[At left and from left: The Broadway principal cast (1975) and the movie principal cast (1978) of THE WIZ: Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross, and Tiger Haynes “versus” Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Ted Ross, and Nipsey Russell. Mr. Ross was highly commendable in both incarnations, and Russell possessed a long-recognized and happy talent as well. But a screechingly over-the-top Jackson and a worn-and-weary-looking Miss Diana were left in the yellow brick dust by Mills and Battle. At right: Andre De Shields originated the title role in THE WIZ in 1975; he was an electrifying “special guest” at the Chittenango, NY, OZ-Stravaganza! in 2012 and is shown here while being presented with the key to the village by Mayor Ronny Goeler. Photograph courtesy Jennifer Baum.]
When the initial newspaper, magazine, TV, and radio reviews for THE WIZ were tallied on Monday morning, January 6th, 1975, the air was suffused with more gloom than glory. Producer Ken Harper and his financial cohorts – paramount among them the 20th Century Fox film and television studio – found themselves mired in both a genuinely mixed critical reaction and a tepid Majestic Theatre box office. There was minimal window traffic (i.e., customers waiting in line to purchase tickets) and only a tiny advance sale.
Harper & Co. were “covered,” however. In required compliance with all union rules, those accountable for THE WIZ had posted its closing notice during the preceding week, effective after the Sunday, January 5th premiere. This meant that, as of Monday morning the 6th, the backers could take their losses and take their leave with no further explanation, responsibility, or expression of concern or regret.
But one way or another, an instantaneous decision was required. Should they attempt to support THE WIZ and hope it would find its audience? Or – in best VARIETY-ese – “shutter”?
The verdict was swift. Led by The Merlin Group, Ltd. (their general press representatives), the producers took a huge advertisement in the Wednesday New York City-area papers. It was assembled in less than twenty-four hours and ran full-page in the tabloids and across a half-page in The New York TIMES. Professional-to-the-max, the ad campaigners sifted unadulterated and glowing comment from the cavils and complaints in the show’s early notices. The selected excerpts honestly defined THE WIZ as “black magic” and the reprinted adjectives and descriptive phrases included spectacular, mysterious, opulent, fanciful, fantastic, exciting, superb, lavish, bright, sassy, funky, original, vigorous, terrific, jiving, jovial, soulful, tuneful, color-splashed, cheerfully irreverent, slickly done, a sight to behold, cleverly conceived, and enormously funny. THE WIZ additionally was acclaimed for its “obvious vitality,” “gorgeous sense of style,” “engaging performances,” and “driving rhythms and soaring songs. According to some of the sixteen critics who were quoted, the musical possessed “all the sparkle and flashy blatancy of a Fourth of July celebration,” “wonderful, magical surprises,” and “sizzles full of fantasy for all ages.”
Or as one scribe put it more succinctly: “THE WIZ is a WOW!”
Buoyed by the thrust of such outstanding, legitimate (if carefully-chosen and hyped) jubilation, 20th Century-Fox decided to ante-up another one hundred thousand dollars to provide an immediate “sustain” for the show across a few extra weeks. The publicity crusade then kicked across with a saturation approach to promotion that had profound and far-reaching impact: a modest, brief television ad, illustrated by simple art, but accompanied by the score’s pulsating and relentlessly memorable song, “Ease On Down the Road.” The commercial quickly permeated Tri-State television programming; as a direct result -- and in the words of THE WIZ librettist, William F. Brown -- “By the eighth week, we were selling out.”
Thus firmly established, THE WIZ also benefitted from an April sweep of the major 1975 Antoinette Perry “Tony” Awards, winning seven of its eight nominations: Best Musical (Ken Harper), Best Score (Charlie Smalls), Best Director (Geoffrey Holder), Best Supporting Actor (“Cowardly Lion” Ted Ross), Best Supporting Actress (“Glinda” Dee Dee Bridgewater), Best Choreography (George Faison), and Best Costumes (Geoffrey Holder). It took home multiple Drama Desk Awards that season as well and, in 1976, received the Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album.
THE WIZ – the entertainment that almost called it quits after one official New York performance – remained on Broadway for just over four years. It closed January 28, 1979, having been enacted 1,672 times, and it never ceased to captivate its ever-more-diverse audiences. In addition to spurring greater theater attendance by African-Americans, the presentation (especially early on) drew masses of celebrities. Among the most noteworthy of these, on separate occasions, were Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 “Wicked Witch,” “Scarecrow,” and “Tin Man” – and all three were photographed after the final curtain with starry-eyed players from THE WIZ.
(Just for the record: Not every Oz veteran was enchanted. MGM’s OZ lyricist E. Y. Harburg saw the production shortly after it opened and encapsulated his reaction with a reflection on the basic tenor of the times:
From Roosevelt to Nixon, From THE WIZARD to THE WIZ, My God, it can't be possible! But, oh my country, 'tis)
Despite such occasional dismissals, the stage version of THE WIZ has continued to flourish. If unsuccessful in two attempted Broadway revivals in 1984 and 1992 -- and somewhat less-so in an ENCORES! in-concert staging that drew both praise and disdain in 2009 -- the show has enjoyed several highly popular national tours, international mountings, and countless summer stock, repertory, college, and high school interpretations. In multiple instances across the last forty years, the initial all-African-American casting has given way to a mix of interracial performers who nonetheless joyously “ease on down the road” to fine effect.
The sole major blot on the undeniable entertainment value of THE WIZ was left by its ill-considered film adaptation in 1978. A financial catastrophe, the Sidney Lumet motion picture was hindered, handicapped, and otherwise hobbled by miscasting, misdirection, garish close-ups, heavy-handed re-scripting, and an elephantine overview. Everybody involved ostensibly gave it their best shot, but too many targets were left untouched – and too many unintentional targets were created. Heading the latter list was the apparently ego-driven “revision” of Dorothy as demanded by thirty-three-year-old leading lady Diana Ross. Her unique gifts for song and engaging acting were swamped by her inappropriate age and the by-necessity (if totally fruitless) endeavors to “youth-en” her look to an equally ridiculous twenty-four. In the process, her natural beauty and talent were deglamorized, diluted, and devalued. (My favorite bitchy quip of 1980: One night that spring, I called a show-savvy friend, inadvertently interrupting him during a tele-viewing of the biopic, LADY SINGS THE BLUES. I idly asked how far into the picture he’d gotten, and without missing a beat, he offered, “Oh, we’re at the point in the story where the Billie Holiday character is very heavily into drugs…and Diana Ross looks exactly the way she did all the way through THE WIZ.” Though his cross-referencing was meant as a candid rumination on the physical appearance actively required by the Billie Holiday role being played by Ross -- and sans any personal innuendo about Ross herself -- it was a direct and dire summation of the problem with her seemingly emaciated, minimally cosmetic-ed, and sometimes neurasthenic Dorothy Gale.)
Yet notwithstanding the movie -- and the roller coaster critical reception of the stage edition of the musical since 1974 -- THE WIZ has proved to be eternally exhilarating and often exceptional entertainment. This was brought Home (pun intended, on several levels) in June 2012, when Andre De Shields accepted an invitation to visit Chittenango, NY, birthplace of L. Frank Baum, who wrote THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) and started it all. Shields originated the title role of THE WIZ in 1974-75 and has enjoyed a fulsome career ever since; a born showman, he was an OZ-Stravaganza! sensation. Ceaselessly effective across numerous meet-and-greets, autograph gatherings, and photo ops, he also dazzled thousands along the parade route, and (perhaps most magically) triumphed in an on-stage session for the assembled Oz devotees and festivalgoers. Dressed in – and still EASILY sliding into -- his glittering white WIZ jump suit and platform shoes from nearly four decades earlier, he recounted the extravaganza’s pre-Broadway out-of-town travails, manifested a wholehearted regard for the OZ story and its themes, and rose to deliver chilling, masterful renditions of his own anthem, “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” and the emotional “If You Believe.”
This blog’s reminiscences about THE WIZ (in the installments for April 10th, 17th, and today) were prompted by the proclamation just a month ago that December 2015 will bring us NBC’s special telecast of a full production of the show. If the network and its team can engender anything that approaches the candlepower, sincerity, and bazazz that Andre brought to Chittenango three years ago, there’ll finally be a definite, for-posterity incarnation of that musical.
Anyone who saw him – or who is aware of the strength of THE WIZ in its fundamental form of 1975 – knows it can be done; it’s just waiting to happen.
And here’s hoping it’s a whole new WOW!
A personal P.S. Currently, I’m helping to conceptualize and provide continuity for a one-night concert to be given in New York City next month: HIDDEN TREASURES IV -- the fourth annual cabaret of material written by widely-recognized and highly-regarded songwriter Larry Kerchner. As we’ve worked, I’ve been astounded to discover that -- forty-plus years ago – producer Ken Harper intended THE WIZ as a script that would be musicalized by several composers and lyricists. [This is borne out by the original program credits, wherein Luther Vandross is listed as having provided “Everybody Rejoice” (aka “Brand New Day”), and Timothy Graphenreed and George Faison are acknowledged for the music for the “Emerald City Ballet (Pssst).”] It turns out that Larry Kerchner was among the earliest songwriters solicited for material, and three of the contributions he made “on spec” -- as they say -- were purchased outright from him by Harper. Thus, despite decades of credit to the contrary, it’s Larry who “ghost-wrote” some of the most potent numbers in the score for THE WIZ: “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard,” “No Bad News,” and “Home.”
Article by John Fricke