Donald D’Haene finds the spirit of the original Dorothy in a Canadian reality TV show contestant.
Who among us doesn’t remember loving the classic movie The Wizard of Oz growing up?
Oh, I’m sure there is someone out there that will say they were scared witless by the wicked witch, a mean tree or one of the ugly flying monkeys. Okay, so stop reading already.
For the rest of us, The Wizard of Oz is one of a very few shared experiences that unite us—an encounter that transcends barriers of age, race, politics and religion. Many connected to Dorothy’s quest to return home; the rest of us loved it even if we couldn’t relate.
After seeing the film in ’69, I remember I kept waiting for a tornado, so a house would fall on me. There was no place like home, all right. No tornado came, so I kept clicking my heels trying to reverse the direction for despite a bad witch or two, a wayward apple or those freaky monkeys, Oz looked like one hell of a place to move, let alone visit!
As portrayed by Judy Garland, Dorothy’s mark on me was indelible. I know many take a “grass isn’t always greener on the other side so be careful what you wish for” message from the film. I personally connected to the “there is good and bad everywhere but if you are brave and do the right thing and follow the right path—the symbolic Yellow Brick Road—you will be OK!”
I’ve always been interested in all things Oz. I’ve auditioned for a couple of stage versions, reviewed a few productions and now the CBC has a weekly show: Over the Rainbow, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a Dorothy to star in his production coming to the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto. The search was nation-wide. The television show is unique, with magic crystal balls, competing Dorothys and Totos, and an interactive voting system with judges who are unquestionably qualified: Arlene Phillips, OBE, world renown choreographer and an original panel member for Strictly Come Dancing; Louise Pitre, Tony-nominated for her Broadway debut in Mamma Mia and Canada’s first lady of musical theatre; and Thom Allison, fresh off a year long run of his Broadway debut in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the musical.
Normally even all that would not be reason enough for me to tune in, as I have an aversion to reality television.
That’s right: no Jersey Shore, The Voice, Dancing With The Stars or even post season three American Idol for me.
I especially loathe the kind of reality TV that is cruel to the not-so-talented, the shows that highlight deficiencies in skill for our “enjoyment.”
I should know. Move over American Idol reject, William Hung, you are NOT the world’s worst auditioner. I am. I’ve always performed better once I landed a gig, working off a live audience.
Passing the audition hurdle is an obstacle many face.
I found auditioning one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. But just because that’s true it’s never stopped me—even though at times I have compared the process to working a funeral (read: trying to please a line of stiffs).
I’ve even had a taste of reality-TV auditioning: Media Idol—so I know of what I speak. I auditioned for Sass Jordan of Canadian Idol and rock artist fame and Aaron Walpole, a Canadian Idol runner-up and musical theatre performer. At least I had performed with Aaron back in ’96 in a local musical revue so I knew, or at least, hoped he’d be kind.
I prepared a 40s standard and a 60s country classic. I performed both for a local singer to get her feedback. We agreed I should go with the 40s standard. Just before I headed off on the highway for the CTV studios, my friend called and said, “I’ve changed my mind. Go with the 60s song.” So instead of being able to feign some confidence with my prepared song, I was practicing the old switcheroo on the way to the studio.
If I was nervous before, well, that took me to new heights. As it happens, I ended up second performer of the day. I was right. Aaron was nice. Sass said, “Your voice has a nice tone. It has a 40s radio sound. Too bad you didn’t pick one of those old standards!” You can imagine how I felt. It taught me a lesson I carry with me always. Listen to your inner radar, good or bad, follow your heart and you’ll do the right thing and everything will be okay. Yup, I ignored what I had learned from Dorothy!!
But not since. Everything I do, I follow my instinct.
When I moved from acting to producing, I never forgot my own terror with the auditioning process and made a point to make all auditioners feel as comfortable as possible.
I co-chaired an event here in London to raise money and awareness for the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC). My co-chair and I decided on a talent show format. There was so many talented performers but one stood out in my memory. A young girl barely into her teens, Cassandra Hodgins. I was blown away by her vocal chops. It was no surprise that she ended up winning a prize. But what I remember most was her maturity, vulnerability, poise, confidence mixed with just the proper dose of humility, and ability to convey emotion beyond her years.
In the years since I’ve seen her perform in local theatrical productions and she has always been a stand out.
Imagine my delight to discover our home-town girl Cassandra was hand-picked by Sir Lloyd Webber to be one of the top-ten Dorothys. He even told her he could see her as Funny Girl. (Another of my favourite musicals—yeah, I know, it figures. No Streisand cracks or you can stop reading too!).
So yes, Cassandra is a personal reason why I could have followed the Over The Rainbow show but to my amazement because this is the first reality competition that I have discovered that did not humiliate auditioners, I have been happy to tune in every week from day one. That’s right—no auditioning Dorothy (and there were thousands) found their non-gold card audition televised on television. Imagine!
I’m sure one could quibble with some of the judges’ comments (especially if they are a little harsh on one of your favourites) but no one could accuse any one of them of being a Simon Cowell!
There were five Dorothys left this week and you guessed it—Cassandra was one of them. Unfortunately my home-town girl was in the bottom two Monday night. While each girl in the bottom two has always had to sing the same song in a sing off, an amazing thing happened. This was the first time both Dorothys truly gave the performance of a lifetime. Each judge said as much but as Ms. Phillips has the final say, she voted Cassandra off because she preferred the “ethereal” quality of the other Dorothy’s voice.
The episode ended with the voted-off Dorothy singing “Over the Rainbow.” Just before she sang Cassandra talked of how the other girls meant so much to her, how she appreciated all her new friends and the gifts this experience gave her. It truly was like watching Dorothy saying goodbye to her new-found friends in Oz.
My own experiences have taught me a true winner is someone who always tries to do the right thing while bravely following their own heart on their individual yellow brick road. It’s then no coincidence that while many superb singers have sung “Over the Rainbow” since Garland, Cassandra’s final heart-felt rendition was better than any version I have heard since the original.
Cassandra had the judges in tears as well as my mother, who at 77 I consider the more important judge. Cassandra set the standard by which the winner will be judged. And in true Cassandra/Canadian spirit, both she and we will continue to watch, enjoy and listen as we support the remaining Dorothys on their journey to Oz.