Theatre: The Wiz

Ease on down the road!

The Wiz is a pop musical version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (book by William F. Brown, songs mostly by Charlie Smalls) that originally opened on Broadway in 1975 and was the winner of the Best Musical Tony Award for the 1974-75 season. Although it has a noticeably funky score and is usually performed with an all-black cast, its plot hews closely to that of the original novel, including characters and details that the famous 1939 film left out or changed, including the Good Witch of the North, the Silver Slippers, etc. It is still frequently staged today.

Motown and Universal produced a movie adaptation in 1978; it was directed by Sidney Lumet and Joel Schumacher wrote the screenplay. This added a further, big twist to the Oz tale: Instead of turn-of-the-20th-century Kansas, the story begins in modern Harlem and Dorothy is a shy schoolteacher in her 20s who has never ventured beyond it — a change made to accommodate the casting of Diana Ross (in her 30s at the time) in the role, as she had campaigned heavily for it. It's a blizzard that sweeps her to Oz, a fantasy version of the rest of New York City. The Tin Woodman is now a forgotten amusement park robot, the Cowardly Lion masquerades as a statue outside the Public Library, the Wicked Witch of the West (here named Evillene) runs a sweatshop, etc.

The movie was an expensive flop, with critics finding it lacking compared to the 1939 film and the original stage show, largely due to Ross' performance. This damaged the perceived viability of black-led films. Nevertheless, it remains notable for its All-Star Cast of African-American talent, from Richard Pryor as the Wiz himself to Lena Horne as Glinda to a 19-year-old Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow (his only major film role, not counting the anthology Moonwalker). It also received Cult Classic status.

In early 2015, NBC and Cirque du Soleil obtained the rights to produce a live, made-for-TV adaptation, following on from their moderately successful series of live musicals starting with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013 and Peter Pan Live! in 2014. After its December 2015 airing, the musical will also see a Broadway revival.

Not to be confused with The Wizard.

This musical and its movie adaptation include examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The stage version actually stuck closer to the original L. Frank Baum story in a number of ways, notably in having good witches for the North and South. Only the latter knows the secret of the Silver Slippers, which allowed this version of the story to avoid the infamous plot of the 1939 version, where Glinda doesn't tell Dorothy the secret of the Ruby Slippers when she first obtains them, only later telling her and BSing an explanation that Dorothy "wouldn't have believed her." Another example would be in the film version with the peddler and his strange puppets, which seem to be Expys for the Kalidahs of the original book and the stage version.
  • All Bikers Are Hells Angels: Subverted version used in the movie: The Flying Monkeys are a motorcycle gang. Once Evillene is defeated they gladly take Dorothy and her friends back to the Emerald City. Interestingly, the biker gang concept also appeared in the Muppet version of this story in 2005.
  • Amusement Park: In the movie, the Tin Man is found at a deserted amusement park; he was one of the animatronics, abandoned when the park closed. The park is represented by Coney Island's famous Cyclone roller coaster.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: "Brand New Day" is essentially "Ding-Dong The Witch is Dead," but with more black people in bikinis.
  • Ax-Crazy: Evillene.
  • Big Applesauce: If an American city's going to stand in for Oz, it'll be New York City...
  • Big Bad: Evillene in the movie. It turns out that all the characters who hindered Dorothy and/or her friends' journey on the Yellow Brick Road (the crows, the peddler, and the poppy girls) are her slaves.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Okay, more "fanciful" than bizarre, but still quite trippy. Think Sesame Street meets Star Wars, or maybe Gotham City as imagined by Sid & Marty Kroft.
  • Camp
  • Celebrity Paradox: Despite living in what has to be the 1970s (or the late '60s at the earliest), Dorothy never notices all the uncanny parallels between her own experiences and the 1939 movie and 1900 book that are slavishly being copied here. (Of course, if she had been, she'd have been ridiculously Genre Savvy and the story could have ended much quicker.) Thus, one must conclude that, in the universe in which The Wiz takes place, L. Frank Baum never existed - or, if he did, he never penned his most famous work.
  • Clever Crows: The crows use their intelligence to convince the Scarecrow that he's stupid and can't frighten them off.
  • Costume Porn: Nearly nonstop.
  • Crowd Song: Several, in particular "He's the Wizard" and the aptly-titled "Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)".
  • Cut Song: Several songs and dance numbers were dropped for the film, some due to plot changes. "You Can't Win" was dropped from the stage version, but appeared in the movie as a replacement for "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday". Among the new songs written for the movie, "Is This What Feeling Gets?" was dropped (it's on the soundtrack album), though it's the underscore's big instrumental motif.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Movie. From the post-apocalyptic New York setting and general decay of the architecture, to the costuming, to the casting of Dorothy herself (changed from a young girl to an Extreme Doormat adult), the film version is a bleak (The Scarecrow is being tortured by the crows), but sumptuously shot piece of work. The Villain Song subverts this, though - it is a selfish ode to self done in the style of a Gospel number.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: The movie adaptation is set on Thanksgiving.
  • Dream Ballet: In the stage version, the "Lion's Dream" sequence.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: The subway in the movie the heroes are threatened by a sinister peddler's puppets (that grow taller than the heroes), trash cans with teeth, snake-like live electrical wires, and columns that almost crush Dorothy.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Movie only — what does Evillene's sweatshop manufacture? Sweat!
  • Failing a Taxi: Variation in the movie. Dorothy sees and approaches Oz taxis on two occasions early on, but in each case, an "OFF DUTY" light switches on and it drives away.
  • Incoming Ham: The Cowardly Lion comes bursting and roaring out of a lion statue just before his "I Am" Song.
  • Gang of Bullies: The Crows are this to the Scarecrow. They put down Scarecrow's love of knowledge, his intelligence, and his optimism. They also refuse to let him from his post and let him walk and force him to sing "You Can't Win", a song about, as Michael Jackson himself put it, humiliation and helplessness. Despite all of this, the crows wholeheartedly believe they are looking out for him.
    • In the movie version, though, the crows work for the Wicked Witch, so they might be want to torture him.
  • Gender Flip: The NBC production has a female Wiz, portrayed by Queen Latifah.
  • Gold-Colored Superiority: The Emerald City starts green, but then an announcement from the Wizard changes everything red. "I thought it over and green is dead / 'Till I change my mind, the color is red" The residents turn red and sing its praises, and then there's another announement: "How quickly fashion goes down the sink. / Last week when you all was wearin' pink / Already for me red was old. / The ultimate brick is gold." It remains gold for the rest of the film.
  • "I Am" Song: Subverted with both "Mean Ole Lion", the Cowardly Lion's introductory song, in which he presents himself as anything but cowardly, and "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard" for the Wiz's flashy, smoke-and-mirrors entrance.
  • It Was with You All Along / Magic Feather: "If You Believe" is a song explaining this to Dorothy's companions with regards to what they were searching for (the Wiz sings it in the stage version, Dorothy in the movie). The reprise, performed by Glinda, reveals that the Silver Slippers will take Dorothy home if she believes she can do so.
  • Kick the Dog: The 1939 MGM version of the Wicked Witch of the West is a nasty piece of work, but the film version of Evilene has her beaten in terms of sheer sadism. Whether it's dismembering the Scarecrow, crushing the Tin Man, hanging the Cowardly Lion by his tail or threatening to roast Toto alive, Evilene is willing to do whatever it takes to get the Silver Slippers.
  • Large Ham: Plenty of characters, although the Cowardly Lion probably tops the list with "OHHH MIGHTY ZEUS...AND GODS OF THE UNIVERSE...LET ME END IT ALL!"
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The best examples would be "You Can't Win", an upbeat tune that is all about tearing The Scarecrow's self-esteem to shreds, and "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News", a selfish Villain Song taking place in the Big Bad's lair (a sweatshop) that is performed in the style of a Gospel song.
    • The album version subverts the lyrical dissonance of "You Can't Win" by incorporating Jackson's pained screaming into the backing vocals.
  • The Musical
  • Original Cast Precedent: See Race Lift below.
  • Polish The Turd: Because critics' reviews were so weak, a TV ad was shot featuring ordinary moviegoers raving about the film — a common promotional tactic still used today. (RiffTrax got a hold of this as part of their riffing of The Star Wars Holiday Special.)
  • Precision F-Strike: "I want to get the hell out of here!"
  • Race Lift: For all the characters! (Well, except for Toto.) While many productions stick with the all-black casting, colorblind stagings are also common, probably because race is not an issue within the story itself.
  • Remake Cameo: NBC's version cast Broadway's original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, as Aunt Em.
  • Scary Black Woman: The film version of Evilene, played by the same actress who portrayed her in the original Broadway run, is this trope.
  • Scenery Porn: The movie makes a big deal out of giving a fantasy twist to landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center.
  • Setting Update: Movie only.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: There are dozens of them - and plenty of similarly attired women, too - in the fashion show being performed in the Emerald City plaza.
  • Shoot the Money: The lengthy Emerald City production number in the movie version seems intended to show off the Real Life designer clothes of its residents as much and as long as possible.
  • Single Palette Town: The Emerald City. In the movie, the palette changes with the Wiz's current color preference — it starts as green, then changes to red and finally to gold in the course of one musical number.
  • Sinister Subway: Sinister? Try absolutely terrifying.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: The Scarecrow speaks from bits of newspaper he's stuffed with.
  • Villain Song: "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" for Evilene.
  • Was Once a Man: The Yellow Winkies, Evilene's poor troll-like slaves, all turn out to be human, after she is destroyed.
    • Similarly, in the movie version at least, the Munchkins are introduced as having been transfigured into graffiti by Evamean, and are also restored when Dorothy drops in.
    • Thr stage show brings back portraying the Tin Man as having once been flesh and blood, until he feel in love with one of Evamean's slave girls, and so she cursed his axe...her death does not restore him since presumably chopping of your parts isn't exactly being under a spell...the film version, much like the MGM version, averts this by implying he was always a living mechanical man, specifically made for an amusement park.