and puts a new spin on it that gives the audience the pleasure of a movie, and a concert at the same time.”
Plus, we would think, there’s nothing like a big movie in a big theater the Palace, which was known as Loew’s State Theater when “The Wizard of Oz” came to the silver screen.

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‘Oz with Orchestra’
Saturday, Nov. 17
Palace Theater
625 S. Fourth St.,
$25-$39 (matinee), $25-$49; 1:30 & 8 p.m.