August Blog with John Fricke







[Above: The primary marketing image for the motion picture version of THE WIZ (1978) was bright, colorful, exciting, and upbeat. The film’s overall critical and box office reaction, however, didn’t measure up.]


We’re now two-thirds of the way through 2022’s centennial salute to Judy Garland – Dorothy Gale of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ movie – and our simultaneous celebrations of other Dorothys of “the media” since the first dramatic mounting of the OZ story in 1902. Judy, of course, gets her monthly spotlight at the conclusion of this blog. First, though, we herald three distinctly different actresses who established their own Ozian associations as Dorothy in the show, THE WIZ -- and via three diverse forums: stage, film, and television.


I had the unexpected privilege of attending the Broadway opening night performance of THE WIZ back on Sunday, January 5, 1975. It was a complete surprise to find myself there, but I’d been asked (earlier that afternoon!) to see and review the show for The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. ( magazine. At that point, there was no other recourse but to hie myself around the corner to the Majestic Theatre and get a ticket for the show’s premiere; it was no secret, here in the New York City theater district, that THE WIZ was scheduled to close immediately after that first night! The musical had next-to-no advance ticket sale, and unless the Monday morning reviews were at least somewhat good, the producers had no funds with which to keep the show running.




[Above, from top: Tiger Haynes as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion, Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow comprised the quartet that launched THE WIZ on Broadway. All of them brought undeniable performance bliss to their characterizations.]


I’ve recounted details of that experience in an earlier blog, so for now, let’s just say that the critical reviews were mixed – but more than positive enough in excerpts to propel THE WIZ to find an audience. Eventually, TV and radio advertising (“Ease on down! Ease on down the ro-oad!”) and word-of-mouth propelled the show into a four-year-run of nearly 1700 performances. There were numerous reasons for the deserved success and appeal of the original WIZ, and I can (at least personally) summon ‘em up in one ecstatic word:  JOY!


Central to that jubilation – and central as ever to the L. Frank Baum saga from which THE WIZ was exultantly adapted – was seventeen-year-old Stephanie Mills, who had the sincerity, the elation, and the sympathetic soul of Baum’s heroine. Best of all, she had THE VOICE. Looking back at my critique in the spring 1975 issue of the Club’s THE BAUM BUGLE, I noted that all “the principal performers are unceasingly energetic, and the audience cannot help sharing their enthusiasm. [Ms.] Mills . . . is, as the Cowardly Lion puts it, a true ‘Little Mama.’ Publicity states that she is fifteen years old; at any age, she would be an extraordinary singer.” Rightfully, THE WIZ led Stephanie Mills to a life-long entertainment career.




[Above: The radiant Ms. Mills is flanked by Clarice Taylor’s rascally Addaperle (the Good Witch of the North) and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s luminous and sultry Glinda in THE WIZ.]


Four years later, THE WIZ was brought to world-wide movie screens – at a budget of $24 million dollars and in a murky adaptation that literally urbanized the Land of Oz into a swirling dream/nightmare of contemporary New York City. The concept was original but somehow heavy-handed, and what had manifested as light, color, and radiance on stage became instead a film whose story and characters were draped in more than equal amounts of trauma and stress.


Central to the film was the selection of its Dorothy: thirty-three-year old Diana Ross in the guise of a timid twenty-four-year old Harlem schoolteacher. The gifted Ms. Ross was a box office name, attraction, and recording star – as well as reasonably fresh from an Academy Award-nominated success as Billie Holiday in LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972). Disregarding for the moment the real life and reel life age disparity of her casting, she was saddled with a production that overwhelmed the intrinsic thrill of THE WIZ property with a dour, metropolitan snake pit of danger, threat, and sarcasm. There was uplift in many moments and many of the motion picture performances, but even when coalesced, such segments couldn’t rise above a Dorothy who had been scripted as tentative, uncertain, and emotionally needy much of the time. The Ross singing style adapted well to THE WIZ score but somehow lacked the bravura and full-voice presence of the theatrical Dorothys (harking back, of course, to Stephanie Mills).




[Above: Diana Ross and her “Toto” in a publicity portrait for THE WIZ.]


Despite the box office failure of the 1978 motion picture, THE WIZ continued to thrive for decades as a stage vehicle, especially in stock, regional, community, and school productions. The thirty-seven year draught between highly visible versions, however, came to an end in 2015, when NBC offered THE WIZ LIVE! on December 3rd of that year. Hopes were high (at least among some) that this newest incarnation would embrace the ebullience and vitality of the Broadway original -- and make for the same kind of uplifting experience. Once again, however, the comparative light-hearted tone of the first WIZ was compromised by the present-day world’s ever-more-prevalent “dark approach”; in this case, it extended to the show’s themes, plotting, designs, and characterizations.


In the end, THE WIZ LIVE! was at least critically well-received, with special commendation for its performers. Among them, no one more warranted the accolades than the theatrically-savvy nineteen-year-old Shanice Williams. She was chosen as Dorothy after open auditions in New York, and despite the newly scripted “impositions” on the starring role, she performed with elan and verve. Best of all, her songs had resonance, sparkle, and power -- as anyone fortunate to have seen her during her stint as a special guest of Wamego’s 2017 OZtoberFest in Kansas can attest. Ms. Williams’ humor, personal warmth, and the semi-impromptu vocal she offered on that occasion remain unforgettable.




[Above: Shanice Williams and Elijah Kelley are among the most recent and most skillful to “ease on down the road” – here in NBC’s 2015 THE WIZ LIVE!]


So, in terms of THE WIZ, three exceptional female talents have assayed the role of Dorothy Gale in its three major versions produced to date. Yet I’ll close this aspect of the August blog with a personal observation: For a goodly number of us who saw THE WIZ in its original 1975 Broadway incarnation, that assemblage remains the definitive exhibition of the show, thanks to the pure JOY – there’s that word again -- of its initial presentation. And anyone who then (or has since) heard Stephanie Mills’ renditions of “Be a Lion” and “Home” knows – with all due and righteous homage to Miss Ross and (certainly) Ms. Williams -- that they’d then already Been Sung. . . for all time.


[Above: Little Miss Broadway: Stephanie Mills as Dorothy Gale – THE WIZ at its best.]


As for this month’s “garland for Judy” . . . how about three lovely anecdotes that describe final encounters with three of her MGM costars of 1939?

In early spring 1968, Ray Bolger -- MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ Scarecrow – was performing his supper club act at the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room, one of New York City’s most prestigious venues. In the process, the versatile entertainer drew on five decades of professional achievement (and four decades of stardom); he alternately charmed or dazzled audiences with his soft-shoe, tap, and acrobatic dance routines, plus such numbers as “Once In Love With Amy.” (That Frank Loesser melody and lyric had become Bolger’s theme song, pretty much from the moment he debuted it when starring in the Broadway musical, WHERE’S CHARLEY? In 1948.)

The celebrity-packed nightclub throng for Bolger’s NYC opening twenty years later was graced with one particularly important attendee, and Ray delightedly introduced his Dorothy to the crowd. As had become show business custom, the mere mention of the name “Judy Garland” electrified the audience; there was an immediate ovation, which led to scores of voices clamoring for Judy to take the stage and sing “Over the Rainbow.” Not wanting to steal focus or draw attention away from the star of the evening, Judy demurred, but when the clamor continued, Bolger knew exactly how to placate the onlookers, get Judy “off the hook,” and reverence her all at the same time. He silenced the crowd and very simply and quietly offered, “Judy doesn’t have to sing ‘Over the Rainbow’. . ..  She’s already sung it into your hearts.” Another ovation -- fully comprehending and endorsing his statement -- followed that announcement.


[Above: Judy busses Ray after his triumphant 1968 opening night.)

Nine months later, Judy made her final U.S. television appearances, first as a special guest on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW and then as his guest host, subbing for the vacationing Merv. The second of these programs featured a quick “cameo” by another very special guest. As Judy made her initial entrance, she was greeted by Margaret Hamilton in the guise of . . . Margaret Hamilton! The actress was then in the midst of rehearsals for the forthcoming Broadway musical, COME SUMMER, in which she’d once again appear with Ray Bolger; as a result, she wasn’t available to stay on-camera for an interview. But Judy and Maggie nonetheless made the most of their few seconds on the air. The studio audience was, of course, beside itself at the coalescence of two of the most famous citizens of OZ, and Judy exalted Margaret by proclaiming, “You’re my favorite witch!” (Ms. Hamilton jovially riposted, “I’d better be!”) In gentle sincerity, Dorothy then added, “I think you’re everybody’s favorite lady.”

A few more lines of banter followed. Although not a professional talk show host, Judy quickly segued to the necessary “plug,” so that Maggie could briefly reference COME SUMMER and Bolger. Then, just before the elder actress had to slip away, Judy’s own enthusiasm put a touch of Dorothy Gale-glee in her voice, and she implored, “Laugh! Just do that wicked, MEAN laugh!” Margaret obliged – cascading along from high-cackle to guttural grunt – and brought down the house!


[Above: A quartet of pictures from Judy’s last TV appearance in North America, December 1968. Omnipresent is her brief encounter with Margaret Hamilton; a TV-screen “grab” during the telecast (in those pre-home video days); and a Judy-in-Concert moment as she offered her classic rendition of “Just in Time.” THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW musical director, Mort Lindsey, had been Judy’s conductor and arranger for more than four years in the early 1960s; this era included such show business landmarks as her two lauded TV specials, her acclaimed TV series, and her concert tours, including the immediately legendary JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL. Her orchestration of “Just in Time” was one of the first charts Mort did for Judy in 1961.]

Finally . . . . On July 31st, 1967, Judy opened her own, four-week Broadway engagement, JUDY GARLAND: AT HOME AT THE PALACE, site of two earlier record-breaking stints (1951-52, 1956-57) at the historical vaudeville venue. Her opening night audience of stars included “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr and his wife, Mildred. After the Garland triumph that evening, Bert paid Judy the ultimate compliment by harking back to the preeminent entertainer of an earlier age when he quite directly told New York POST columnist Earl Wilson that “Al Jolson was never a bigger hit that Judy was tonight.” (That comment was syndicated to world-wide newspapers the next day.) The Lahrs then proceeded to Judy’s opening night party at the swank El Morocco nightclub; at one point, he approached the Garland zebra-striped banquette to congratulate her and ask her to dance. She gladly agreed to join the Ozzy companion she had (for years) classified as “dear” and “darling,” and they gracefully spun to the center of the crowded dance floor.

But when the other couples realized just what a unique twosome was in their midst, they one-and-all (and as if rehearsed) slowly backed off the parquet. And there, in the spotlight, all alone in their pairing – and to the rapture of every observer – was Dorothy Gale of Kansas. . . dancing with the Cowardly Lion of Oz. 


[Above: As often as possible during her three Broadway engagements at the Palace, Judy opted not to leave the theater via the side street alley and stage door but to make her exit out onto 7th Avenue/Broadway /47th Street. She knew that much of each evening’s audience – and random passersby – would collect there, post-show, to say “good-night” to her. Whatever the weather or hour (sometimes it would be after 2 a.m. by the time she’d visited with friends and well-wishers in her dressing room), hundreds would congregate and wait under and near the Palace marquee for the chance to express their appreciation – and to bask in her genuine glow of gratitude for their support and presence.]


Three anecdotes, four stars, and an indication of what it’s like when first class entertainment legends reunite -- in style. 😊

Thanks for reading; see you next month!


Article by John Fricke


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