April 10, 2015 “EV’RYBODY REJOICE!” (AND HOPE FOR THE BEST….) – Part One
[Above left: The front of the (roughly) twelve-inch-square record jacket for the Original Broadway Cast album of THE WIZ. The upper right-hand corner of the art is emblazoned with the post-April 1975 proclamation that the production had garnered seven Tony Awards that season – and includes the fact that the score contains the quick-to-become-familiar “Ease On Down the Road.” (That song was a central and merrily relentless feature of the show’s ever-prevalent television ad campaign.) Center: An early-spring 1975 newspaper advertisement for THE WIZ on Broadway, trumpeting its eight Tony nominations. Only William F. Brown, who wrote the script, would fail to take home an award during the ceremonies on April 20th. Right: An alternate – perhaps preliminary and seemingly abandoned -- concept for the record album artwork.]
There are many extraordinary things about “The Wonderful World of Oz,” not the least of which is the continuing popular – and pop culture -- fascination with its possibilities, potentials, and properties.
This isn’t because I say so; it’s because the proof appears and reappears right in front of us, virtually on a daily basis. In the forty-two installments-to-date in this series of writings, there have been regular references to the ongoing omnipresence of All Things Oz. In just the last two years, all of us devotees have seen two new, theatrically-released, big-budgeted Oz motion pictures. We’ve celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of THE Oz film – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ – in its theatrical 3D reissue. We’ve annually enjoyed thriving Oz Festivals in three national locations (with a fourth to be added in 2015). We’ve experienced Oz marketing as it has poured forth in books, documentaries, and diverse products. We’ve encountered countless rewordings of the MGM dialogue, parodies of its scenes and sequences, take-offs on its characters, and citations of its themes.
In other words, Oz Never Quits, and here’s an instantaneous, current case-in-point. After I completed the rough draft of this entry earlier in the week, I casually read through the April 6th-19th issue of NEW YORK magazine. In an article about television news anchormen, there were – pretty much out-of-the-blue -- passing nods to L. Frank Baum and Professor Marvel, plus the testimonial (also used as a pull-quote) that “Like the Wizard of Oz, anchors have often been fronts for those pulling the strings behind the curtain.”
I would imagine that for most (if not all) of the readers here, I’m merely telling you plenty you know. But as the third time is the charm (…?!) and just to re-state the obvious: Oz Is Everywhere. Or, in an attempt to affirm that more journalistically: There was a comment put forward in 1975 by nonpareil CBS-TV/60 MINUTES correspondent Mike Wallace that seems apt for re-use right now. He then was discussing the already-apparent timelessness of Judy Garland, so it seems entirely reasonable to adapt his words for the “Wonderful World” that first brought her to hyper-fame. The legend of Oz – and this was Wallace’s telling phrase -- “renews itself and keeps on growing.”
Even during the ten months of these ramblings, that legend also and frequently has somehow spontaneously sprung up and dictated a topic the blog should cover. To wit: The latest indication of Ozzy regeneration took place just last week, and this excerpt from an official NBC press release beautifully summarizes the prospective excitement at hand:
[New York City, Monday, March 30th:] NBC will ease on down the road for its next live musical television event: THE WIZ will take center stage Dec. 3, the net announced Monday. THE WIZ marks NBC’s third such production, following the success of THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE!, starring Carrie Underwood, and PETER PAN LIVE!, in which Allison Williams played the title character.
THE WIZ will be co-produced by Cirque du Soleil’s new stage theatrical division. After the television event, the musical will make its Broadway revival for the 2016-17 season, also presented by Cirque du Soleil. Casting for both projects has yet to be announced.
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who exec produced NBC’s SOUND OF MUSIC and PETER PAN, return as exec producers. Kenny Leon directs both the TV production and the Broadway revival, along with Harvey Fierstein, who will contribute new material to the original Broadway book by William F. Brown….
“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to not only produce this as our next live musical for NBC, but to then see it move to Broadway for a new generation to experience,” said Zadan. “We love this yearly tradition, and we’re more excited than ever to not only bring another Broadway musical to America’s living rooms, but also see it land on Broadway as well,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt…. “Cirque du Soleil’s incredible imagination will help bring the fantasy world of Oz vividly to life and give this great show a modern spin on the age-old story we all love.”
THE WIZ is adapted from THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, by L. Frank Baum, with Brown’s book, and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. Universal Television will produce.
While the jury remains “out” until late on December 3rd, here’s an up-front and fervent hope that this new variation of THE WIZ will reflect the energy, joy, and skill of the original Broadway engagement of precisely forty years ago. It also would be infinitely preferable – in one man’s opinion, anyway! – if Meron, Zadan & Co., scrupulously avoid the pitfalls and disastrous choices that sunk the lavishly-budgeted and mounted film version of the show in 1978.
Maybe my antipathy to THE WIZ motion picture stems from more than just supremely good taste <cough. cough.> My affection for its Broadway incarnation has never wavered, quite possibly because I had the great fortune -- pretty much by chance -- to attend its opening night performance on Sunday, January 5, 1975.
I was brand new to New York City at that time, having moved to town the preceding October. The only area of Manhattan with which I then was even remotely conversant (via two brief prior visits) was Times Square -- aka the theater district. So that’s where I sought and ultimately rented an apartment. This meant I’d been trundling past the nearby Majestic Theatre since I’d arrived -- and seeing the marquee for its coming tenant, THE WIZ, for several weeks by the time the first of the year rolled around.
There’d also been periodic word about the musical in VARIETY -- then still the traditional “Bible of show business” -- in its weekly newsprint coverage of film, television, recordings, stage, and “niteries” (as the clubs then were termed). THE WIZ had begun its pre-Broadway engagements at Baltimore’s Mechanic Theatre, opening on October 21st, 1974. It then continued at The Fisher in Detroit, opening on November 5, and at The Forrest in Philadelphia, opening on December 10th. New York previews began on Christmas Eve.
Apparently, those out-of-town tryouts comprised an almost textbook case of the agonies of creating, manhandling, and endeavoring to fix a new Broadway musical “in trouble.” The actors playing such inconsequential (…) individuals as Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion purportedly were one-and-all replaced, even prior to the Baltimore launch. The Scarecrow personator was fired soon thereafter, and a member of the chorus moved up into that part. The role of “The Queen of the Field Mice” was written out of the script, even though it had been cast with the singularly charming character actress, Butterfly McQueen (best known for her appearance as “Prissy” in GONE WITH THE WIND). Director Gilbert Moses III was supplanted in Detroit by Geoffrey Holder, then perhaps most familiar for his TV commercials as “The Un-Cola Man” -- touting 7-Up -- and for his skillful portrayal of “Willie Shakespeare” in the Rex Harrison/Anthony Newley film musical, DOCTOR DOLITTLE (1967). Holder was already on site as the costume designer for THE WIZ.
At least one Baltimore critic opined early-on that the show was music-heavy, so several songs were cut on the road. These included “Which Where, Which What, Witch Why?,” “You Can’t Win,” and “Don’t Cry, Girl.” Along the way, the scheduled tryouts were extended, and the Broadway opening pushed back from December 17th to (as noted) January 5th.
When THE WIZ took over the Majestic here and careened through sixteen or more previews en route to its official premiere, producer Ken Harper and his associates had no choice but to post its closing notice, effective at the conclusion of the gala opening night performance. THE WIZ had next-to-no advance sale at that juncture; there was no money to sustain it into the second week of the New Year. Everything depended on the January 6th reviews and – tangentially -- any positive word-of-mouth. Thus, to protect themselves, those-in-charge had to legally announce the show’s closing to the cast, crew, and staff, even before THE WIZ officially opened. (In that manner, the backers wouldn’t be responsible for another week of heavy financial losses, were the press less than supportive or optimistic.)
As a wild Oz fan, VARIETY reader, and neighborhood resident, I was aware of some of this sturm-und-drang – at least that which had been made public, written about in the papers, or rumored on the street. It seemed THE WIZ would quickly pass through town…and then even more precipitously fade away.
Then, mid-afternoon on that fateful Sunday of January 5th, I received a call from Fred Meyer, the very main mainstay of The International Wizard of Oz Club. Fred was our executive secretary, propellant of moving-and-shaking, and the High MoGull of Everything Oz. (For the uncontestable record: I state all of that with ten-thousand-per-cent total admiration and affection.) Under Fred’s aegis and with his encouragement, I’d been writing minor and then major articles for THE BAUM BUGLE, the Club magazine, since 1962 – my first year as a member, when I was eleven. He, of course, had kept himself apprised of the basic particulars concerning THE WIZ, knew it was about to open in New York, and phoned to ask if I would please review it for the next issue of the BUGLE.
I was delighted and flattered by the invitation. But I had to explain to him some of the preceding back-story, including the fact that the performance that evening might well be its last. As only Fred could, he chortled back, “Well, then, you’d better go and see it tonight!” I argued that such a thing was not possible – “first nights” were invariably sold-out. There also was my personal, additional status as new-to-and-looking-for-work-in-New-York; I just didn’t have the ready cash to incur such a gratifying treat.
He -- as only Fred could -- refused to accept such “minor’ objections. The Club (i.e., no doubt Fred himself) would reimburse me for the cost of the ticket…and I should head DI-rectly to The Majestic to see if there was one that could be had.
So, I trundled over to the theater. And it’s further indication of the extremely shaky ground on which THE WIZ then rested when I tell you that there were plenty of seats to be had -- at least upstairs in the balcony.
Thus, for the colossal expenditure of $6.00, I attended my very first Broadway opening night.
[to be continued]
Article by John Fricke