When you are playing such well-known, beloved characters as those in The Wizard of Oz there’s only so much room to move in terms of reappraising the role – particularly for Alex Rathgeber who is, as he puts it, “stuck inside a tin can” as the Tin Man.

And yet Rathgeber is finding that he and his fellow cast members – which include Samantha Dodemaide as Dorothy, Lucy Durack as Glinda, Jemma Rix as the Wicked Witch of the West, Anthony Warlow as the Wizard, Eli Cooper as the Scarecrow and John Xintavelonis as the Lion – have all managed in subtle ways to make the parts their own.

Wizard of OzLucy Durack as Glinda, Samantha Dodemaide as Dorothy, Alex Rathgeber as the Tin Man, John Xintavelonis as the Lion and Eli Cooper as the Scarecrow. Photograph © Jeff Busby 

“It is a pre-existing production and things are set to a certain extent but in terms of our interaction with each other, those moments of eye contact and our own individual gestures, and all the other little tiny things make a difference,” says Rathgeber. “I certainly feel with Sam and Lucy, and with Eli and John who are playing Scarecrow and Lion, those tiny moments are helping us find a really touching relationship. It’s quite beautiful.”

The show, currently touring Australia after opening in Brisbane, is a touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s London Palladium production, which premiered in 2011, and then had a season in Toronto and a US tour. Developed from the ever-popular 1939 MGM film, it contains the Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg songs from the Academy Award-winning movie score as well as several new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

Originally directed by Jeremy Sams, who adapted the story with Lloyd Webber, and restaged here by Associate Director Lisa Embs-Green, the production received a 4-star review from Limelight in Brisbane.

“On the first day, when we were about to jump into our first read-through around the table, our director Lisa made special mention of the fact that when this production was conceived it was really to step away from the film so that we’re giving the audience something that they haven’t seen before,” says Rathgeber. “So, they’re not just putting on the DVD and watching the film, they’re very much coming to see a live theatre spectacular – something very special, whilst of course still honouring the film, and all the things the people love about it, which are very much in there.”

Rathgeber believes that the new songs sit comfortably alongside the original numbers from the film, and add an extra something to the story-telling. “Anthony Warlow has an amazing patter piece [The Wonders of the World] near the start of the show and later on in the show at the end of Act One, he gets to open up and use that classic Warlow sound that audiences are going to love hearing,” he says.

Other new numbers include Red Shoe Blues for the Wicked Witch, Already Home for Glinda, Dorothy and the Ensemble, and Nobody Understands Me for Dorothy, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and the farm workers in Kansas. “It really expands the story a bit more and gets to the heart of who these characters are, and you get to see them as real people, I think,” says Rathgeber who plays Hickory in Kansas before turning into the Tin Man in Oz.

Wizard of OzSophie Weiss as Auntie Me, Samantha Dodemaide as Dorothy, Paul Hanlon as Uncle Hendry, Eli Cooper as Huck, Alex Rathgeber as Hickory, John Xintavelonis as Zeke and Anthony Warlow as Professor Marvel. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion don’t have a new song. “Our classic three songs – If I Only Had a Brain, If I Had a Heart and If I Only Had the Nerve – are still in there, but what makes them new and interesting and fun is the new choreography [by Arlene Phillips]. I get to do a tap dance to my song which is a bit of fun,” says Rathgeber.

As for his costume, Rathgeber says it’s made of some form of rubber. “The torso part is something a bit softer, and the limbs are harder. It’s a bit heavier than I imagined it might be!” he adds with a laugh. “I guess that only helps me create the illusion that it is tin.”

Born in Horsham in country Victoria, Rathgeber was the youngest of three children. He started performing in grade five when his brother and sister were in a high school production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. “They needed little kids for the young princes and princesses so that was my first musical and from there I just kept going,” he says.

A graduate of the WAAPA musical theatre course, he landed the role of Raoul in the 21st anniversary West End production of The Phantom of the Opera at age 24. Returning home, he performed in The Drowsy Chaperone with Geoffrey Rush for Melbourne Theatre Company. His subsequent credits include, among others, the role of Billy Crocker in Anything Goes for Opera Australia/John Frost, Brad in The Rocky Horror Show, and Greg Connell, the love of Peter Allen’s life, in The Boy From Oz, as well as a number of productions for The Production Company in Melbourne.

Wizard of Oz, Alex RathgeberAlex Rathgeber. Photo supplied

In 2015, Rathgeber released his debut album Easy To Love, featuring a very personal selection of musical theatre numbers. “It was really fun, and really challenging. I spent a few years formulating the idea and trying to figure out exactly what kind of album it would be,” he says.

“I flirted with the idea of doing a bit broader material, and having some crooning stuff and different styles. Then I thought ‘no, no, I started as a musical theatre lover, I started doing shows at such a young age, it’s what I’ve trained in, it’s what I love, and it’s where I’m known’. So, I guess I realised that I needed to celebrate that, and not shy away from it from fear of the fact that there might not be a broad enough audience for that sort of thing. It’s where I have lived, and where I’ve built my career, and where I plan on continuing to work.”

He ended up choosing songs from shows he’s been in as well as shows he’d love to be in. Tracks include Easy To Love from Anything Goes, If Ever I Would Leave You from Camelot, Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, All I Ask of You and Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera, I Honestly Love You from The Boy From Oz, and There’s No Business Like Show Business and Anything You Can Do from Annie Get Your Gun – the latter a duet with Caroline O’Caroline with whom he starred in Anything Goes. He also duets with Lucy Maunder on Somewhere from West Side Story, with whom he became good friends with when they played Brad and Janet together in The Rocky Horror Show.

“I absolutely love the Jason Robert Brown material from The Bridges of Madison County so I just had to do one of those numbers,” adds Rathgeber, who chose It All Fades Away. He also sings the title track from Sunset Boulevard. “To play Joe has always been a dream of mine,” he admits. “Whether I get the opportunity or not remains to be seen so I thought, at this point, I could at least record that song.”

The Wizard of Oz plays at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 30 – February 4, Adelaide Festival Centre, April 3 – 21, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, May 15 – June 17