The Wiz is a 1975 Broadway musical; an urbanized adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum exclusively featuring African American actors. The play features music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, and a book by William F. Brown. The Wiz was adapted into a motion picture in 1978 by Motown Productions for Universal Pictures, starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, and Lena Horne.
The Broadway musical opened in January 1975 with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Hinton Battle as Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as Tin Man, Ted Ross as Lion, Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda the Good Witch, André DeShields as the Wiz and Mabel King as Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West. The production was directed by Geoffrey Holder. The Wiz opened at the Majestic Theatre and later moved to the Broadway Theatre. It ran for four years and over 1600 performances, and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The most popular song from the production was "Ease on Down the Road", sung by the characters as they dance down the Yellow Brick Road.
Along with other musicals like Purlie (1971) and Raisin (1974), The Wiz was a breakthrough for Broadway, a large-scale big-budget musical featuring an all black cast. It laid the foundation for later African-American hits like Bubbling Brown Sugar, Dreamgirls and Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies.
It never performed on London's West End, but a handful of amateur and semi-professional productions have appeared in Britain with black and non-black casts.
The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Joel Schumacher and filmed at Astoria Studios New York City. It was produced by Motown Productions and released to theaters by Universal Pictures. The decaying New York State pavilion from the 1964 New York World's Fair, in its final appearance in a film, is used as the set for Munchkinland, as well as the World Trade Center (which serves as the Emerald City). In addition to the modern setting, the script is a total revamp, completely abandoning the dialogue and concepts of Brown's play. Mabel King and Ted Ross from the Broadway production reprised their roles for the film; the rest of the cast included Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (Scarecrow), Nipsey Russell (Tin Man), Richard Pryor (The Wiz), Lumet's mother-in-law, Lena Horne, as Glinda the Good Witch, and Thelma Carpenter as Miss One (the film's counterpart to the stage version's "Addaperle, the Feel Good Girl").
Quincy Jones served as the musical supervisor and music producer for the film, marking his first collaboration with Michael Jackson. Jones would produce three hit albums for Jackson: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad.
Despite the talent involved, critics panned the production. Many critics directed their venom at thirty-four year-old Diana Ross, who they believed was too old to play Dorothy. Motown's original choice to play Dorothy was twenty year-old Stephanie Mills, a veteran of the stage play. Mills was replaced after Ross went to Universal and had them cast her as Dorothy (going around Motown CEO Berry Gordy, who had refused to cast Ross). Most agreed that what had worked so successfully on stage simply didn't translate well to the screen. The Wiz was later nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Music Score, although it did not win any of those awards.
The Wiz proved to be a financial failure, losing ten million dollars upon its original theatrical release, and essentially marked the end of Hollywood's "blaxploitation" era. The pop single version of "Ease on Down the Road", sung by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, failed to become a hit.
Today, the film is seen as a cult classic, particularly among African-American audiences. It has been available on home video since the 1980s, and is periodically broadcast on television.
Dueling Revivals: America vs. Holland
The Wiz was revived on Broadway in 1984 with Stephanie Mills reprising her role as Dorothy. The production, which played at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, was a flop, lasting only 13 performances.
Dodger Productions aquired the worldwide rights to revive the Wiz in 2004. It is rumored that when Dodger Productions and Joop Van den Ende's Stage Entertainment split in 2005, the worldwide rights to the revival were split between the two companies, with the Dodgers retaining the US rights, while Stage Entertainment kept the European rights.
The new American production of The Wiz is set to start performances in September 2006 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. The musical will be directed by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff who, along with Harold Wheeler (the original 1975 orchestrator), will revise the show for contemporary audiences. It is rumored to be Broadway-bound. It will feature sets by Robert Brill. It was also recently announced that the production will star David Alan Grier.
Simultaneously, Joop Van den Ende's Stage Entertainment is mounting a full-scale, Broadway-caliber production at the Beatrix Theater in Utrecht, Holland. Directed by Glen Castle, the production will feature choreography by Anthony Von Las of Mamma Mia fame, sets by Tony Award winner David Gallo and costumes by Miguel Humidor. It stars a number of Dutch theater and music stars.
Stage Entertainment also aquired ownership of Dodger Stages, a multi-theater Off-Broadway venue in New York City (now dubbed New World Stages) in the break-up.
Phylicia Ayers Allen, best known as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, got her professional acting debut in the play. Originally cast as a Munchkin, she was the first understudy to play Glinda the Good. When the originally Glinda left the play however, Allen was passed over for Glinda in favor of the second understudy. Allen subsequently left the play.