THE WIZ AND I by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
“You MUST tape it.”
That was the decree from all my musical theater-centric friends who were in the habit of buying each and every original cast album.
Once these New Yorkers and Bostonians knew that my wife and I were driving to Baltimore to attend the first-ever performance of The Wiz at the Mechanic Theatre on October 20, 1974, they begged me to bring my little Norelco recorder.
“This will never get an album,” they decreed. “You’re our only hope in ever getting a hint of what the score was like. This show with no names – I mean NO names – is destined to close in Baltimore.”
I didn’t doubt it, especially after the house lights dimmed in the Mechanic on that October evening. A man bounded onto the stage and introduced himself as director Gilbert Moses. He said that rehearsals hadn’t gone well because some cast members had been ill; that no time had been available to do a complete run-through the day before because tech rehearsal had taken so long.
“But someday,” he said, raising a confident finger, “you’ll be bragging that you were here.”
Actually, The Wiz turned out to be far worse than Moses had predicted. Corny jokes abounded, and a song called “Which Where, Which What, Which Why?” was awful. As Scarecrow, TV personality Stu Gilliam merely went through the motions. Butterfly McQueen of Gone with the Wind fame played The Queen of the Field Mouse, and seemed somewhere between intoxicated and hung over.
One decision I applauded: Composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls didn’t even try to write a song in the “Over the Rainbow” spot that we know and love from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. To be frank, giving Dorothy “Soon As I Get Home” was a more motivated a spot for a song than “Over the Rainbow” was.
But as the show lumbered on at a glacier-like pace, I could feel the same surging wrath from my wife that she had displayed at Ari, Cry for Us All and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. Thus I agreed to leave midway through the second act, lest I incur her cold shoulder (and colder other body parts) for the next year or so. My friends would just have to understand.
In 2013, I learned that things had been worse than I’d inferred. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who’d played Glinda, was amazingly frank with me: “I left my husband for Gilbert Moses, who got fired,” she said. “My going on with it while he wasn’t involved anymore made it very difficult for us. They tried to write me out of the show, because one of the producers wanted to sleep with me and I wouldn’t. Geoffrey Holder, the new director, supported me and so I stayed.”
Yes, Moses was fired, Gilliam left, McQueen was demoted and, last but hardly least, Megs wasn’t measuring up in the demanding role of Toto and was replaced by Nancy.
And yet, The Wiz didn’t close in Baltimore, or even in Detroit. The reviews were bad in both cities, and one has to wonder what was going through the mind of Mabel King, playing Evillene (the equivalent of The Wicked Witch of the West) when she sang “Nobody bring me no bad news” when the critics had been doing just that.
Some did in New York, too. “Feeble at every turn,” said Walter Kerr in the Times. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, your machine is going to fall apart,” opined Martin Gottfried in the Post. But word-of-mouth was sensational, and Broadway’s New Secret Weapon – the television commercial – made “Ease on Down the Road” such an appreciated song that it was even released as a single. It only peaked at #42, but that was still much higher than most show songs from the ‘70s.
The Wiz wound up becoming a Broadway smash and winning seven Tonys, including one for Best Musical and one for Bridgewater (making her the only Glinda to win the prize). And when The Wiz closed four years later, it was the 11th longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Arguably more impressive is Stephen Sondheim’s opinion. Whenever he’s asked for a favorite show that he didn’t write, he immediately says The Wiz.
What?! With all its false rhymes?! “Because,” he always says, “it’s the one show which makes you feel better when you come out of it than you did when you walked in.”
Needless to say, my friends didn’t have to worry about a recording. Smalls’ atmospheric black score indeed received an original cast album, and, three years later, a soundtrack when the film was made. Now we get the third jewel of the triple crown with this – Revival cast album? Soundtrack? – from the recent NBC live presentation The Wiz Live!
While there were no famous names in the original, there certainly are plenty here. Stephanie Mills — Dorothy for the entire Broadway run — has now aged into Aunt Em. Mills certainly makes “The Feeling We Once Had” her own, which is a true achievement for a kid who heard two different Broadway actresses play her aunts — shall we call them Em and Em? – and sing the song well over 1,500 times.
Its lyric is worth hearing, too. An aunt acknowledges that her little cute niece has now morphed into a rebellious teen; Aunt Em misses the innocent kid who’ll never return. Many can relate to that.
Original Addaperle Clarice Taylor certainly wasn’t as renowned as Amber Riley, who did more than a hundred episodes of Glee. She starts “He’s the Wizard” in a tempo substantially slower than usual, but eventually revs it up and modulates marvelously.
In a terrific and intelligent casting decision, The Wiz himself became The Wiz herself. (Is this a precursor to next October’s election?) No less than Queen Latifah accepted the role and is exceptional in snarling out “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard,” which hardly expresses the same sentiment as “Willkommen.” However, “Y’all Got It” could be described as The Wiz’s version of “Grand Knowing You.”
“Y’all Got It” is not to be confused with “We Got It,” a new song that Dorothy sings to convince Scarecrow (a solid Elijah Kelley), Tin Man (a nimble Ne-Yo) and Lion (an amusing David Alan Grier) to find the wherewithal to get to the Emerald City. Four songwriters contributed to that one, including Stephen Oremus, the two-time Tony-winning orchestrator (for Kinky Boots and The Book of Mormon) and Ne-Yo himself.
Over the years, people have gradually noticed that Smalls didn’t write “Brand New Day,” the rave-up that our heroes and heroine sing after they liquidate Evillene; the up-and-coming Luther Vandross wrote it. It stayed in this broadcast, but two Smalls songs from Broadway were scuttled: “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which our four Wiz-battlers accused their nemesis, and “I Was Born on the Day before Yesterday,” Scarecrow’s history of himself. But at least he gained “You Can’t Win” in this broadcast.
Does that title sound familiar? Indeed, it was the song written for the 1978 film – which may be the reason it doesn’t sound familiar. The song comes in at the movie’s film’s thirty-one-minute mark and you may not have stayed with the damned thing that long.
But in a way, too bad, for a pre-eccentric Michael Jackson was quite fine in the role, conveying a wonderful innocence. Kelley gets that part of the character, too. He’s especially amusing when meeting Evillene, portrayed by Mary J. Blige. The good news is that she did splendidly with “No Bad News.”
Uzo Aduba gets Glinda’s one song, the inspirational “If You Believe.” The song and scene were enough to get Bridgewater a Tony, so I’d say Aduba deserves an Emmy.
But I haven’t discussed the tenth of the ten names billed over the title. “Introducing Shanice Williams as Dorothy” concludes the credits. And what an introduction! At twenty-two, Williams is five years older than Mills was and eleven years younger than Diana Ross was when filming commenced. Williams gets away with seeming like a teen, which is important: Dorothy must have a wide-eyed sense of wonder when encountering these very strange strangers in an oh-so-strange land; any adult is first and foremost going to be scared to near-death, which Ross conveyed – and what made the character less fun to be with.
Williams adopts a convincing young girl’s voice to “Soon As I Get Home” but doesn’t stint on texture or expression. How well she holds the last word of the song “Home” – fourteen seconds, end consonant and all. Even my hyper-critical friends (and you know who you are – all 6,729 of you) agreed that this young woman delivered the goods and will be on the entertainment scene for quite some time.
Who knows? Maybe Shanice Williams will play Aunt Em when The Wiz is revived forty years from now. I don’t expect to be around to see it, but I have lived long enough to prove Gilbert Moses right: “Someday you’ll be bragging that you were here,” he said, and that’s what I’m doing for the hundredth or so time right now.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.