When the late Ken Harper first began pitching his idea for a show featuring an all black cast that would repeat and revise the popular plot of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, augmenting it with a Hitsville USA-inspired score, he had television in his sights. Securing funding to produce the project for that particular medium proved an impossible task for Harper, who then shifted his attention to bringing a “black cool”-suffused vision of Oz to the Great White Way.
Harper enlisted Julliard-trained musician and composer Charlie Smalls and playwright William F. Brown to create the score and script for his “super soul musical” and, with a bit of luck, chutzpah, and shrewd negotiating, eventually obtained financial backing from Twentieth Century Fox. He later tapped Gilbert Moses III, co-founder of the influential Free Southern Theatre and a 1971 Tony nominee for his direction of Melvin Van Peebles’ Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, to lead a creative team that included several performing arts luminaries, including choreographer George Faison, costume designer Geoffrey Holder, and lighting designer Tharon Musser.
With most of the important pieces and players in place, planning and casting commenced for a pre-Broadway tryout that would see the musical, pithily titled The Wiz, premiere at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, later traveling to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre before officially opening at New York’s Majestic Theatre in January 1975. As is often the case with new musicals, the journey to Broadway would be littered with challenges and obstacles.
Indeed, The Wiz wasn’t nearly the award-winning theatrical juggernaut whose finale song “Home” eventually helped introduce the world to Whitney Houston’s incomparable voice, remaining a favorite among amateur night contestants at the Apollo. Lukewarm responses from audiences were coupled with disagreements among the creative team about vision and staging, as described in a December 1974 article in the Baltimore Afro-American, where Holder was especially peeved about the misuse of his extravagant costumes. This led to the dismissal of most of the original cast, including Oscar-winner Butterfly McQueen, not to mention the replacement of Moses with Holder as director during the out-of-town run. While those changes in personnel brought about much-needed improvements for the show, ticket sales still remained dismal. On opening night in New York, Harper posted a closing notice backstage, however continued to maintain that The Wiz could be a big hit, understanding that he needed to figure out a way to convince more of the spectators for whom the show had been specifically developed for—young, black and pop savvy individuals—that it was worth seeing.
Taking a page from the marketing playbook that kept the Chitlin Circuit thriving in the early decades of the twentieth century and helped make Tyler Perry a household name in the twenty-first century, Harper and his team decided to redouble their efforts at getting black media outlets to hype the show. They also set up a flurry of radio, television, and newspaper interviews for the cast and, with additional funds from Fox, shot a 30-second commercial that captured Dorothy and her friends easing on down the road in technicolor. These changes in tactics had an immediate impact at the box office and just a few short weeks after its demise seemed imminent, The Wiz became one of the hardest tickets to get in New York City.
The musical would ultimately run for more than sixteen hundred performances on Broadway, picking up seven Tony Awards and spawning a hit cast album, national tour, and a Motown Productions and Universal Pictures-produced 1978 feature film along the way. In addition to its bold theatricality and tuneful score, audiences connected with the show’s emphases on the transformative power of community, its simultaneous calls for collective rejoicing for a brand new day, and its celebration of black life and love.
The Wiz’s tale of an adolescent black girl and her marginalized friends rising up to provoke “a different way of living now” and expose power asymmetries has taken on new resonance in a moment where the persistence of racial terror and anti-black violence has escalated; it has become, once again, controversial but imperative to declare that black lives matter. So too has the musical’s unapologetic calls for freedom from fear, illusion, self-doubt, oppression, anesthetization, and annihilation. NBC’s decision to present a revamped production of the musical live on network television, the medium for which Harper had originally envisioned it, feels especially timely. Beyond providing an opportunity to witness the likes of Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, newcomer Shanice Williams, and the original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, The Wiz Live! offers fresh takes on some of the most iconic roles in the musical theater canon. The primetime broadcast of The Wiz Live! promises to open up important space to consider how we might imagine our world differently. Powerfully, it also promises to remind us that remaking our world is, in fact, a possibility.
Image Credit: “The Wiz, undated” by Kenn Duncan. Used with permission via New York Public Library Digital Collections.