THE WIZ THAT THE WIZ WAS AND IS
We’ve lately been hearing a lot about A CHORUS LINE’s opening forty years ago.
But THE WIZ did, too. And at the moment, the African-American urban take on THE WIZARD OF OZ – which only ran a fourth as long as Michael Bennett’s masterpiece – is having a much better anniversary year.
Next week, there’ll be “a celebration in dance and music” featuring THE WIZ’S original cast members André De Shields, who played the title role in the original 1975 production; Dee Dee Bridgewater, who portrayed Glinda and got a Tony for her efforts; and the former Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who today is (much) better known as Phylicia Rashad.
You can see them and the show at SummerStage in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield on Wednesday, August 12th and at Marcus Garvey Park at West 122nd St. and Mt. Morris Park West on August 13th and 14th. All shows are at 7 p.m. and, best of all, they’re free.
It’s a nice tune-up for THE WIZ that will be broadcast on Thursday, Dec. 3 as the third annual NBC musical shown live. We’ll see Stephanie Mills, the original Dorothy, who’s aged into Aunt Em; Mary J. Blige, who’ll be Evillene (better known as The Wicked Witch of the West); and, in a nifty gender-empowerment switch, Queen Latifah as The Wiz herself.
It’s been quite a journey for THE WIZ since its first-ever preview on Sunday, October 20, 1974 at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore.
I was there.
Although my then-wife Lilli and I were living in Boston, she came from Baltimore and had a friend who was having a baby shower there that afternoon. I couldn’t believe my good fortune: it would be the same day as THE WIZ’s first preview at the Mechanic Theatre.
Granted, the future for the show didn’t bode well. The most famous names in the cast were Stu Gilliam (The Scarecrow), who’d been a semi-regular on LAUGH-IN; Tiger Haynes (The Tin Man), who had shared an eleven o’clock number with Carol Burnett in FADE OUT—FADE IN; and of course Butterfly McQueen, who’d always be remembered for her inability to birth babies.
More ominous still was that the show had a novice bookwriter in William F. Brown (a white man, incidentally) and an equally inexperienced songwriter in Charlie Smalls. And the producer? Ken Harper was previously a “program affairs director” at a radio station.
“You MUST bring your cassette recorder with you,” insisted my friend Richard Norton. “This will be the only chance we’ll EVER have to hear this score.”
While Lilli was at the baby shower, I went to the Mechanic where there was no line at the box office. The ticket seller looked astonished that she was about to make a sale. That the best I could get was Row P on the center aisle surprised me. My, the paper-hangers must have been busy that week!
Now understand that by this point in our marriage, my wife – who LOVED hit musicals in the MY FAIR LADY and GYPSY league -- had endured with her let’s-see-everything husband during six years of marriage such also-rans as COME SUMMER, HER FIRST ROMAN, JIMMY, LOOK TO THE LILIES, MOLLY, CRY FOR US ALL (called WHO TO LOVE in Boston) RAINBOW JONES (called R.J. in Boston), COMEDY (which closed in Boston) and LOVELY LADIES, KIND GENTLEMEN. Oh, and don’t let me forget ARI on New Year’s Eve 1970 in Washington, when we had to drive back to Baltimore in a blinding blizzard that had been very accurately predicted.
Lilli had insisted that we walk out of that one, and in the ensuing four years had demanded more and more that we take our leave after many a doleful Act One. With only one car to get us both home, I always complied. But no matter how bad THE WIZ would be, I wouldn’t be able to leave, because Richard was counting on me for that recording.
We got to the theater and found ourselves the only ones in Row P. Apparently we were the last ticket buyers. Good! No one near us to pay attention to my Norelco cassette recorder. The lights dimmed, and I got ready to press “Record” to catch the overture, but instead out walked a man who introduced himself as director Gilbert Moses.
Such an appearance is never a good sign.
It wasn’t. Moses apologized in advance for the not-yet-ready show, noting that one actor had taken ill, another had been replaced and there’d been no time for a technical rehearsal. Lilli gave me a withering glance and I shook in my Thom McAns.
Moses supposed that such a speech could not fuel our optimism. “But some day,” he crowed, “you’ll brag that you were here this night.”
(And here I am proving him right.)
But that night turned out to be far worse than Moses had intimated. There was a surfeit of corny jokes. When Dorothy arrived in Oz, she was told that she was talking to the Munchkins. “But they’re donuts,” she said.
I got a baleful look from Lilli on that one.
A song called “Which Where, Which What, Which Why?” by the Good Witch (here named Addaperle) was awful. Gilliam as the Scarecrow merely went through the motions. McQueen, playing The Queen of the Field Mice, seemed somewhere between intoxicated and hung over.
The MOMENT that the first act curtain came down, I whispered to Lilli “Gotta go to the men’s room!” I ran to it and stayed there for the entire fifteen minutes locked in a stall, knowing it was the one and only place in the theater that she couldn’t get me and say “We’re leaving!”
I didn’t return to my seat until the house lights dimmed. When Evillene said, “A plague on both your houses!” only to have an underling cry, “Not my summer place, too!” Lilli suddenly bolted up from her seat and, no, didn’t make me get up and leave, but instead she simply put her entire body on the floor in the part of the row that was unoccupied and hoped to go to sleep.
The people in Row O who felt the presence of someone standing behind them suddenly were turning around wondering what had happened to the person who had just been there.
And as much as I hated to disappoint Richard, I sighed and said “Let’s go.”
And we did.
I did make certain that I got Richard a window card. Whatever the merits of THE WIZ, it had that marvelous logo. I was glad to bring Richard something that would be a true collector’s item, given that the show would close in Baltimore.
As you well know, it didn’t. True, Moses, despite his optimism, was fired and Geoffrey Holder, the show’s costume designer, took over. He eliminated McQueen’s role, but allowed her to stay on and understudy Addaperle.
Gilliam, certain that he was stuck in a titanic failure, asked to be released, and Holder agreed, promoting 17-year-old understudy Hinton Battle to Scarecrow status. Little did anyone know that between 1981 and 1991, Battle would win three Tonys as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Last but hardly least, Megs, playing the demanding role of Toto, was replaced by Nancy.
When THE WIZ went to the Fisher in Detroit, it didn’t close there, either. It came to Broadway and got reviews that were mixed, but substantially better than the ones I would have expected from that Baltimore night. Fine word-of-mouth helped black audiences to attend and seven Tonys including Best Musical got the whites in, too.
Admittedly, it was a terribly weak year for Tonys; this was the semester when A LETTER TO QUEEN VICTORIA and THE LIEUTENANT got Best Musical nominations. But to quote a hit musical that was still running on Broadway, “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.”
But even before Tony night Stephen Sondheim had attended and had become a great champion. “It’s a show that makes you feel better when you come out than you felt when you went in,” he said in many interviews. Who knows how many super-sophisticated musical theater enthusiasts went to THE WIZ solely on his say-so?
As for Richard’s “rare” window card, for the rest of the 1970s, from Seventh Avenue through Broadway and Eighth Avenue too, virtually every souvenir shop window would sport a framed window card of THE WIZ. Oh, well; at least Richard’s has the far more arcane named of “Mechanic Theatre” at the bottom.
That playhouse, by the way, is no more. Demolition started last September. When I was in Baltimore in February, I saw the carnage of concrete piled high on Charles Street. Given that the theater opened in 1967 and closed in 2004 – a total of 37 years -- who would have thought on that long-ago October night that THE WIZ would have outlasted the theater?
— Peter Filichia