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The Wiz
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 The Wiz

The Wiz

The Wiz (1978) is director Sidney Lumet's film version of the stage musical that retells L. Frank Baum's children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in an urban setting, with black performers creating new versions of the characters familiar from the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne star in the movie version of The Wiz, which marked a distinct departure for Lumet, a specialist in taut psychological dramas.

The Broadway musical, with a book by William F. Brown and a soft-rock score by Charlie Smalls, opened in January 1975 and ran for four years and more than 1600 performances, winning seven Tony Awards including one for Best Musical. Geoffrey Holder directed a cast headed by Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Hinton Battle as Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as Tin Man and Ted Ross as Lion (a role he repeats in the film). The show's hit song was "Ease on Down the Road," sung by the characters as they travel the Yellow Brick Road.

The film, written by Joel Schumacher, makes Dorothy a 24-year-old Manhattan kindergarten teacher (played by 34-year-old Ross), who has "never been below 125th Street." She is transported by snowstorm and cyclone to the Land of Oz -- in this case a sprawling, decadent metropolis with stylized characteristics of the New York City of the 1970s. Like her earlier counterpart, Dorothy befriends a scarecrow (Jackson), tin man (Russell) and cowardly lion (Ted Ross) while in search of the Wizard -- or Wiz -- who can send her safely home. The Wicked Witch of the West, who must be killed before Dorothy's wish can be granted, is in this instance a sweatshop tyrant named Evillene (Mabel King, also from the Broadway cast). Horne, then Lumet's mother-in-law, plays Glinda the Good.

The movie, produced by Motown Productions and released by Universal Pictures, was filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios New York City, becoming the first production shot there after the studios' reopening in the 1970s. The decaying New York State pavilion from the 1964 New York World's Fair, in its final appearance in a film, serves as Munchkinland. The World Trade Center, poignantly now, represents the Emerald City. Quincy Jones, later to collaborate with Michael Jackson on a series of hit albums, served as musical supervisor and music producer. The film was Oscar®-nominated in four categories: Best Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Costume Design and Best Adaptation Score.

The numbers include "You Can't Win, You Can't Break Even" (Michael Jackson and The Four Crows), "Can I Go On Not Knowing?" (Diana Ross), "The Feeling That We Once Had" (Theresa Merritt), "He's the Wizard" (Thelma Carpenter and The Munchkins), "Soon As I Get Home" (Diana Ross), "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" (Nipsey Russell), "Slide Some Oil to Me" (Russell), "I'm a Mean Old Lion" (Ted Ross), "Be a Lion" (Ted Ross, Jackson, Russell, Diana Ross), "So You Want to See the Wizard" (Richard Pryor), "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" (Mabel King and The Winkies), "A Brand New Day" (Diana Ross, Jackson, Russell, Ted Ross and The Winkies), "If You Believe In Yourself" (Diana Ross, reprised by Lena Horne), "Home" (Diana Ross) and, of course, "Ease on Down the Road" (Diana Ross, Jackson, Russell and Ted Ross).

The song "You Can't Win," originally written for the stage version, was cut during previews. Originally sung by The Winkies, it was restored as Jackson's opening number. In the Emerald City sequence, Quincy Jones appears to be playing the piano, but the actual pianist on the soundtrack is Richard Tee. A movie soundtrack album, released in the fall of 1978, reached the top 40 and went gold.

Despite the delightful music and the wealth of talent recruited to perform it, The Wiz was not well received critically and proved to be a financial failure. Much of the blame was placed on the shoulders of Diana Ross after critics refused to accept the new concept of Dorothy and felt the actress/singer was simply too old for the part. (Motown CEO Berry Gordy was said to have wanted Stephanie Mills to recreate her Broadway role, but Ross persuaded Universal to cast her instead.)

Criticism also was leveled at the darker aspects of the film, especially noticeable in a G-rated release. Oz is shown as a dangerous environment filled with gang members, drug addicts and other sordid types. Lumet and Schumacher countered that these were undeniable aspects of New York City and that the film's message was that courage, love and belief in oneself can overcome all obstacles.

Today The Wiz has become something of a cult classic and is regarded with more affection, especially among African-American audiences.

Producer: Rob Cohen, Kenneth Harper (Executive Producer), Berry Gordy (Executive Producer, uncredited), Burtt Harris (Associate Producer)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Joel Schumacher, from the musical by William F. Brown and the L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Art Direction: Philip Rosenberg
Original Music: Charlie Smalls, Nick Ashford, Anthony Jackson, Quincy Jones, Valerie Simpson
Editing: Dede Allen
Costume Design: Tony Walton, Miles White
Cast: Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (Scarecrow), Nipsey Russell (Tin Man), Ted Ross (Lion), Mabel King (Evillene), Theresa Merritt (Aunt Emma), Thelma Carpenter (Miss One), Lena Horne (Glinda the Good), Richard Pryor (The Wiz), Stanley Greene (Uncle Henry).
C-134m.

by Roger Fristoe