How The Wiz Went from Nearly Closing On Opening Night to Becoming a Tony-Winning Hit – Here's What Happened in 1975

News   How The Wiz Went from Nearly Closing On Opening Night to Becoming a Tony-Winning Hit – Here's What Happened in 1975 digs into its archives to explore past articles and uncover the history behind some of Broadway's biggest shows. This original piece, "Selling a Broadway Show Or How The Wiz Was Won," was published in the May 1975 edition of Playbill Magazine. With the new NBC live presentation and a subsequent Broadway revival coming our way, we take a look back at the history of the hit.

The original Playbill for <i>The Wiz</i>
The original Playbill for The Wiz
Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross and Tiger Haynes in <i>The Wiz</i>
Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross and Tiger Haynes in The Wiz

This is a story of a Broadway phenomenon, a show in so much trouble its closing notice was posted on opening night and which was forcibly turned into Broadway's biggest hit, all in a matter of weeks. The Wiz made theatre history overnight. Here is how it happened.

Begin with the idea–or "the concept," as it’s known in the language of producers. In 1972 an ex-disc jockey named Ken Harper came up with a notion you could look at in one of two ways–either revoltingly cornball or commercial as hell. He wanted to take L. Frank Baum’s classic, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which was written at the turn of the century and later became irrevocably associated with sweet Judy Garland and the wonderful white Bert Lahr, and turn it into a Top-Forties-style black musical comedy.

Ken Harper was thirty-two years old at the time and had just given up a job as a Program Affairs Director of PIX Radio to spend full time time talking up The Wiz. He talked to anyone and everyone. "If I’d met you three years ago," he said to me, "I’d given you the rap and asked if you knew anyone." Eventually, Harper ran across someone who counted– "the president of a very big glass company who had a friend on the Board of Directors of Twentieth Century Fox. He thought Fox might be interested."

Fox was interested. Before long they called Harper and asked him to come to the coast with a presentation. Harper was ready. He had a book, written by William Brown, and thirteen original songs with lyrics written by Charlie Smalls. Harper and Smalls flew to California and made the presentation, which included some obvious but salient merchandising information. "You pick up Billboard or Cashbox" any week," Harper told them, "and what you’ll fnd is that five of the Top Ten songs on the charts are black." The message was clear. In this country, at this time, a certain kind of black music, the Motown sound, sells, and it sells to everyone, black and white."

Stephanie Mills and cast
Stephanie Mills and cast

Fox jumped in with both feet. In exchange for first option for film rights, publishing rights and album rights, they agreed to put up an ante of $650,000 with a 20 percent overcall. (That’s extra money the producer’s allowed to spend if the production needs it–and this one sure did.)

With Fox as the sole Limited Parnter, Ken Harper was on his way as a producer. He signed on jack-of-all arts, Geoffrey Holder, as costume designer and, eventually, as director, and he found a couple of unknowns for principal roles–namely 16-year-old Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and 18-year-old Hinton Battle for the Scarecrow.

But as any seasoned producer will tell you, money and talent don’t guarantee a thing. For the seven weeks it was on the road before opening in NYC, The Wiz had problems. A technical run-through before opening night in Baltimore was so diastrous the managing company told Harper he’d be wise to pack it in. "I begin to perspire," Harper recalls, "and then I went out into the lobby of the theatre and I fainted. Three years of my life!"

True to show biz tradition the show went on that night and received a standing ovation and four curtain calls. In spite of its problems, The Wiz was beginning to build out-of-town audiences. But not so in New York. When The Wiz began previews, it was still pretty much an unknown entity. With a weekly production nut of $67,000, the show was only grossing $46,000 in previews. There were no advance sales, the front money was gone, and things looked so bad a closing notice was posted backstage on opening night.

Harper had a very clear idea of the kind of audience he believed it was possible to pull in. It was not the usual Broadway audience at all, but moviegoers, people who listen to Top Forties radio stations, young people, black people,  families, people who've never been to the theatre in their lives, not even to see Raisin. If he could find a way of getting to these people, he was sure The Wiz would win. Trouble was, he needed more money to do it, and what sane backer is going to pour money into a dying show?

Stephanie Mills
Stephanie Mills

At this point in the story we have to back up a little to talk about intelligent press agentry. During previews, Sandy Manley an attractive young woman (who with several other bright young press agents formed the Merlin Group, Ltd.), persuaded The Wiz managment to give her virtually unlimited number of press tickets to use at her own discretion. "Normally, you figure on two pairs of press tickets per performance," she explained, "but with no advance sales, if we had nothing else, we had seats. I invited all the deejays, the talent co-ordinators from radio and TV programs, and all the newspaper reporters and freelance feature writers who I thought would like the show."

They liked it. Even though she knew the closing notice was up, Alyce Finell, producer of AM New York agreed to have Dorothy and Tin Man and Scarecrow and Lion on her show next morning. "I had to go to the principals after the curtain came down on opening night and ask them to be at the studio at 8:30 AM," Sandy said. "I told them, 'Go to bed tonight or don't go to bed, but please find a way to be there on time.'"

Next day, the reviews. Wiz people describe them as "mixed," but in fact they were the sort that ordinarily would kill so precarious a venture. Clive Barnes clobbered them. "By noon I think we had about four people on line at the box office," Sandy recalls.

Without some action at the box office, any chance of getting more money out of Fox was slim. All day Monday, management was in conference, waiting for the word. Finally at 2:30 in the afternoon, a decision came through. Fox hadn't been discouraged by the reviews. With "Poseidon Adventure" as a precedent, (terrible reviews but great audience-building capacity), Fox gave The Wiz the greenlight for one more month, with the provisions that it show an increase in business at least on weekends.

Stephanie Mills and cast
Stephanie Mills and cast

The wheel began to turn immediately. Sandy got on the phone to the staff back at her office and had them follow through on all the stories and radio and TV bookings that had been lined up. Then she called the radio stations advertising managers and made deals, trading off a thousand dollars worth of tickets with WNEW for example, in exchange for a thousand dollars worth of free air time–the equivalent of fourteen 30-second spots.

Tickets were selling at the half-price ticket booth on Times Sqaure. Word-of-mouth began to build. Some members of the black community felt the show had been mistreated by white critics and began to beat the drum. "Stephanie Mills used to sing with the Cornerstone Baptist Church choir," Sandy said, "and I want to tell you, that's a network. When the reviews came out, Stephanie's mother got on the telephone and started calling people."

A week after its dismal opening, The Wiz sold out at Saturday matinee. That was all it took to encourage Twentieth Century Fox to plunk down another $120,000 for saturation advertising campaign. 

Ken Harper had the concept for the TV commerical, a telescoped version of the Yellow Brick Road scene, with punched up orchestration of the song, "Ease On Down the Road." "I wanted the commercial to appeal to people betwen the ages of 18 and 35," he said. For $30,000 the commercial was produced by Blaine Thompson, the agency that had done the successful Pippin commercial.

Stephanie Mills and Gregg Burge in <i>The Wiz</i>
Stephanie Mills and Gregg Burge in The Wiz

Diener-Hauser, an agency with experience in buying air tie for commercials and the connections to get the time cleared fast, purchased 101 commercial spots for The Wiz Company–17 in prime time and 84 in fringe time. These commercials were crammed into a two-week period, during which time word of the The Wiz reached 95 per cent of all local TV households 7.7 times. "Ease On Down the Road" became so popular it's destined to become a hit single, distributed by Atlantic Records. (In an ironic twist, Atlantic also got to do the cast album because Fox let its option lapse.)

While television advertising of films is a highly developed marketing technique, it's only recently begun to be used for Broadway properties. Apparently, if handled well, it can work wonders. A week after the commercial went on the air, The Wiz began grossing over $100,000 a week. Two weeks after, all performances were selling out. 

"This only works," Harper assured me, "if what you're selling is good. No amount of money and advertising will sell a piece of sh*t."

He can say that now, with ease, for The Wiz has been honored by the Tony Awards (as we go to press it's been nominated in eight categories including "Best Musical"). The album has been cut now, produced in slick, recording studio-style, laid down section by section and mixed later, for utter perfection. It will be a "concept" album and will sell, Harper hopes, like "Tommy" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The way his intuition has been paying off, Harper may end up making that hundred million dollar dream come true.

ADDENDUM: The night I went to see The Wiz, the theatre was packed with a rollicking, enthusiastic crowd–high steppers, big black mamas and little kids with cornrowed hair; white professorial types, their wives, their hippy kids. It was a mob scene that clapped in time to the music and shouted out to the actors and in general received the production like nothing Broadway's ever seen before. I squinted my critical eyes, staring at the incredible costumes, the super-click song-and-dance routines, the opulent theatrical effects, refusing to clap every two seconds, when suddenly I noticed my toe tapping. I could not resist what was going on in front of me, and behind me, and on all sides as if the audience had been orchestrated right into the production. And when, at the very end, Stephanie Mills, a funny-looking, almost dwarfish little black girl ran across the apron of the stage, shouting "Toto!" to the little white dog, I have to admit a tear sprang to my eye.

That, folks, is how the story of how The Wiz was won.

Carl Hall and Stephanie Mills
Carl Hall and Stephanie Mills
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