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The WIZ
 
 

The Production

Some words about The Wiz


 
 Heather Meeker By Heather Meeker
Executive Director, The Musical Theater Project

The Wiz was—and unfortunately still is—something rare in the history of Broadway: a musical produced, created and performed by African-Americans, asserting African-American heritage though language, dance and music.

“Broadway, in my opinion, is a microcosm of America. Those challenges that we have in our country, I think we still have those challenges on the Broadway stage.”
– Kenny Leon, Tony Award-winning director of NBC’s
The Wiz Live! in 2015

While the 1960s marked the end of the "Golden Age" of American musicals, the gains of the Civil Rights movement paved the way for increased racial representation in musicals on Broadway. As Judith Cummings reported in The New York Times that year: "An apparent upsurge of black artistic participation in the commercial theater has brought a new spirit and a new audience to Broadway, and the essence of both is black."

 
Producer Ken Harper’s idea was to tell a classic (and undeniably white) American story with an all-black cast in a SPECTACULAR fashion. The critically acclaimed Broadway musicals Purlie (1970) and Raisin (a 1973 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) showed that there was room for African-American stories on The Great White Way. These musicals reflected the social unrest and economic realities of the 1970s, but Harper aimed for something different. He wanted a feel-good experience with mass appeal that would—like the best of the Golden Age musicals—encourage a new audience to open their hearts, their minds and their pocketbooks for years.

Harper’s idea for the “sound” of the show was equally bold: align the score and the songs with popular black music, namely Motown. In pitching the show, he wrote a long list of potential star performers, as well as popular singers who would be especially good at covering the songs on their own records (for “He’s the Wiz” he suggested the Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler and the Staple Singers; for “Slide Some Oil to Me,” no less than Godfather of Soul James Brown).

However, the Yellow Brick Road was not easy for The Wiz. There were problems from the start with securing financing (finally provided by 20th Century-Fox), with securing performers (they ended up without stars and used new talent), with the creative team (the director was replaced mid-rehearsal), and even with the final product (critics were not impressed). Ticket sales the first week at the Majestic Theater were dismal. Even lyricist Yip Harburg—who wrote the lyrics and served as script editor for the 1939 film musical the Wizard of Oz, and was a champion for the disenfranchised in America—wrote “From FDR to Nixon/From The Wizard to The Wiz/It doesn’t quite seem possible/But oh my country, ’tis.”

Then, as you’ll read on “Spreading the Word About The Wiz”, the tide turned. In yet another groundbreaking move, the producers threw out the playbook on how to market a Broadway musical and created a word-of-mouth campaign that made The Wiz the hottest ticket on Broadway, and a cultural touchstone for generations.

Why does The Wiz still resonate? Historians and critics have only recently begun to fully explore the musical’s significance … and why it remains socially relevant after 40 years. Tommy J. Curry, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M and expert in Critical Race Theory, suggests:
While it’s undeniable that there have been certain changes in American society since the Civil Rights movement … it is likewise just as evident in terms of actual progress—the political and economic advancement of blacks—that there has been little. Whereas some readers may whine at this reality, The Wiz challenges us all to accept that only the promise of a brighter tomorrow is the true standard of racial progress.

He also suggests that the iconic song “Brand New Day” is “not just an acknowledgment of freedom, but announces the transformative power that blacks have in their power to act contrary to their circumstances.”

In a sense, then, The Wiz offers a mirror to the ongoing struggle for equality on the Broadway stage and in the Broadway audience. 1970s musicals such as Bubbling Brown Sugar and the revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ demonstrated that a black audience wanted their stories told. Over the last 30 years, the emergence of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays and musicals like Dreamgirls, The Color Purple, Memphis and now Hamilton continue to push Broadway to reflect the true diversity of American experience.

 
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