Musical developed by Rider professor on track for Broadway
Watching Judy Garland sing "Over the Rainbow" as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz is a moment Adjunct Theatre Professor Tina Marie Casamento will never forget.
Having lost her own mother at a young age, Casamento questioned where Dorothy's mother was as she watched the film. She remembers finding comfort in the idea that Dorothy's mother was somewhere over the rainbow too.
The connection to the movie's protagonist remained strong as Casamento fostered a growing interest in Garland's life throughout her childhood and teenage years. This fascination led her to develop a concept that would eventually become the full-length musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, which is set to premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse on Sept. 26.
"Judy Garland said that her biography was in her music and that idea stuck with me," says Casamento, who has been working diligently for the past eight years to tell Garland's story.
Chasing Rainbows follows Garland's journey from childhood vaudeville star Frances Ethel Gumm to the star of one of the most popular films of all time, The Wizard of Oz. Too old to be a child star, too young to be a glamorous film star, Garland was frequently demeaned by her boss, who called her “my little hunchback,” after she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) at just 14 years old.
The story of Chasing Rainbows also explores Garland's loving relationship with her father. "It's not the story everyone thinks it is. It's very much a father-daughter story," Casamento says. "This is the only show where she wins in the end. She was the underdog who didn't fit the mold. She's finally achieved something to be proud of."
Casamento worked closely with Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland historian John Fricke to ensure the musical accurately represented Garland's life. Chasing Rainbows is the first show to be endorsed by the Garland family. Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli praised the show, saying, "A talented creative team is using [my mother's] music to tell the story of her early years and her extraordinary rise to fame. I’m grateful and happy they’re telling the fascinating story of her early history.”
"Judy Garland has countless fans who want to celebrate how talented she was and remember the highlights of her career. It's important to me that the family feels proud of how we showcase their mother's story," Casamento says.
Casamento first pitched the idea of Chasing Rainbows to EMI Music Publishing, the company that owns the rights to "Over the Rainbow" in 2009 and secured a development deal to create the musical. Featuring hits “Over the Rainbow,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Broadway Rhythm,” the score has been reimagined for a contemporary audience by Casamento's husband, composer and musical arranger David Libby. The book was written by playwright Marc Acito. After a decade of perfecting and workshopping, Casamento can hardly believe the road to Oz is nearly complete.
"I'll never forget sitting in the back of the theater when we had our first paid audience" she says. "I was filled with nerves and always looking out for things that weren't going smoothly, but when everyone was on their feet and weeping at the end, I was ready to burst from their energy."
Chasing Rainbows' run at the Paper Mill Playhouse coincides with the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. The theater is a breeding ground for new musicals headed to Broadway, which is where Casamento is hopeful the show will find a home.
Casamento's career spans more than 30 years in the musical theater industry as a performer, director, casting agent and teacher. She has been a member of Rider's faculty since 2017, teaching classes such as "Song as Text," "Scene Study" and "Musical Theatre Audition Technique."
"I have a passion for teaching. It really feeds the soul to teach," she says. "The Rider musical theatre students are incredibly talented, excited and hungry to learn."
Providing real-world experiences is a key component of a Rider education and Casamento is proud to provide students with the opportunity to sit in on Chasing Rainbows' final dress rehearsal before its opening night at the Papermill Playhouse.
"It's also exciting to show students that you have to make your own creative journeys and make your own art," she says.