Theatre yesterday and today



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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 original logo for The Wiz (1975).

The idea for The Wiz started with 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 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.

Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and Nancy as Toto in The Wiz (1975).

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):

Ray Bolger and Geoffrey Holder in an impromptu dance of joy.

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.