In the land of Oz, there are no small roles

When we signed up my 8-year-old daughter, Eve, for children's theater, the director quickly made us aware of Rule No. 1: no whining about assigned parts.

It seems that in previous seasons, quite a few budding Thespians - and more than a few stage parents - had openly grumbled when starring roles went to another child. The complaints had consumed valuable teaching time and fueled bad feelings. In the interest of peace, parents and children were asked to read and sign a pledge to be team players, whether a child landed a headline role or a modest cameo.

Eve is bright, but she's an untrained singer and a novice actress. It seemed unlikely that she would nab the title role in the season's production of "The Wizard of Oz," especially when competing against other kids who were already theatrical veterans.

Even before Eve's musical was cast, parents and kids could surmise a pecking order. The girl picked to play Dorothy would obviously reign as the belle of the ball. A respectable consolation prize might be a supporting role as Auntie Em, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, or the Cowardly Lion.

Suffice it to say that no one in Eve's company was competing to be one of the many Munchkins who amble through the musical's background, tiny and anonymous as a colony of ants.

While washing dinner dishes with Eve that evening, I adopted my best "Father Knows Best" tone and attempted to prepare her for contingencies. "Eve, it's important to remember that there are no small parts in acting. Every role is important. If it weren't important, it wouldn't be in the story."

Eve furrowed her brow and thought for a minute. "So you're telling me," she said, "that I might not get to be Dorothy?"

It was an uncomfortable moment for me. "You might get to be Dorothy," I responded, "but you might not. And being Dorothy isn't everything. Every role is important."

Eve sighed mildly, shook the suds from a fork and rinsed it beneath the faucet. "What if I were a Munchkin?" she asked.

I dried my hands and placed them on her shoulder. "Without Munchkins," I said, "there would be no 'Wizard of Oz.' "

The next day, I waited in the theater lobby for the director to release Eve and her fellow performers. The doors opened and the kids charged out. I could see Eve beaming from ear to ear.

Had my daughter somehow landed Oz's coveted pigtails and gingham dress?

"Here's my script," she said, handing me a sheaf of papers as we walked to our van. "I'm going to be a Munchkin."

A lump formed in my throat. But as we headed home and discussed the day's events, it seemed that Eve was genuinely happy with her part as one of the little folk of Oz.

She had no speaking lines and her singing voice would be one among many in the Munchkin chorus. From a parent's point of view, this was the best of both worlds. Eve was content with her role, but since she was out of the spotlight, we would be spared the intense preparation demanded of a marquee part. I flashed the delighted smile a parent wears when the Saturday softball game gets rained out.

But Eve had other plans for me. We had barely gotten home when she opened our video drawer and retrieved a vintage "Wizard of Oz" cassette. By evening's end, she had watched it three times, mentally noting signature expressions, inflections, and mannerisms of the Munchkin singers.

Clearly, Eve wanted to do more than play a Munchkin; she aspired to become a Munchkin. And frankly, as multiple renditions of "We're Off to See the Wizard" and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" ricocheted like pinballs inside my vibrating skull, I was getting a bit weary of Eve's conscientious - a less-kind father would say obsessive - rehearsal regimen.

I urged moderation. "I think you have this Munchkin thing down," I told her, placing a copy of "Eloise" in her hand and suggesting a quiet hour with a good book. "I don't think you'll have to practice any more tonight."

"But Daddy," she shot back, snaring me in my own words, "there are no small roles. It's important to be the best Munchkin I can be."

Chastened, I retreated to the bedroom and closed the door, a fruitless attempt to muffle out Take 136 of "Ding Dong. The Witch is Dead."

And so it went for the following week, as everyone in our household slowly resigned themselves to nights of "Oz" ballads that sounded as though they were laced with helium.

At the première, after squinting to find Eve in the Munchkin throng, I noticed that she had improvised a final flourish for the part. Taller than most for her age, she had decided to stoop a bit to more closely approximate a Munchkin's measure. In dropping six inches, she'd grown six feet in her father's misting eyes.

"There are no small roles," Eve said after the show.

Placing a bouquet of roses in her hands and hugging her tightly, I had to agree.

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