'The Wiz' Was The 'Hamilton' Of Its Day & That's Part Of Its Lasting Legacy
In 1975, The Wiz opened on Broadway and proved there was an audience out there who was interested in African American representation on the big stage. Audiences — both black and white — weren't just accepting this new take on Frank L. Baum's 1900 children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. They were relishing in it. This wasn't a novelty, some all-black re-staging. The Wiz was a brand new version for those who had been unrepresented on Broadway for too long. Forty years later, Lin-Manuela Miranda is doing the same thing with Hamilton.
In a 1975 review of The Wiz in The New York Times, Bryant Rollins talked about how the musical's score, written by Charlie Smalls, got at what black people were thinking. "The music in 'The Wiz' probably reaches deeper into black consciousness than has been generally recognized," Rollins wrote. "The score by Charlie Smalls intersperses songs of fantasy and humor with songs of protest. Innovation in black music follows a tradition of protest against oppression." It forced people to think about this dichotomy in a way they had not before. Not through a textbook, but through a technicolor play, and later the 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
While Baum may have written an allegory for American populism, Smalls was writing a parable for what it was like to be a black man. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1976, Smalls explained why the music felt so real: because it actually was. "That music — may be you'd call it 'sophisticated funk' — is a combination of all the music I ever knew. I wrote it all from my heart. The lyrics — they're my life story — I became the characters to create the characters. I used everything that happened to me on my way here. And believe me, some of it wasn't so good before it got turned into a song. I'd take a bad thing and make a song out of it. I've made the bad experience work for me and turn it to good. I also turned it into money, and that's productive, too."
This is part of the reason why so many African-Americans have a special place in their hearts for this story, which, in recent years, has been relegated to cult status. (Making it even more interesting that NBC is reviving The Wiz Live! for television on Dec. 3, after staying conservative with live versions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan.) The story doesn't sugarcoat things. In fact, it stays truer to Baum's book than the film ever did. It's this real take on history that won over Times theater critic Dan Sullivan in '75. "Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim recommends in a new book that parents tell their children the old stories in terms they can understand but without softening the harshness that's often a part of these stories-kids need witches," Sullivan wrote. "The Wiz might be a black parent's."
Miranda has also added a new kind of excitement and relevance to the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton by using hip-hop, a first for Broadway. And he's definitely turned it into money by being all inclusive. He's cast black, Latin, and Asian actors for roles that would traditionally be played by white actors. He also managed to pique the interest of teenagers who probably would never think of picking up the 2004 Alexander Hamilton biography by historian Ron Chernow that Miranda based his show on.
Taking a page from Miranda's book, the new television production of The Wiz Live!, set to air Dec. 3 on NBC, is adding a little "street cred," as The New York Times called it, to its production. With theatergoers interested in experimentation on Broadway, The Wiz is also set to return to the Great White Way next year, using a lot of the same design, costuming and choreograph elements used in this upcoming live show.
Both The Wiz and Hamilton did not make it their mission to diversify Broadway, but they did so anyway by telling stories that many can identify with. More importantly, those who are identifying with it now are, more often then not, the same people who are seldom provided with roles they can relate to. It's one of the reason why parents in the upstate New York town of Cicero complained when their local high school put on an all-white staging of The Wiz . This change may seem slight to some, but it does change how you would interpret a show that The Guide to Musical Theater refers to as “a black version of the perennial Wizard of Oz.” This switch almost blatantly disregards the point of the show. One parent wondered, "Why didn’t the school just do The Wizard of Oz?” And it's hard to argue with her there.
The Wiz is relatable, but it isn't interchangeable, just as Hamilton would be a much different production if it was all-white. The Wiz is still a story about a little girl from Kansas who ends up in a magical world where she must find her way back home. After four decades, it's now looking to once again find a home on Broadway, where out of the box stories and casting are becoming more and more prevalent. Ready to ease on down the road they paved so long ago.
Image: Paul Gilmore/NBC; Giphy