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Not In Kansas Anymore: How 'The Wiz' Made An Urban Classic

Culture | January 5, 2021

Poster art for the movie version of 'The Wiz.' Source: impawards.com

Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and The Lion embarked upon a soulful twist on their adventure to the magical land of Oz in the 1975 musical The Wiz. The urban reworking of the 1900 book was set in New York City instead of Kansas, featured music inspired by the popular Motown sound and employed an all-black cast, which was almost unheard of at the time. The Wiz was a groundbreaking shift for black culture especially in the entertainment industry as it was the first Broadway show, and one of the first movies, to tell a joyful black story (with lots of joyful black music) that didn't trade in stereotypes.

The Wiz Was Inspired By The Black Music That Was Ever-Present On The Pop Charts

Former New York DJ and producer Ken Harper had an idea to convert L. Frank Baum’s famous novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz into an African-American adaptation. Harper convinced 20th Century Fox to finance this project with the selling point that black music, especially Motown, was dominating the charts in the early and mid-’70s with artists including Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and The Jackson Five. His plan was underway and an incredibly talented cast of newbies was assembled that included Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Stu Gilliam as Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as Tin Man, and Ted Ross as The Lion.  

The Wiz Got Off To A Very Shaky Start

The first Wiz show debuted at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore on October 21, 1974 and was almost canceled on the spot after some technical complications -- but the show went on as planned and received a standing ovation. The Wiz spent seven weeks on the road before its planned Broadway debut, and audiences liked what they saw.

Harper knew that theater critics would be the problem. With its soul-music soundtrack, The Wiz was a musical likely to appeal to people who didn't go to musicals. It was a show for families and for people who listened to current pop music on the radio, not decades-old cast recordings of Rodgers and Hammerstein productions. Broadway is a family-friendly place today, with so many musicals based on pop music or Disney properties, but such was not the case in the mid-'70s.

This Unconventional Musical Would Need Unconventional Publicity

Andre De Shields and Stephanie Mills in 'The Wiz.' Source: Playbill

After weeks of touring and previews, The Wiz opened on Broadway on January 5, 1975. To counter the expected bad reviews, Harper and publicist Sandy Manley made some savvy publicity moves to establish alternate ways of sparking public interest. Manley had invited people from the entertainment world who weren't esteemed professional critics -- TV producers, actors, radio DJs and freelance writers -- to the previews, and those people enjoyed the show. Tickets were given away on popular radio stations, and cast members were interviewed on AM New York.

New York's Black Community Got Behind The Wiz

In addition to these marketing techniques (which are now standard for a Broadway show) The Wiz benefited from a grassroots campaign to make the musical a success -- or at least give it the chance to succeed. The New York Amsterdam News, the oldest black-owned paper in the country, published an editorial urging its black readership to see the show. White theater critics, the paper said, might not get the cultural references, and might generally not be able to appreciate a story “produced by Blacks, sung by Blacks, and seen predominantly by Blacks on opening night.”

Manley recalled to Playbill that the campaign to put butts in seats even extended to personal relationships within New York's black community. "Stephanie Mills used to sing with the Cornerstone Baptist Church choir," she said, "and I want to tell you, that's a network. When the reviews came out, Stephanie's mother got on the telephone and started calling people."

The Innovative Marketing Techniques Paid Off

As feared, the reviews were bad -- the kind of bad that can kill a show. But The Wiz survived the initial punch in the gut from the New York Times' theater critic, and ticket sales began to climb. This was a good thing, as Harper would need more cash to continue to publicize the show. Twentieth Century Fox didn't care about the reviews. The company looked at the ticket sales of The Wiz and saw a possible Broadway equivalent of The Poseidon Adventure -- the 1972 Fox film that was hated by critics but became a box office goldmine nonetheless.

A week after the near-disastrous opening night, The Wiz sold out its Sunday matinee and Fox gave the show more funding. Harper cut an appealing television commercial of the Yellow Brick Road scene featuring the radio-ready song "Ease On Down The Road." (According to Playbill, The Wiz was just the second Broadway musical to employ television advertising; the first had been Pippin in 1972.)

It had taken a community effort to combat the bad reviews and build momentum, but it had worked. The Wiz became a bona fide hit, and ended up winning seven Tony awards and the 1975 award for Best Musical.

The Beloved Musical Became A Less Successful Film

The Wiz became so beloved that it was made into a Motown-produced feature film in 1978. Original cast member Stephanie Mills was originally set to continue her part as Dorothy on the big-screen, but superstar Diana Ross convinced Universal Pictures to support the film only if she could be casted. This turned into an unfavorable decision as Ross, at 33, seemed a little too old to play teenage Dorothy, and audiences were actually disappointed that Mills wouldn't be playing the part she'd made famous on stage. The film was hated by reviewers, but eventually turned into a cult classic and remains a snapshot of black entertainment on the rise in the '70s. The film featured a mix of unknown actors and famed musicians, including Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, and a 19-year-old Michael Jackson.

The Wiz Was Instrumental In Mainstreaming Black Entertainment

The Wiz proved that so-called black entertainment had a mass appeal that crossed racial lines, a secret that the music industry already knew. In a basic way, the struggle to get The Wiz in front of a mainstream audience was like Don Cornelius' campaign to put black music onto national TV with Soul Train

It told a white story (there were no black actors in the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz) with a black perspective; and instead of playing stereotypical slaves or criminals they had in much of Hollywood history, the black actors played parts that could have been played by white actors. The Wiz captured experiences of the black community through how they genuinely spoke and acted. The musical represents racial liberation in a fantasy-driven approach using metaphors that represented slavery, emancipation, and the poor working-class stuck in poverty because of stereotypes. Overall, The Wiz celebrates black culture by honoring African-American music and dance with its focus on gospel, blues, soul, and R&B. The musical also paved a pathway for future black icons in music, theater, and film and even today is considered a rite of passage for the black community. There is still great progression needed for diversity in modern day entertainment, but The Wiz was a huge step for black representation and celebration.

Tags: Broadway | Diana Ross | Michael Jackson | Musicals | Nipsey Russell | Richard Pryor | Stephanie Mills | The Wiz

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.