Children of Oz fight a new wicked witch Song and dance over the Yellow Brick Road

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The Independent Online
It is five months since my wife and I saw in 1997 at a particularly swell New Year's Eve bash that boasted a Wizard of Oz theme. All the guests were presented with munchkin hats of varying degrees of absurdity and one wall of the party room was hung with a canvas depicting, of course, the yellow brick road vanishing onto a prairie horizon.

The elaborate decor had not been crafted just for our benefit, unappreciative and mostly drunken as we were. Rather, it was the first fruit of a marathon undertaking by a group of parents to help the local Greenwich elementary school produce the Wizard of Oz aeons later in the spring. As many of the children as possible were to take part - Dorothy, after all, can have as many munchkin friends as the stage will allow - and the set and costumes were to be as extravagant as possible.

With a cast of 260 excited five- to seven-year-olds, the curtain is due at last to rise on Oz tonight. Whether it will, however, has suddenly become a matter of conjecture. In a twist of events that is worthy of a musical score of its own, it seems that only President Bill Clinton (being pressed to take the role of the Wizard) can save a situation that threatens to put a headmistress in court and eventually even in jail.

Guess what: the lawyers have arrived. (That modern American species that make even better villains than politicians and journalists). Never mind that we are talking about the thrill of children treading a stage for the first time in their lives. This is Greenwich, Connecticut - which to lawyers means dollars. The fact that the Julian Curtiss School is state- funded and is the least well endowed of all the town's schools is unimportant.

The school received verbal permission from MGM, the owner of the film, more than a year ago to put on a production adapted from the film but containing most of its music.

Suddenly this week, however - three days before curtain-up - it received a "cease and desist" letter from another company, Tams-Witmark Music Library Inc, saying that, on the contrary, staging Oz requires separate permission which the school did not have.

Addressed to Nancy Carbone, the school principal, Tams-Witmark said: "It is not permissible to use the music from the movie with a script obtained elsewhere. We require that you remove all of the MGM music from your production and that you notify us by return fax that this has been done." A stunned Ms Carbone also took a phone call from Tams-Witmark's lawyer threatening criminal proceedings.

Of all of this, the kids so far know nothing. But their parents, galled beyond description, have not dallied in fighting back. It has not helped their mood to know that the lawyer doing the threatening happens also to be a Greenwich resident with young children of his own. They do not go to Julian Curtiss, however, but instead to one of the town's several expensive private academies.

And these are not parents short of media savvy. As I write, an NBC television news team from New York is expected at the school to report on the sorry story.

Meanwhile, one comment during the lawyer's phone call has spurred another course of action. Unadvisedly, perhaps, he suggested to Ms Carbone that even if it was the President of the United States who was staging Oz without proper permission he, too, would be pursued in the courts.

Understanding precisely how Mr Clinton's antennae are attuned to just this sort of collision of things human and legal, the parents of one seven- year-old from the cast, Susan, swiftly placed her at the keyboard and clicked into e-mail mode. Her message should be reaching the President just about now. "Dear Sir, they say they would even threaten you. Can't you help us, please? The Munchkins." (I paraphrase).

It is perhaps Susan's bad luck that this is not an election year. Otherwise, Mr Clinton would surely have thrown the full might of the White House at the kindly institution of Tams-Witmark in rather the manner that the tornado deposits Dorothy's house at the start of Oz atop the Wicked Witch of the North.

For a president struggling for re-election it would have been an irresistible script. Maybe, we can only hope, it still will be.

Late news, just in: Yessss! As The Independent went to press, Tams-Witmark caved in. It all goes to show: e-mails and television crews have their uses. The munchkins are ready to celebrate.