We've come a long way since Jan. 5, 1975, the night The Wiz arrived at the Majestic Theatre on 44th Street, an unexpected, if not exactly unwelcome guest. Back then, no one really had any idea what to expect from a rock and soul musical, an all-black retelling of one of the best-loved American stories. And judging from the morning-after reviews, which were grudgingly favorable but somewhat baffled, no one quite knew that a seismic shift had occurred on one of the most hidebound boulevards in the world: Broadway.
There had been black musicals for decades, of course, going back to the turn of the century. Shuffle Along was a hit way back in 1921. All-black revues like Lew Leslie's Blackbirds series had been all the rage in the jazz age. George Gershwin tackled the African-American folk drama with his opera Porgy and Bess in the '30s. In 1967, producer David Merrick scored a triumph by recasting his long-running hit musical Hello, Dolly! with an all black company, headed by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. And the Civil Rights era inspired shows like Purlie and Raisin, which refashioned the struggle for equality into musical theatre. But The Wiz was something entirely different.
It could not have happened without all that preceded it. Until The Wiz, black Broadway fell largely into two categories: jazzy, energetic shows that exploited black culture and style without even acknowledging the racial divide in the United States, and Civil Rights plays and musicals that made racial politics their central subject. The Wiz did something both bolder and more casual: it took a favorite "white" story, and refashioned it in African-American stylistic terms. It dared to say to a largely white audience: you may think this is your story, but it really belongs to all of us. It's just a really good story. And we can tell it in our culture in our own way; if you are willing to listen, you will hear it anew.
Critics may have been skeptical of this revolutionary idea. Audiences were not. As they had come rushing to hear Little Richard, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry 15 years earlier, they flocked to The Wiz. Seven Tony Awards and a four-year run later, The Wiz had entered the cultural landscape, never to depart. Why? First of all, The Wiz was a joy machine, providing audiences with a two-and-a-half hour pleasure cruise, gorgeously designed and tasty for the ear. Beyond that, it empowered black culture in a new way. It dared to be entirely post Jim-Crow. It dared to suggest that no one had to ask permission to borrow "The Wizard of Oz," and no one should ever have to ask again. Unlike the black Hello, Dolly! , which retained its white, turn-of-the century vernacular and simply placed it in the mouths of black actors, The Wiz spoke the cheerfully slangy argot of the black street. It dressed for the occasion in high style, and it moved in a way that elevated Afro-pop dance vocabulary to a new level. It did all of this without anger or recrimination or, seemingly, having anything to prove at all; it simply told the familiar story back to us in a way we'd never heard it before, inviting white America into a beautiful new world. It was a world that had its own values and invited us to embrace those values purely for the pleasure of it — for the energy, the wisdom, the sophistication, the beauty. The blues, soul music and R&B were, in effect, entirely African-American creations. "The Wizard of Oz" was, in most audience's minds, entirely white. The Wiz cheerfully declared that these distinctions, while perhaps historically valid, were now and forever out of date. It was a brand new day — an entirely happy and triumphant one at that.
Some critics took the show to task for what they deemed its unpolished craftsmanship, as a few latter-day critics would do with the African-American playwright August Wilson. They couldn't see that their point of view was entirely parochial. The Wiz wasn't trying to compete with My Fair Lady — it was brashly speaking its own cultural language on its own terms, with a fierce pride that insisted all Americans could and should learn to speak it, too. Within a decade almost all of us had done so.
How much of this was premeditated? Probably very little. The Wiz was as much a product of its time as a harbinger of things to come. But it took a certain kind of street smarts — show business wisdom — to make use of this particular tale to break this particular barrier. For the story itself is about empowerment and courage. Little Dorothy Gale is a heroine who is neither angry nor at all sure of herself, but who is hard-wired never to quit. In an odd way, this little white girl, conceived by L. Frank Baum in the waning days of the 19th century, embodies the spirit of the Civil Rights struggle without ever saying a word about it. All she wants to do is get home, to know she has a home, where she is welcome and where she counts, the same as everybody else. The Wiz, whether by instinct or calculation, transformed that kernel of a theme into a welcoming, triumphant display of African-American pride and joy.
Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! Summer Stars. This piece ran in the City Center Playbill for The Wiz.