Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Easing On Down the Road with The Wiz

In early 1975, while blaxploitation flicks like Shaft and Superfly were still scoring on multiplex screens, Broadway welcomed a musical version of the classic Wizard of Oz that introduced black vernacular, pop music, and an entirely black cast. The show, which was called The Wiz, played to packed houses until 1979. At the annual Tony Awards festivities, it collected seven statuettes, including Best Musical Score and Best Musical. For the late Geoffrey Holder, husband of my first dance teacher, Carmen de Lavallade, it was definitely a career highpoint. The multitalented Holder won a Tony for directing the show, and a second for designing its flamboyant costumes. When his name was called, he literally danced up to the stage in a wonderful display of showmanship.

A hit of this magnitude of course captured the imagination of Hollywood. Transferring a fantasy from stage to screen is always a challenge, but the filmmakers behind The Wiz made some choices that definitely added to their difficulties. The Dorothy on stage in The Wiz, like that in the classic Judy Garland film adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel in 1939, is played as an innocent young girl. But the Hollywood team doubtless felt it needed a star performer, which is why it gave the role to Diana Ross, age thirty-four. A very game Ross could indeed look super-skinny and helpless, but she couldn’t convince as an adolescent. That’s why her part was transformed into that of a rather agoraphobic spinster kindergarten teacher who works hard on behalf of her extensive Harlem family but is cut off by her own fears from enjoying the world outside her door. The team behind Ross and company today seems unlikely. The screenwriter was Joel Schumacher, not yet a director of tough dramas. The director was the great Sidney Lumet, best known for films (like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon) that captured a sense of urban squalor.

Perhaps because of Lumet’s experience on the streets of New York City, this cinematic version of The Wiz dropped the traditional Kansas setting of the opening scene in favor of a gritty urban Harlem streetscape. Characters descend into a spooky but fantastically appointed subway, and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross, who’d also won a Tony for this role) starts off as one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. Other characters are played by Hollywood royalty, including Richard Pryor as the Wizard himself, Lena Horne (Lumet’s mother-in-law)  who gets to sing a corny ballad as Good Witch Glinda, and none other than Michael Jackson, playing his first movie role as the Scarecrow. Watching this film for the first time recently, I admired the lively sets and costumes (the film earned four Oscar nominations in technical categories), but disliked the way the lugubrious story advanced at a crawl, milking every opportunity to be sentimental.

But the recent trend for “live” musicals on TV gave me a chance to relive the spunk and spirit of the stage show. The 2015 broadcast was chockful of stars (Common, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige as an appropriate hateful Wicked Witch of the West, aka Evillene), but an actual teenager, Shanice Williams, was the glue that held it all together. Perhaps some of the excitement came from the adrenaline rush as cast and crew all joined hands to work at achieving theatrical perfection. I also sensed freshened dialogue, a sharpened storyline, and less easy sentimentality. Sorry, Diana Ross – you’re a singer like no other, but I’d rather not ease on down the road again with you anytime soon.

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