Two years ago, NBC treated us to a live rendition of The Sound of Music. Last December, 9.21 million viewers caught their take on Peter Pan. Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, the network will air The Wiz Live!, a brand new production of the 1975 smash that descended on Broadway like a Kansas twister. Here’s a quick introduction to the musical and its Oz-sized legacy.
1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A TV SPECIAL.
NBC is about to come closer to realizing late producer Ken Harper’s original vision than anyone ever has. During the early 1970s, Harper hatched the idea of dramatizing L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. At first, he wanted to put this concept not on Broadway, but on network TV. Harper pictured a big-budget televised extravaganza starring Melba Moore as Dorothy, Flip Wilson as the Scarecrow, Godfrey Cambridge as the Lion, and Bill Cosby as the Tin Man, but the idea went nowhere. After mulling over the prospect of turning the premise into a feature film, Harper set his sights on the Great White Way.
2. THE MAIDEN RUN’S COSTUME DESIGNER WAS A FORMER JAMES BOND VILLAIN.
For his work on The Wiz, Geoffrey Holder won a Tony for Best Costume Design. It was one of several that the show would bring home (keep reading). At the time, this son of Trinidadian immigrants was also a director and an up-and-coming actor who had appeared in such movies as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). Film buffs will always associate him first and foremost with the 007 thriller Live and Let Die (1973), in which he portrayed a bombastic fiend known as Baron Samedi.
3. FINISHING THE SCORE TOOK THREE YEARS.
“I’d start to work at 11:30 at night, when everyone else went to bed,” lead composer Charlie Smalls told The Los Angeles Times. The musician went on to claim that The Wiz’s signature style could be described as “sophisticated funk.” Smalls also helped to write some new songs for the movie version before dying of cardiac arrest in 1987, when he was just 43 years old.
4. “EVERYBODY REJOICE” WAS WRITTEN BY LUTHER VANDROSS.
Though the score was mostly written by Smalls, he couldn’t take credit for every single number. One of the show’s most popular songs, “Everybody Rejoice” (a.k.a. “A Brand New Day”) was penned by Luther Vandross, the vocalist who later wrote such Billboard hits as “Don’t Want to Be a Fool,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” and “Here and Now.”
5. STEPHANIE MILLS (THE ORIGINAL DOROTHY) DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO AUDITION.
Mills was 16 years old when she found out about The Wiz. She hadn't yet had much theatrical success, and, according to the actress, she didn't even want to audition for the show. “I had gone out for so many things and did not get them,” she told ChicagoPride.com. Eventually, Mills’s mother persuaded her to try out anyway—and “that experience ended up changing my life,” Mills said. The Wiz kicked off Mills’s career as a musician and Broadway star. For a long time thereafter, Dorothy’s solo “Home” was her signature song. In The Wiz Live!, Mills will return to her roots to play Aunt Em.
6. THE WIZ’S FIRST DIRECTOR WAS FIRED BEFORE THE SHOW REACHED NEW YORK.
The Wiz had its world premiere in Baltimore on October 21, 1974. Prior to the curtain’s rise that night, director Gilbert Moses III addressed his audience, confessing that one actor was sick, another had been replaced, and that there hadn’t been time for a single technical rehearsal. Moses was dismissed shortly thereafter.
Holder then took over and started making significant changes. He cut an Act I song titled “Which Where, Which What, Which Why?” The costume designer also removed a number of puns and a character known as the “Queen of the Field Mice.” The revised musical came to Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975.
7. THE WIZ WAS ONLY THE SECOND BROADWAY SHOW TO EMBRACE TV ADVERTISING.
Before 1972’s Pippin, no Broadway musical had ever mounted a TV ad blitz. After a few weeks’ worth of poorly-attended performances, The Wiz followed suit to make up for lost time; 101 television commercial spots were purchased at a cost of $120,000.
Harper and 20th Century Fox (which helped finance The Wiz) had a strong disagreement about what these ads would look like. “They wanted to use part of the lion in the poppy field scene,” Harper said, “but I said no. We were aiming for families, so I thought the ‘Ease on Down the Road’ segment was more appropriate.” Harper won out and, thanks largely to those memorable advertisements, The Wiz finally found its audience.
8. SOME EARLY REVIEWS WERE NOT FAVORABLE.
By and large, the reviews were unkind to this bold new interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. “The quickest way to start a race riot, other than bombing the White House, is for someone to tamper with an American classic like The Wizard of Oz,” wrote critic Rex Reed. Walter Kerr of The New York Times called it “feeble at every turn.” His colleague, Clive Barnes, more or less concurred, writing, “There are many things to enjoy in The Wiz, but, with apologies, this critic noticed them without actually enjoying them.” Still, a combination of effective advertising and word-of-mouth buzz sent The Wiz onto a four-year, 1672-performance run.
9. IT WON SEVEN TONY AWARDS.
The critics really ate their words when The Wiz claimed seven Tonys, including awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Original Score. Holder’s efforts were rewarded with not one but two Tonys: Best Costume Design (Play or Musical) and Best Direction of a Musical. Finally, Dee Dee Bridgewater (Glinda) and Ted Ross (the Lion) were respectively named Best Featured Actress and Actor.
10. PHYLICIA RASHAD WAS IN THE ORIGINAL ENSEMBLE.
Long before she became TV’s Clair Huxtable, Rashad brought her talents to The Wiz, playing a Munchkin.
11. AT THE TIME, ITS 1978 FILM ADAPTATION WAS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE MUSICAL EVER MADE.
The film, which cost $24 million, bombed at the box office.
12. MICHAEL JACKSON’S SCARECROW MAKEUP TOOK FOUR HOURS TO APPLY.
The Wiz marked Jackson's film debut, and while most critics panned the movie, his performance was widely praised. “It’s good that the Scarecrow is the first traveling companion [Dorothy] meets,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Michael Jackson fills the role with humor and warmth.”
Legendary special effects artist Stan Winston (one of the geniuses behind The Terminator and Aliens) oversaw Jackson’s makeup. Every morning, this required four hours to put on and, sometimes, the singer wouldn’t bother removing it before going to bed after a long day’s shoot.