January 5, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Ah, The Wiz. A very significant show in the annals of Broadway history. Sadly, I never saw it. However, due to its unending popularity, I have encountered countless amateur productions over the years. Premiering forty-five years ago tonight on Broadway (to decidedly mixed reviews), The Wiz had a wild ride to seven Tony Awards and a run of more than 1,600 performances. It makes for a fantastic story.
It started as an idea of Ken Harper, who after serving in the Korean War, found employment as a DJ at radio station WPIX in New York City. He stayed there a decade, where he eventually became its Music and Public Affairs Director. As such, Harper knew a great deal about trends in music, and he felt that the time was ripe (1971) for a hip, all-black musical of The Wizard of Oz. First conceiving it as a television special, he pitched it to anyone with whom he could get a meeting, highlighting his hoped-for dream cast: Melba Moore as Dorothy, Flip Wilson as the Scarecrow, Godfrey Cambridge as the Lion and Bill Cosby as the Tin Man. But without owning the rights to its famous score, as well as other elements of the famed 1939 film, Harper was met by a consistent chorus of no’s. Deciding to take things into his own hands, he went about raising the money independently to turn it into a Broadway musical. After being rebuffed practically everywhere, he was finally able to get 20th Century-Fox film studios interested. In exchange for their backing, they got a highly favorable deal: first option on a film version, publishing rights and first option on the soundtrack album. They put up $600,000 of the show’s $650,000 budget.
Harper hired William F. Brown to write the book, a playwright and television writer with only one credit for writing a musical: a 1968 Off-Broadway revue titled How To Steal an Election. Charlie Smalls was chosen to write the score and, like Brown, was a novice to composing a musical. A New York native, Smalls had attended the High School for the Performing Arts and Julliard, and had some success writing pop songs. As it would turn out, Smalls would need more than a little help with his score to The Wiz (but more on that later). To this less-than-experienced group was added a director, Gilbert Moses, who himself only had one Broadway credit — Melvyn Van Peebles’s Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death — but it had gotten Moses a Tony nomination for Best Director of a Musical. In addition, Moses was African-American, and would hopefully aid in providing some much-desired authenticity within this new setting of such an old story as Dorothy and her visit to Oz.
It was an open secret that when The Wiz premiered on October 21, 1974 in Baltimore, the show was a shambles. In reality, its first performance was its technical rehearsal, as time ran out for a proper run-through before letting in paying customers. By the show’s next stop in Detroit, Moses was fired and replaced with the show’s costume designer.
Now before that sounds like the most idiotic idea ever, the costumer in question was Geoffrey Holder, a true renaissance man of the theatre. His eclectic background included his work as an actor, director, choreographer, visual artist, principal ballet dancer at the Met and yes, costumer. In quick order, Holder took charge. He reinstated an idea of his that had been excised by Moses, which was to have the cyclone played by a dancer in a seemingly-never ending piece of black gauze, energetically taking the whole of the stage to portray the storm; he recast the role of the Scarecrow by replacing TV comedian Stu Gilliam with Hinton Battle (an eighteen-year-old out of the chorus who would become a future three-time Tony Award winner); he eliminated the role of Queen of the Mice, played by Butterfly McQueen, and he rethought his original idea of having Dorothy in blue jeans and instead, put her in a puffy white dress. It all paid off: for his work on The Wiz, Holder would win two Tonys (one for directing, the other for costumes).
Another of the show’s problems pre-Broadway were with Charlie Smalls’s score. A number of songs weren’t working and Harper reached out to others for help. As a result, Luther Vandross is acknowledged today as the actual composer of “Everybody Rejoice,” and composer Larry Kerchner came to the rescue to write no less than three songs, including “Home,” considered the show’s outstanding number.
By Philadelphia, The Wiz’s third and final stop, the reviews had gotten better. But in order to succeed on Broadway, only great reviews would do, as there was little to no advance sale. It was so dire a situation that a closing notice was posted the day of its opening night (how did the actors feel looking at THAT when they signed in for half-hour?). It looked like The Wiz was headed for the garbage heap … until Harper had a very smart idea. He went to 20th- Century Fox and told them if they wanted to protect their investment, they should pony up some cash for a TV commercial, which had recently provided a miracle turn-around for Pippin, taking it from good to great business by virtue of one ad (still a brand new concept for the theatre). The movie studio agreed. And by producing that one-minute commercial featuring “Ease on Down the Road,” The Wiz doubled its box office take in the first week alone, going from a show no one was interested in to the most sought-after ticket on Broadway. More smart producing emanated from Harper with an outreach to black communities and school groups that brought in thousands of young people, many seeing a Broadway musical for the first time. With a cast of minorities who looked like these inner city kids (Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy, was fifteen at the time), the show Harper envisioned all along came to fruition — a bona fide hit.
With the 1974–75 Broadway season being an especially poor one for musicals, only two of the eight that had opened and qualified for the Tonys— The Wiz and Shenandoah — were still running. The other six had all closed quickly pretty damn quick. Take a look:
Doctor Jazz (5)
The Lieutenant (9)
Man on the Moon (10)
Rocky Horror Show (45)
Mack & Mabel (66)
Goodtime Charley (104)
Side note: As obscure as something like Doctor Jazz is, there are many who are familiar with it due to its great poster. But if you’re wondering what the hell Man on the Moon is, you’re not alone. I had to look it up myself. Turns out it’s the one and only Broadway show ever produced by Andy Warhol.
At the 1975 Tony Awards, it was no surprise when the only hit new musicals of the season, Shenandoah and The Wiz, won in every category, with the exception of Best Actress in a Musical (which neither show was in the running for). That award went to Angela Lansbury for the first Broadway revival of Gypsy. That The Wiz took home so many was more about timing than anything else. Had it come to Broadway a few months later, it would have been up against the juggernaut the following season that was A Chorus Line.
Which probably would not have resulted in an ease on down the road.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.