A Not So Easy Road
Written By: Donald Smith

I am going to take you on a magical journey. I will take you to a place where the impossible can happen and dreams do come true. This is a story of history. It is a story of soul, perseverance, showmanship, and believing in yourself and in your dreams. Let’s follow the Yellow Brick Road and take our dreams and wishes to The Wiz. The time is 1975 when The Wiz, an all Black musical version of L. Frank Baum’s classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” premiered on Broadway and made theater history overnight. This is a time where African American entertainment was the most popular form in our country.

The show all began with a dream. In 1972, an ex-disc jockey named Ken Harper came up with an idea. He wanted to take “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which was written at the turn of the century and turn it into a Top-Forties-style Black musical comedy. Harper was thirty-two years old and had just given up his job as Program Affairs Director of PIX radio to talk up The Wiz full-time. After three long years he met a friend on the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century Fox and they called him out to California to present his idea.

Fox agreed to put up $650,000 in exchange for first option on film rights, publishing rights and album rights for the musical. Fox became the sole limited partner and Ken Harper was on his way as a producer. Geoffrey Holder, a costume designer, took control as director for the Philadelphia and Detroit tryouts, and he gave the show a solid revision.

Harper found a number of unknown performers for principle roles including a 16 year-old Stephanie Mills (Dorothy) and rising Broadway performers such as Hinton Battle (Scarecrow), Tiger Haynes (Tin Man), Ted Ross (Cowardly Lion), and Andre DeShields (The Wizard). Harper had the money and incredible talent but seven weeks before opening in New York, The Wiz had problems. A technical run through in Baltimore was so terrible that the managing company told Harper that he’d be wise to pack it in. Harper felt that three years of his life had been wasted but he didn’t give up his dream. The show went on that night and received a standing ovation and four curtain calls. Despite its problems, the show was beginning to build out of town audiences except for in New York.

The Wiz previewed in New York on December 24, 1974 at the Majestic Theater and followed with fifteen previews afterwards. However, with a weekly production cost of $67,000, the show was only grossing $46,000 in previews. There were no advance sales, the front money was gone, and things looked so bad that a closing notice was posted backstage on opening night, January 5, 1975. Harper had a very clear idea of the kind of audience he believed he could attract. It was not the usual Broadway audience at all, but moviegoers, young people, Black people, and others who had never been to the theatre in their lives. He was sure the show would be successful if he could reach these people, but he needed more money to do it. However, no one was willing to back a failing show.

A local press agent, Sandy Manley, persuaded The Wiz management to give her unlimited numbers of press tickets to use at her own discretion. In an effort to help the show, she invited deejays, talent coordinators from radio and TV programs, newspaper reporters, and freelance feature writers. Many liked it and one producer wanted to have the four principles on her radio show the next morning. The next day the reviews for The Wiz were mixed. One reporter, Clive Barnes of The New York Times bashed the show so horribly that by noon, only four people were in line at the box office. Surprisingly, Fox had not been discouraged by the bad reviews and did not want to close the show. They said that if The Wiz showed an increase in sales on the weekends, they would back it financially for one more month.

After hearing this, Manley called her station and had her staff follow through on all of the stories and radio and TV bookings that had been lined up for The Wiz. She then called the station’s advertising managers and made deals, trading off a thousand dollars worth of tickets in exchange for a thousand dollars worth of free air time. This equaled out to fourteen, thirty-second spots. Tickets were selling at the half-price ticket booth on Times Square. The word began to spread and many members of the Black community took action to support it. Then a miracle literally happened from within the church. Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the show, used to sing with the Cornerstone Baptist church choir. This was a network in itself. When the horrible reviews came out, Mills' mother got on the phone and gained support from the entire congregation. One week after its shaky opening, The Wiz sold out Saturday’s matinee and that was all it took for Fox to put out another $120,000 for an advertising campaign.

A new method of theatrical advertising had emerged and brought life into struggling shows on Broadway. Harper designed the concept for a TV commercial, a telescoped version of the Yellow Brick Road scene, with punched up orchestration of the song, “Ease on Down the Road.” One week after the commercial hit television households, The Wiz began grossing over $100,000 a week and two weeks later all performances were selling out. The Wiz ran at the Majestic Theater until May 25, 1977 when it opened at the Broadway Theater and ran until January 28, 1979. The show ran for a total of 1, 672 performances, and was the longest running Black musical on Broadway to date.

The Wiz, noted as the super soul musical version of “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” grew to be very successful. At the 1975 Tony Awards, The Wiz was honored with seven nominations and was awarded all of them including “Best Musical”, and “Best Musical Score”. Atlantic Records was able to produce the cast recording after Fox let their options fall. “Ease on Down the Road,” became so popular that it became a hit single on the music charts. The show was also the only Black musical of the 1970’s to be filmed by a major studio.

On May 24, 1984, Stephanie Mills reprised her original role as Dorothy in a revival of The Wiz that opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in New York. The show previewed on May 17, 1984 and with seven previews enjoyed a short but successful run of thirteen performances until June 3, 1984. Although Mills was the only original cast member on stage, many of the original production team came back including director Geoffrey Holder and choreographer George Faison.

A new, hip, modernized Broadway revival of the stage show ran for three weeks at New York’s City Center this summer and closed on July 5, 2009. The choreography and costuming incorporated the soulful, glamorous seventies with the elegance of Broadway and hip-hop culture. It starred many recognizable faces including R&B singer Ashanti as Dorothy, Tichina Arnold (Martin, Everybody Hates Chris) as Evillene, Orlando Jones (MadTV, Drumline) as The Wiz, Dawnn Lewis (A Different World, Hangin With Mr. Cooper) as Addaperle, and award-winning Broadway legend LaChanze (The Color Purple, Once On This Island) as Aunt Em and Glenda The Good. According to reports, the show was a financial flop. However, tickets to every show were sold out well into the closing night.

The reports blamed these so-called failures on the casting of Ashanti as Dorothy, stating that her limited acting abilities and lukewarm vocals were not good enough for the show. Now I must admit I had my concerns over this casting decision as well, but I had to remind myself that Ashanti was no Stephanie Mills and I shouldn’t expect her to be. I saw the show a couple of weeks ago and the girl held her own. Not only was she a pleasure to watch onstage, she held every note to every song she performed and even belted and filled the theater with soulful loudness. We were all very impressed and at the end of the performance she received a standing ovation. Once again, amid controversy, this show engaged a new generation of audiences and pleased its old fans honorably…proving to us that this show and its history are indeed timeless.

Some can argue that The Wiz ignored contemporary Black life, but it still drew on African American culture in its music, choreography, design, and libretto. This is one of the many lessons that can be learned from and in The Wiz. Instead of focusing on the troubles of Black life in America, a new musical might look towards positive aspects of Black culture and history for inspiration and style. Black musical theater could once again suffer hard on Broadway, but it may be argued that shows such as The Wiz and others during and after its run may have changed the face of American musical theatre as a whole.

Photos Courtesy: weblogs.amny.com, hamptonblu.blogspot.com, and thefreshmusicpage.com