Brings African American Talent to Broadway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although it opened to lukewarm reviews, The Wiz, an African American version of The Wizard of Oz, survived through audience word of mouth, ran for several years, and won seven Tony Awards.

Significance

In 1984, The Wiz was revived on Broadway, but the revival was far from successful. Stephanie Mills was the only original cast member in the revival. The reviewer for The New York Times found the new production depressing: “The Wiz was hardly a great musical in 1975, but it had something to say, and it said it with verve and integrity.”

In 1987, there was a minor flurry when a suburban Chicago dinner theater cast white actors in seven of the seventeen roles of The Wiz, including the role of Dorothy. Some of the black American actors who had toured in The Wiz had been available for the dinner-theater production. In its defense, the management cited its past attempts at nontraditional casting of black actors in traditionally white roles. Ernest Perry, the ethnic minorities committee chairman of the Midwest regional office of Equity, an actors’ union, pointed out that the chief complaint was that the show itself had been created specifically by black American artists for black American performers.

In 1978, Universal Studios released what was described as the most expensive film musical ever made up to that time, with a budget of about $30 million. Reviewers regarded the film version of The Wiz Wiz, The (film) the last major black American film of the 1970’s. The director was Sidney Lumet, Lumet, Sidney actress Lena Horne’s former-son-in-law. Lumet and the author of the film script, Joel Schumacher, Schumacher, Joel were white. Some reviewers thought that the generally recognized flatness of the film version was the result of the change from African American director and writer to white artists.

Except for Ted Ross and Mabel King, who were in the original Broadway production, major actors replaced the less-well-known Broadway actors in the film. Nipsey Russell, Russell, Nipsey known for his appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, played the Tin Man to excellent reviews. Michael Jackson, Jackson, Michael then nineteen years old, played the Scarecrow, and Richard Pryor Pryor, Richard played the Wiz. Diana Ross, Ross, Diana thirty-four years old when the film was made, played twenty-four-year-old Dorothy.

The director and scriptwriter received negative criticism for changing the locales and weakening the themes. Instead of traveling from Kansas to an urbanized Emerald City, Dorothy starts uptown in Harlem, travels downtown into white New York, and finds the Wiz in the World Trade Center. Lumet also was criticized for distancing the audience from the actors and scenes with too many long shots and not enough close-ups. Joel Schumacher, who adapted William F. Brown’s book, was criticized for failing to understand the nuances of black American idiom and “street humor” in the original.

Reviewers thought that Richard Pryor’s talent was wasted in a virtually unwritten role, that Diana Ross was too old to play Dorothy, and that Michael Jackson, although sweet and charming, was also wasted. Nipsey Russell received the best reviews. Reviewer Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called his two numbers “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” the best in the film.

Lena Horne, Horne, Lena as Glinda the Good Witch, was posed against a night sky at the end of the film to sing “Believe in Yourself.” Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll commented that Horne sang the song in The Wiz with “fiercely exultant dignity.” Horne repeated this number in her brilliant one-woman show at the Niederlander Theater in New York City a few years later, winning a Tony Award for her performance. Her show was autobiographical and included a healthily satirical section on her days at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion-picture studios. Her singing of “Believe in Yourself” moved theater audiences to tears and to shouts of approval.

Perhaps the success of the Broadway production of The Wiz helped pave the way for such all-black American musicals as Eubie! (1978), Bubbling Brown Sugar (1975), and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978). Perhaps the success in the early 1990’s of Jelly’s Last Jam, a musical fable about the life of musician Jelly Roll Morton, might remind audiences that The Wiz, like the Baum book on which it was based, was a fable, too, about finding courage and self-reliance without forgetting roots. Whatever its connections, The Wiz stands in theater history as a shining illustration of ethnically oriented entertainment that succeeded in the mainstream. Theater;musicals Musical theater African Americans;theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Donald. “The Wiz.” In Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988. A fairly detailed account of the 1978 film version of the Broadway musical, including capsule reviews. Agrees with reviewers that the white director and scriptwriter altered the “blackness” of the original musical. Praises Nipsey Russell and Lena Horne.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, Tom. “About New York.” The New York Times, April 21, 1975, p. 42. An interview with Dee Dee Bridgewater that ran the morning after she won a Tony as best supporting actress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, Carlyle C. “’The Whiz’ Behind The Wiz.” Ebony, October, 1975, 114-122. A biographical profile and interview with Geoffrey Holder after he received two Tony Awards, as director and costumer of The Wiz. Discusses his other artistic talents as actor, dancer, and painter as well as his boyhood in Trinidad.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gill, Brendan. “Broadway.” The New Yorker, January 13, 1975, 64-65. Offers a mostly favorable review of The Wiz, although it expresses many of the reservations expressed by other reviewers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lester, Eleanor. “Geoffrey Holder—The Whiz Who Rescued The Wiz.” The New York Times, May 25, 1975, p. II-1. Article on Holder focuses on events leading up to his directing The Wiz.

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