The Wizard of Oz was one of the first movies.
I remember falling in love, with reading.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Most mornings before kindergarten.
My mom to braid.
Two french braids that rested on my shoulders for Halloween Myoma, sold me a blue, gingham dress to match Judy Garland’s, frock.
And I even had my own craft glitter version of Dorothy’s, red ruby slippers.
One of my mom’s friends noticed, how totally cuckoo for Dorothy I was, and she was like, well, if you love this movie so much, then you’re really going to love this and handed me a VHS tape for a different movie on the cover.
We’re all the familiar characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin, Man, the lion and a beaming Dorothy, but this wasn’t rosy-cheeked pale.
Faced Judy Garland, this was Dorothy with an afro and brown skin.
In fact, all the characters on the cover were black and beneath them and sparkling gold letters, was the title of this film though, Wiz.
I’m on my way to find The Wiz.
He’s going to get me back home.
From gimlet media.
This is not past it a show about the stories.
We can’t quite leave behind every episode.
We take a moment from that very same week in history until you the story of how it shaped our world.
I’m Simone plannin on January 5th 1975 48 years ago this week The Wiz premiered in its original form on Broadway with some luck and a lot of hustle this all black reimagining Any of the Oz classic made it all the way to Hollywood, but the pathway to success wasn’t always paved with beaming yellow bricks.
And it would take more than a wizard to help the film reach, its audience, and find its way home.
So, stick around, because after the break, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
From the moment I popped in the VHS of The Wiz I was immediately swept up into its colorful Fantastical World on screen.
I recognized the Contours of the Oz I had fallen in love with but this one was remixed dialed up times.
If you’ve never seen The Wiz, let me give you the highlights.
The 1978 film takes place, not in Kansas, but in New York City and it opens with a large family Thanksgiving, get together at on Thames, Harlem, apartment, uncles, and aunties and cousins are eating laughing playing checkers together.
Just being a family and that’s where we meet a wide eyed, Diana, Ross as Dorothy soon.
Dorothy and Toto, get swept away from Harlem.
Mm and dropped somewhere, unknown Dorothy.
Tries to find her way back home.
And on the way she meets some familiar friends, If I Only Had a Brain, I would have figured that out a long time ago.
The Scarecrow Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are all there, but you know, blacker, mama had high, I beat you.
For two plus h, the group adventures all throughout New York City in munchkinland instead of the Lollipop Guild.
They meet graffiti come to life.
They get lost in subway stations where they’re chased by some monstrous concrete columns.
And finally they make it to Emerald City.
They’re the camera pulls wide to capture all of Oz.
There are hundreds of dancers strutting and high kicking and singing, and shimmering Lemay get-ups and the Old World Trade Center Plaza.
This was Oz like I had never seen it before.
The music was Bolder more powerful.
It sounded like the soul and Motown records, my parents played around the house.
The Zayn was mind-boggling grimy and maximal and for a little kid kind of scary.
But I was moved by this world.
This alternate telling steeped in Blackness that frankly I was not used to seeing centered, let alone celebrated, so fully I was just a little kid when I first saw the Wiz but even then I knew something about this movie was special, that helped me understand myself differently.
I saw the power.
I could have the space.
I could take up and I expected all my friends to be in love with this world too.
But I quickly learned that while my black friends were similarly enthusiastic mine on black friends had never even heard of the movie.
Turns out this divide was nothing new.
In fact, the mechanics of this audience split had been set in motion long before the VHS ended up in my living room.
It was there when the film premiered in 1978 and it was even there before the wiz was a film.
When it was just the germ of an idea for a new show on Broadway scribbled in the notebook of a radio DJ named Ken Harper.
Ken Harper was a young black man from the Bronx in the 1960s.
He was a military DJ in Korea.
So when Ken got back home to New York City, he started working at a local radio station.
He was a DJ.
So he was working with the popular sounds of the time and black music was exploding around us.
This is George Faison.
He actually worked with Ken on the original Broadway version None of the Wiz as the choreographer.
He says, Ken’s revolutionary idea for the show was inspired both by the radio and by the times James Brown was screaming, Say It Loud.
And I’m Proud.
We were a merging and, and protesting on the streets.
There was Angela Davis, being arrested down the street on the right.
We have to defend our principles and what we want to do.
Can have this idea to take an old standard and update it with the new sound of soul.
And his notebooks he considered a few different stories Goldilocks can.
Can eventually he landed on the Wiz?
He had the dream of doing a black version of The Wizard of Oz with popular music.
So Ken took his idea and started pitching around town, he reached out to actors and to pivotal crew members like George but everything was still in limbo.
The invited me to choreograph The Wiz, and, of course bladdered, but he hadn’t raised the money to make the Wiz can was gonna need cash.
He reached out to everyone, he could think of banks, friends Arts institutions.
And the response has started flowing in like this one from the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
After careful consideration, we find that we are not interested in producing with here at the center and I am returning the script to you and most were very clear what they thought of Ken’s idea.
Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow.
Seems a classic?
That would be difficult if not impossible to top and And quite frankly, I don’t think there’s much point in trying to do so.
Then in 1973 almost two years after he started.
Pitching one of his letters ended up on the desk of a major production company.
He eventually talk 20th Century Fox into being the producers of the show.
Yes, 20th Century Fox who mostly produced movies decided to fund one of their earliest Broadway musicals and they saw potential in Ken’s idea.
Fox gave Ken 650 thousand dollars but that funding came with a catch in the form of Studio Notes.
One, Fox executive wrote, I hate the title The Wiz.
It sounds like a household cleaner.
Can use with some character suggestions, quote.
The Scarecrow could have been a jive ass and then she proceeds to use the n-word hard, our Who quote never quite got his act together.
The letter is filled with notes like these but Ken would not be deterred.
He made the changes to the script he could live with and finally on opening night, January 5th, 1972. 5 the doors of Broadway’s.
Majestic Theater swung open as the excited audience made their way down to their seats, waiting for the curtain to rise. 17 year old Stephanie Mills Charmed audiences as Dorothy.
She prances around a Whimsical Kansas set as dancers meant to personify the yellow brick road twirled around her.
The choreographer behind the show.
George Faison again, they had huge yellow afros, they had bell-bottoms and clown shoes, all yellow.
And then they had glitter on their faces.
And so what it was fantasy, In where we able to have that much fun, the cast and crew were hopeful, they had a hit on their hands but as early reviews started pouring in that didn’t seem to be the case.
Some of them were appalled to see that.
That it was an all-black.
Take on, on The Wizard of Oz, the New York Times, ran the review under the title, The Wiz mrs.
When it opened the white Things at the major legal papers and did not know what to do with what they were watching.
This is Professor Eric Glover, he teaches dramaturgy and black Musical, Theater history at Yale.
He says, after the pore opening night, the future of the show was looking Bleak, But Ken Harper, the creator of The Wiz had thoughts about what could save his Show.
Ken could see that some of the people in the audience at these shows, were Black.
But he knew that Beyond Broadway as Usual Suspects, there was a whole untapped audience of black theater goers.
Who might enjoy The Wiz.
If he could get the word out, they had a black performers.
Do interviews with black press.
And with radio, that was how those black media Outlets were able to get out the word to Black audiences and that is also how many black audiences learn.
Learned about the show.
Can also had one more idea which he took to 20th Century Fox Harper.
Actually a famously shot, a commercial for the Wiz as well.
Believe your eyes, no wheezes live, In the, add a diverse theater audience is watching, a live performance of the musical.
The final moment is of Todo, jumping off the stage into the arms of this little black boy, who is sitting in the front row.
Ken’s marketing, push worked, black audiences, young and old came out to Broadway packing in the theater show after show for months.
Well, the World of Dance has certainly changed.
As you can see, from this impressive list of nominees for the best choreography at the 1975 Tony’s, The Wiz was nominated for eight Awards, including a best choreographer nod for George.
And the winner is, is George Faison.
And my acceptance speech was was consisted of just jumping up and down for she enjoy.
What did you say?
Thank you so very much then towards the end of the show.
And now it is my great pleasure to announce the nominees for best musical.
And they are, they announced the most coveted Award of the night, best musical produced by 10 Hopper, and the winner is In total, The Wiz would take home, seven, Tony Awards that night, including one for Ken Harper, like to thank the cast, The Crew.
And I’d like to thank the audiences that have been coming to see The Wiz.
The Wiz was officially a Broadway success and when you’ve got a head on the stage, well, it isn’t too long before Hollywood comes knocking Ken’s.
Grassroots production was about To get the star-studded Blockbuster treatment.
I love to play so much.
I’ve seen it six times before.
I even knew I was going to be in The Wiz goes to Hollywood for better and for worse after the break.
Welcome back munchkins before the break.
We watched The Wiz grow from an idea and the pages of Ken Harper’s notebook to a fully realized Broadway musical.
And while the show struggled to find its audience, at first it eventually triumphed at the 1975 Tony Awards.
That’s when the film Buzz really started happening, The Story Goes that Motown film producer, Rob Cohen went and saw the Broadway show and almost immediately I knew he needed to make it a film.
Motown was a long time, famous Detroit record label, but they had recently moved shop to LA to Branch out into film.
Motown had already produced a couple smaller movies but they were looking for a big Blockbuster and The Wiz seemed like a perfect fit Motown partnered with Universal Studios, which acquired the rights to the Broadway.
Hit and Rob Cohen said about packing the film with Motown Stars I was waking.
The About 5:00 in the morning, when I call from Barry Gordy Diana, Ross had just awakened him with this crazy notion that she should play darthian The Wiz.
They also reached out to Diana’s best friend at the Time.
At this point, Michael wasn’t a bona fide Superstar yet.
This was 19 year old, Michael Jackson 5.
Michael, I would talk to Diane on the phone.
I say you’re going to flu is next week, huh?
Or next month she would say?
Yeah, next thing I noticed I was in it so they sent this grip.
I came up made, everybody Jackson was cast as the Scarecrow, they brought in Richard Pryor to Wiz the super star cast was really filling out but they needed someone with real Hollywood gravitas to manage the talent and steer the film’s vision Sidney lumet felt that today everybody lived in cities and if and if we’re going to make a modern Wizard of Oz, it would have to be Urban Sidney.
Lumet was a prolific Hollywood director who had already made Classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon but something about Out the Broadway shows.
Kansas setting wasn’t speaking to him and since he’s an inveterate, die-hard New Yorker, he wanted to do it, based around New York, New York in, the 70s was going through this radical change.
The major financial crisis had left the city unsafe buildings were crumbling drugs and crime were rampant.
I mean, why wouldn’t you set your family friendly fantasy film there?
Nothing this large has ever been done in New York City in New York’s history.
As far as films, go production spared, no expense.
They decided to shoot the film on location.
They hired hundreds of extras and commission costumes from some of the biggest designers at the time, like Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren, by the end of production, the film had accumulated a budget of 24 million dollars.
That’s Monumental compared to the six hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Ken had gotten for the play.
This production was set to be the movie event of 1978 and on October 24th, the film premiered across America.
It’s an adventure, but it’s an adventure in Blackness at the time.
You didn’t tend to see a lot of fantasy films or things that were in that genre that involved black people.
This is entertainment reporter and film critic.
The Wiz is one of her favorite movies of all time.
Getting to go on this adventure with Dorothy and seeing a scarecrow that we were familiar with that kind of dance.
We danced, you see yourself in it, but despite the fully realized fantasy, the filmmakers put on screen, The Wiz bombed at the box office, it didn’t hit those dollar points.
It didn’t make that money in order to make back its huge budget.
The Wiz needed a huge turnout, but unlike Ken Harper’s big Broadway, push Universal wasn’t Quite so, targeted in their marketing can understood and marketed to his black audience Universal.
Put their star power front and center rather than highlight the black aesthetic of the movie in the end.
They didn’t get the numbers.
They needed the film Lost three million dollars at the box office.
The film closed its future uncertain.
Remember back, in these days, if you missed a movie in theaters, there was a good chance you’d never see it.
An edited version of the film played on TV occasionally, but for the most part, it seemed like the wiz was destined to fade away.
That is until 1992 when the film got released on a hot new technology VHS baby.
The intergenerational aspect of it was important.
It is something that would be played, especially in the VHS error on a weekend during the holiday time period.
Once the Wiz got its official VHS release, the film finally connected with the black audience, its theater debut, failed to tap into bringing the tape to a family gathering popping it in during the holidays.
Handing it off to the Next Generation hands.
Passing tapes back.
This is how I found out about the movie when I was a kid and it’s how The Wiz found its place in the Canon.
It is a cult classic.
Like, for me, a cult classic is something that may not have been a commercial hit per se, but it was a hit in the streets.
It’s something people talk about reference.
There are terms or, you know, scenes or bits of dialogue that you can throw out and people connect to and know where it’s from even though, by the Numbers, shouldn’t be able to do things like that.
There’s something to be said for the Wiz beating all the odds, right?
Whether it was Ken Harper fighting for the musical to be realized on stage or the film version, the flamed out in the cinemas just to be reborn as a cult classic for generations to come.
But still I struggle with how little The Wiz shows up in our culture.
To me, it’s Singing in the Rain West Side, Story The Wiz It just fits among the classics.
There’s a protective part of me that season upside to the film’s cult status.
It’s a piece of art made by us for us carried by us guarded by us.
It’s not like mainstream validation is going to make the art better.
It’s fantastic on its own but there’s another possibly larger part of me that’s just fed up with black art living in the margins and having to wait for Maine.
Stream by in to get support.
It’s encouraging to see The Wiz receive more recognition in recent years.
It’s actually coming back to Broadway in 2024, I just wonder with a little less resistance and a little more support.
How many more whizzes we could be blessed with?
It is a Spotify original produced by gimlet and zsp media.
This episode was produced by Ramon, A Philip next week.
Thank you for not smoking, unless you’re smoking, menthols the story of how the mental cigarette became widely used within black communities, is the story of how the industry has built loopholes in to really master.
Passive consumer markets over the course of 70 years.
The rest of our team is producer, Olivia Briley, our associate producers are lure new command, Nick, Delle Rose, the supervising producer is Erica Morrison, our executive editor as Andrea.
Be Scott editing by Kelly Prime fact-checking by Ian.
Michael voice acting by been Britain sound design and mixing by Hayley Shaw, Emma monger and Sam bear original music by sax kicks, Ave Willie Green JB And Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is choco Liana by cocoa with music supervision by Liz Fulton, technical Direction by Zach Schmidt show art by Elysee Harvin and Talia Rahman.
The executive producer at CSP media.
Exact Stewart, Ponte the executive producer from gimlet as Matt shells.
Special, thanks to the New York Public Library of Performing Arts for giving us access to Ken, Harper’s notes and correspondence my acade and the black film archive Ron, fassler David Columbia Trina court and the Reckon film critics Association and to Lydia Pole, Green Abbie ruzicka.
Dan Behar, Jen hon, Emily wiedemann, Liz Styles, and Ariel Joseph, follow not past it.
Now to listen for free exclusively on Spotify, click the little bell next to the follow button to get notifications for new episodes while you’re there.
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We’ll see you next week.
So my name is Eric M Glover, dr.
Glover, if you’re nasty.
So my name is Eric M Glover, dr.
Glover, if you’re nasty.