Celebrating The Wiz: How the Showstopping Musical Came to Be
When I started my semester-long internship with Ford’s this January, I was excited to see the energetic musical numbers of The Wiz come to life on Ford’s stage. A lifelong dancer, I have always loved the over-the-top dance numbers that musicals offer.
I was thrilled to attend a meet-and-greet with the cast and director Kent Gash. Listening to Kent describe his commitment to the show, I was reminded that The Wiz is more than just exciting dance numbers. Its importance in American history spans far beyond the work on stage. As Kent reminded us, The Wiz was one of the first Broadway musical with a majority African-American creative team and producer.
Ken Harper, the producer for the original production, first had the idea for an all-black version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the early 1970s. Through much persistence, he brought on 20th Century Fox to fund the production.
The original team for The Wiz included dance icon Geoffrey Holder as the director and designer and Charlie Smalls, former child musical prodigy, as the composer. Smalls drew from pop culture, blending rhythms from R&B, soul and pop, while the costuming was inspired by Holder’s own Caribbean-American background.
The process of creating The Wiz was not always smooth, and during previews of the show, the original director, Gilbert Moses, was replaced with Holder, despite his lack of previous directorial experience.
When The Wiz opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975, it was met with rocky reviews. Due to poor box office performance, a closing notice for The Wiz was posted following opening night.
However, at Harper’s insistence, the show remained open and an extensive advertising campaign was launched. The largest Broadway publicity campaign of the time, it was one of the first to use TV ads. Busloads of people began to come from across the country to see the production each week, many of whom had never seen a Broadway show before. As a result, The Wiz would go on to play Broadway for four years, to nearly sold-out houses every night.
Original Broadway trailer:
The original production won seven Tony Awards in 1975, including Best Featured Actor, Best Featured Actress, Best Choreography and Best Original Score. Geoffrey Holder also won Best Costume Design and Best Director of a Musical, the first African-American man to be nominated for either award. Finally, The Wiz won Best Musical, making it the first musical with an African-American producer to win.
After the Original Broadway production, The Wiz went on to tour the United States in 1976 and, in 1978, was released as a film starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and others. Since then, it has been performed across the country in regional theatres and by off-Broadway touring companies. It was re-made as a live TV special in 2015.
I hope I will see you at The Wiz this spring! Performances are March 9 through May 12, 2018.
Kristen Lamb is Artistic Programming Intern at Ford’s in spring 2018. She is currently a senior at the George Washington University.