When “The Wiz” debuted to great acclaim on Broadway in 1975, it represented a significant achievement in African American arts and culture. The show was a retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” with a cast, director, producer, and writers who were all black. That in and of itself was noteworthy, but the show’s success made it even more special: It ran for four years and more than 1,600 performances, and won seven Tonys, including Best Musical.
The obvious thing to do, then, would be to make a movie version that was produced, directed, and rewritten by white Jewish men. How better to recreate the Broadway magic for the silver screen than to replace the original innovators with their polar opposites? Coming soon: a Broadway version of “Little Women,” written and directed by giant men!
I can’t say for sure whether the changes are what doomed “The Wiz,” because I never saw the Broadway version. Maybe it was also dull, stilted, and interminable, like the movie. Maybe I would have fast-forwarded through some of the boring parts of the Broadway version, too. Maybe the Broadway version would have caused feelings of ennui and despair in the same way that the movie version does.
But I doubt it. The filmmakers made huge changes in the story. They kept most of the songs but rewrote all the dialogue that surrounds them (and got Joel Schumacher to write it!). They cast Diana Ross, then 34 years old, as Dorothy, and changed the character from a teenage girl on a Kansas farm to a 24-year-old Harlem kindergarten teacher who is sullen, mopey, dour, and expressionless for 98 percent of the film. I didn’t want her to find the wizard. I wanted her to find some Prozac. I also wanted her to find maybe a sandwich and a personal trainer, because Diana Ross in 1978 was built like Gumby in 1955.
The film is off to a boring start with Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) throwing a dinner party and singing a bland ballad about, er, something while everyone except Dorothy eats and makes merry. Dorothy, for reasons not explained, is somber and morose, leading her to go into the kitchen and sing a bland ballad of her own, this one about, um, something else. Fear, I think. She’s afraid of, you know, stuff. Things. You know how it is.
After dinner, Toto runs out into a snowstorm, which somehow also involves a tornado. It’s a snow-nado, and it’s sweeping through upper Manhattan! It collects Dorothy and Toto and deposits them in the land of Oz, which is also located in Manhattan. I believe the C Train makes local stops there.
That’s the gimmick the film has come up with that was not in the stage version: Oz is a fantasy-tinged version of New York City. The Lion was a statue in front of the Public Library; the Tin Man was a novelty robot on Coney Island; and the Scarecrow was, um, a scarecrow. I guess they couldn’t think of a logical reason for a scarecrow to be in New York, so they went the illogical route and just had him posted in a garbage dump, where he is harassed by four crows who are totally NOT racially offensive like the four crows in “Dumbo” were, I swear.
The Scarecrow is played by Michael Jackson, who at this point still qualified to appear in a film with an all-black cast. It’s a little weird having him play the Scarecrow, though; after the Wicked Witch gets melted, his first instinct is to offer her a $10 million settlement. The Tin Man is played by game show mainstay Nipsey Russell, and the Lion is Ted Ross, who also played the Lion on Broadway. The Tin Man sings a song about his need for oil that includes the line, “If you don’t have STP, Crisco will do just fine,” which coincidentally is also Michael Jackson’s Facebook status.
Your obligatory Michael Jackson jokes, ladies and gentlemen!
The four (plus Toto, who disappears from one shot to the next depending on whether the filmmakers wanted to pay the dog handler that day) follow the yellow brick road through subway tunnels and city streets. You can tell it’s a fantasy version of New York because they make it all the way to the Emerald City without being handed a flier or stabbed. The Emerald City is located on the World Trade Center plaza, and everyone wears green. They even sing a song about it. The song’s central theme: “We wear green.” This is repeated for several minutes, lest you forget. Then the wizard (played by Richard Pryor) makes an announcement: Henceforth, the new color is red. Everything turns red. A new song is sung, this time about the merits of red. And the director, Sidney Lumet, sits back and thinks, “Well! Good thing we spent two weeks and a million dollars filming THAT!”
These large-scale production numbers are unfailingly flat and emotionless. The sets are huge, even cavernous, with dozens of bizarrely costumed dancers executing stiff, joyless choreography. The movie looks like something the Soviets would have done, like an East German version of a Busby Berkeley musical. (“You vill EASE on DOWN ze ROAD!”)
The only real sign of life comes after the Wicked Witch, named Evillene (Mabel King), is killed. Instead of operating out of a castle, she runs a basement sweatshop. A sign tells us they literally manufacture and sell sweat, which is kind of funny, except that we see everyone sewing clothes, too. I guess it’s a sweatshop in both the traditional sense and the jokey sense? Anyway, once Evillene is melted, all her workers cast off their strange costumes and are revealed to be wearing diapers, except for the women, who are wearing diaper-bikini-top combos. They are all lithe, athletic dancers, and they are very excited that their overlord has been murdered by this lanky, Skeletorian 34-year-old and her odd friends. I would be too, I guess. Would I dance around in a diaper? Hard to say.
Having bored us with a stodgy retelling of a once-interesting story, “The Wiz” finally puts itself out of its misery by having Lena Horne show up to sing a five-minute song about, I don’t know, believing in yourself or some crap, whereupon Dorothy is permitted to return home to Harlem without any special effects whatsoever. Was it all just a dream? Who knows! Who cares! They took a good opportunity and squandered it, just whizzed it right down the ol’ pant leg.