January 21, 2021: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Ah, The Wiz. A very significant show in the annals of theatre history. Premiering forty-six years ago tonight on Broadway (to decidedly mixed reviews), it had a wild ride to seven Tony Awards and a run of more than 1,600 performances. It makes for a fantastic story.
The idea for The Wiz started with Ken Harper. After a stint in the Army stationed in Korea and working as a DJ for Armed Forces radio, he found similar employment at radio station WPIX in New York City after his service. 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 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 had only 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). Here he is, joyously accepting his directing trophy from Ray Bolger, the original Scarecrow from the 1939 Wizard of Oz (as if I had to state that):
Holder's one sentence acceptance speech was a reference to his popularity as the pitchman for Seven-Up, which was a phenomenally successful campaign that ran for years. He would usually end the commercial referencing the soda's refreshing taste by saying "Try making something like THAT out of a cola nut!"
But back to The Wiz and its host of problems pre-Broadway. The score by Charlie Smalls had a number of songs that 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 (the others were “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard" and “No Bad News").
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 appeared that 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 single commercial (still a brand new concept for the theatre). Such advertising would eventually aid other musicals that season like Shenandoah with John Cullum, filmed outside in an enormous field (Connecticut substituting for Virginia) and The Magic Show, showcasing Doug Henning doing a trick or two. Happily, with the film studio's backing, The Wiz commercial was responsible for doubling its box office take in the first week alone, which led to it going from a show no one was interested in, to the most sought-after ticket on Broadway.
Here's the spot. Though not the very first commercial, it's the best that YouTube currently offers. I know it's not the original because the announcer says to "ease on down to the Broadway Theatre," and not the Majestic, where it originally opened:
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.
It also helped the box office that in the spring it won seven Tony Awards. One of the reasons for that was the 1974–75 Broadway season was an especially poor one for musicals, with only six of the eight eligible shows still running at the time of the awards ceremony. Take a look at how poorly the other six fared:
Doctor Jazz (5), The Lieutenant (9), Man on the Moon (10), Rocky Horror Show (45), Mack & Mabel (66) and Goodtime Charley (104).
So it came as no surprise when the only hit new musicals of the season, Shenandoah and The Wiz, won in every Tony 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. And had The Wiz 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. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.