The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Wiz

October 24, 1978,  Universal  134 minutes
What J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are to today's pop culture, L. Frank Baum's Oz series was the equivalent a century ago. First published in Sept. 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been fodder for countless stage & film adaptations, and no less than 13 sequels written by Baum--becoming a annual rite thru the '10s up to 1920. Yet none were as popular as the first volume, which has all the iconic elements of Baum's fantasy world. A stage adaptation in 1903 by Baum himself, overcame a forgettable score (by others) thru sheer spectacle and the carryings-on of Fred Stone & Dave Montgomery as the Scarecrow & Tin Man--now mostly forgotten early 20th Century Bway stars. MGM's 1939 musical put a semi-definitive stamp on the story, so it was nearly four decades before another take was attempted. The new tack was an African-American slant on the fairy tale--and why not? I can see it: reset in the Deep South, the Bayou perhaps, saturated in atmosphere; a gulf hurricane instead of a tornado carrying Dorothy off to some new fangled Oz--with a faux New Orleans standing in for Emerald City. Sounds interesting, no? But the creators of The Wiz followed the MGM outline closely; dressing new clothes on the same mannequin. Kansas still, but with Soul music and a Geoffrey Holder tornado.

I have never been able to shake off my first encounter with The Wiz on a bleak, bone-chilling Wednesday matinee in early January '75. It was a depressing turnout--less than a hundred in the cavernous Majestic, brought down to the front of the orchestra--and the musical, alas, wasn't raising much heat in the audience. It looked in every way, like most of the fast flops I'd seen since I'd been living in NY. Bumpy book, bouncy but undistinguished score, vaudeville-broad performers, cheap sets. The reviews weren't much help; Clive Barnes was "respectfully unmoved, but not insultingly unmoved"--careful to explain the distinction, tho it seemed like so much pandering. With such praise was it any wonder the show was dying at the box office? But 20th Century Fox was a heavy investor in music-producer Ken Harper's Bway gamble; and taking a page from Pippin, they filmed a rhythmic, eye-catching TV ad to "Ease on Down the Road," the show's funky take on "We're Off to See the Wizard" and marketed it heavily, especially to the large, rarely-tapped black market. The tactic worked and word-of-mouth (from plenty of Bway virgins) built the show into a 4-year hit. More than anything, fortuitous timing worked in its favor: with the delay of Chicago and the distressing failure of Mack & Mabel, there was only the shadow of Shenandoah to stand in the way of The Wiz winning a bounty of Tonys.

Despite the show's success, Fox was smart enuf to quit while still ahead, and passed on the film rights to its own investment. Berry Gordy, the mogul of Motown snapped them up to enchance his burgeoning film & TV empire. Tho Gordy wanted Stephanie Mills to repeat her Bway turn, Diana Ross (a major star in the Motown stable) begged Gordy to play Dorothy. When he declined (appropriately so) she went around him, selling the package to Universal on the strength of her attachment, convincing producer, Rob Cohen to finance the pic. Who knows if Miss Ross venerated Judy Garland, but this was by all measure her dream role, and she secured it by sheer force of will. If it wasn't as off-kilter as Streisand-as-Dolly, it was still quite a stretch. Judy Garland was 16 when she played Dorothy. Stephanie Mills was 17. Diana Ross was 33. She'd had a finely curated film debut six years earlier, gaining credibility as an actress, an Oscar nom and a hit album. But there was more Ross than Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues; and after a careful follow-up in her sophmore effort 3 years later (Mahogany), she wasn't exactly wading thru offers. Finding suitable film roles was difficult, which must have leant some desperation to her idea of stepping into Dorothy's shoes. She liked the show and the songs and her name would sell the pic. So the reasoning went. Ultimately, what also went was Diana Ross's film career--she never made another. Youthful as she still was, Ross knew she couldn't pull off a teenager (tho Stockard Channing, also 33, tried to in Grease), so this Dorothy is graduated from schoolgirl to school teacher--A 24 year old who still acts, hopelessly, like a teenager. (Aunt Em urges her to move past kindergarten and teach high school--as if that would solve her problems.) And with that, comes license to change anything & everything; with or without rationale.

So, naturally, we're not in Kansas anymore. Joel Schumacher's screenplay begins with Thanksgiving in Harlem and turns Oz into an Urban Jungle, replete with ghetto 'hoods, and large public spaces eerily devoid of life outside of sudden stadium-sized production numbers. It's like a continuation of Godspell--only darker and weirder. There's nothing enchanting about this Oz;. it's bleak without irony, or any dystopian purpose. So much of it is just plain ugly. The "field" where we meet the Scarecrow fronts  a  burnt-out  block  of  projects--Bronx  at  its  nadir;
Munchkinland is a graffiti-littered concrete playground; A freakishly-clean subway station is as scary as any dark woods; the poppy field is an empty lot of hookers; the flying monkeys ride motorbikes thru a vacant parking structure. Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene, presides over a sweat shop not a castle; her demise has her melting into a glorified toilet. And so on. Schumacher scrapped Willim F. Brown's entire Bway libretto. For a gay Jew Joel was some Hlwd Shvartzah, starting his career with the Supremes-by-another-name film tuner, Sparkle and the ghetto comedy, Car Wash. But his take on The Wiz, was bizarre. There's nothing to motivate Dorothy's distress at this cozy holiday dinner--no witchy neighbor after her Toto. An opening without dialogue depicts a loving, happy group, but for Dorothy, who looks vacant and skittish (not unlike a victim of serial abuse), while Auntie Em sings of warm feelings. Retreating to her solitude Dorothy wonders why she can't feel anything. We do too--what's wrong with this woman who has never ventured below 125th Street? She sings her unclarifying wanting song (not a patch on "Over the Rainbow") and then the guests are all gone. It strains credulity that a gathering this large abandons the dishes to the host; as does the notion of an open door inciting Toto to dash outside into a blizzard for no reason. The so-called Tornado, is a lame snow twister, not even half as good as MGM's special effects in 1939 (the late '70s were still remarkably primitive in that department--Lucas was just beginning the revolution.) But it's the arrival in Munchkinland (this one sans little people) that confirms all sinking suspicion of the film's quality. Set in the old New York State Pavilion from the '64 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow; instead of a flying house, Dorothy herself crashes thru a giant neon sign "Oz" which crushes the Wicked Witch. Filmed in the dead of night makes for a very dark sequence--darker still for all the dark costumes and black faces--all of which suggest someone forgot to invite a lighting designer.
Invited instead was a range of top African-American talent--from Michael Jackson to Lena Horne. 19 year-old Jackson, still shy of his superstar status, coveted the role of the Scarecrow as desperately as his friend Diana wanted Dorothy, and proved his dancing chops took no backseat to Ray Bolger. Comedian Nipsey Russell made a credible Tin Man in the ol' Vaudeville tradition, and Ted Ross, who won a Tony for the role on Bway played the Lion (here bursting out of his plaster shell as guardian of the public library). 
Also from the original cast is the monstrous Evilene, Mabel King--giving a standard-issue, gospel-lunged Big Black Woman performance--all good enuf, but Richard Pryor, who on paper sounds a good bet for the Cowardly Lion, is instead the Cowardly Wizard; almost a total washout. With his songs cut (but why?) and the script underwritten he merely flounders. He's so ineffective that instead of endowing the seekers with confidence and belief--He's the one who first sings "Believe" to the group in the show--Schumacher has Dorothy do the deed--which is completely ridiculous--finishing up with advice to the dethroned Wiz to go "find himself." WTF? Making a stunning eleventh hour appearance, Lena Horne descends from the heavens, all aglitter to reprise the song Dorothy just sang to her companions, "If You Believe." It's not that Miss Ross didn't sing it quite nicely (tho it's not really in her register) but the instant Miss Horne sets her horn on those notes, the film sizzles with electricity, giving a sad reminder to how much the entire pic has been lacking. Lena socks it home, in this her final movie role, in a film career that was sadly and unfairly much too limited. The song is one of the better
ones in Charlie Smalls' soul and funk-infused score. But that isn't saying much. Try as I might the songs are mostly teflon to my ears. They've turned into ear-worms for the moment, but I guarantee in two months I'd be hard pressed to recall the melody of anything but "Ease on Down..." The additional movie songs by Quincy Jones (with lyrics by Ashford & Simpson) are no improvement. Smalls shared credit on Bway as well--for Luther Vandross wrote "Brand New Day." Needless to say, no standards emerged to challenge Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg's classic take.

Berry Gordy's first choice director, Saturday Night Fever's John Badham, wisely ankled once Diana Ross came aboard. His unlikely replacement was Sidney Lumet--one of New York's preeminent movie makers, riding high off career peaks, Dog Day Afternoon and Network. It seems Lumet's influence may have given the movie it's Bizarro New York theme. To design it all, costumes and sets, was Tony Walton (the first Mr. Julie Andrews) who did exceptional work on the films of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Boy Friend--demonstrating enormous breadth and visual flair. But The Wiz, which weirdly earned Walton two Oscar nominations, is a total failure. Look no further than the Yellow Brick Road--proudly credited to Congoleum, a vinyl flooring company--as Exhibit A in the trail of bad choices. When not filmed in cold and empty public places, the studio sets (filmed at NY's Astoria studio) are surreal slices of imagined New York; which paled considerably next to multi-media-artist Red Grooms' Ruckus Manhattan a "sculpto-pictorama" exhibit quite popular during the mid-'70s--which had all the grit and cartoon rudeness expressed in real urban life--and everything that was missing in Walton's conception. And so, the fabled road is laid with plastic laminate. But why does Dorothy keep chasing cartoon taxis as if they were the Yellow Brick road? 
And is there a racial message in their flipping on the Off-Duty sign and scurrying away? Nor do I know what to make of the group's arrival in Emerald City--entered thru a giant bank vault door--to witness the residents on parade in choregraphed patterns, flaunting and singing of their with-it status, all dressed in green. Upon command from The Wiz high up, they all switch to red; then gold. What does any of this mean? Filmed in the plaza at the foot of the now-extinct World Trade Center, makes what was intended to be glamorous, just creepy nowadays. A warehouse serves as Evilene's sweatshop and lair, for another bizarre sequence. What starts out looking like factory scenes from Pajama Game as done on the Planet of the Apes, becomes upon the Wicked Witch's death, a "Brand New Day,"  the monkey suits  peeling off  revealing
their Inner-Alvin Ailey dancers. The costumes thru-out are far too clownish. Evilene looks like an overdecorated macaroni Xmas tree. The munchkins are peeled-off graffiti. Under a red bulb nose, Jacko is outfitted as if on leave from Ringling Bros. (In lieu of straw he's stuffed with a shredded Book of Quotations--pulling out homilies from Great Thinkers--not one of them black.) Russell's Tin Man looks made of rusty auto parts and Ted Ross's Lion suggests the cheapest Leo from the local costume rental shop. A fashion designer in her previous film, Diana had to endure but a single dress in this one--and it's nothing to write home about. If that wasn't bad enuf, they pruned her hair down to a short afro, resulting in her looking, not simply younger as intentioned,
but uncannily like . . . Michael Jackson (well, at least the pre '80s version). Which is sorta creepy. She acts up a storm of fear and repression, which feels odd and unmotivated, but at least she can sing. And her dancing is perhaps the movie's one big surprise: she's a delight, with Jackson as they "Ease on Down the Road," or in the funk ballet in celebration of Evilene's death. The girl can move; and of course this is but a preview of the iconic terpsichore the world was yet to see from Michael. But these are mere crumbs of delight in an otherwise dismal movie. The second half has almost no visual interest whatsoever, as we stumble from Evilene's atelier back thru utility stairs to a dull hovel where the Wiz resides in hiding. For a film that set Universal back $24 million, it often looks cheap or shoddy. Did it all go to salaries? The end is another thud. Yes, Diana gets her last song, "Home" sung against black, with the faces of those along her journey flashing by--but after clicking her heels she doesn't awake from a concusive dream, like Judy--"And you were there, and you were there...") but finds herself on her snowy street (again, no people, not even any parked cars--in NY?) as she rushes up her stoop--the end.

Grease was still raking in dough when The Wiz opened on October 25th at Loews Astor Plaza, and three East Side houses in NY. It lingered for eight weeks before Superman pushed it aside for the holidays. In the end it racked up $6,680,000 in film rentals--barely a quarter of its cost. I saw it at the Northpoint in San Francisco on Nov. 4th, and thought even less of it than I had the Bway show. My notes tell me I watched it again ten years ago but it was so forgettable that watching it now was akin to seeing it anew. It hasn't improved with age. Tho surely Ross, Lumet and Motown all hoped for another classic, they gave no threat to MGM's masterwork--which like most Baby Boomers, I first saw on its annual CBS telecast in the late '50s, and many years to come. Contrary to latter day mythology, the movie was not a flop in its initial release, but a modest success against the parade of great pictures from that banner studio year, including MGM's own goliath, Gone With the Wind, which swept the Oscars and everything else. But The Wizard of Oz  was among  the  Best Picture nominees. 
MGM profitably reissued it on screens in '49 & '55; and then sold it CBS--which aired it as the final installment of a long-running omnibus series, Ford Star Jubilee. It was significant for being the first pic unshorn on network TV. With two hours allotted to the 102 minute feature, commericals didn't entirely fill the gap, so there was room for a celebrity host--the first being Bert Lahr, with 10 year-old Liza Minnelli. Subsequent years had Red Skelton, Dick Van Dyke and Danny Kaye, up until '68 when NBC got the rights and dropped the practice. It's ironic that one of the most vivid Technicolor fantasies was first seen by many more millions in glorious B&W. What a surprise when we saw it later, in theaters or upon our first color TVs, when Dorothy opens that door and Munchkinland bursts into color. Consider the difference when Diana Ross goes from a snow-covered brownstone-lined homey street to a concrete, graffiti-marked square, dank with shadows. This is Oz? No wonder she keeps whining about going home.

But I wasn't itching to get back to what I'd always called my true spiritiual home; Bway soldiered on after my exodus, but this first season from a distance gave me no reason for regret. A summer hit from and about Texas, The Best Little Whorehouse seemed evidence of declining standards, and fall brought only flops: a tuner of the cult '67 French film, King of Hearts, and a movie-star-goes-disco-queen vehicle for Alexis Smith, Platiumn. The Main Event was Michael Bennett's follow-up to A Chorus Line, the expanded TV movie, (Queen of the Startdust) Ballroom. A sort of female Marty, which ultimately felt like a slow night at Roseland. Fresh off her career triumph as Miss Hannigan, Dorothy Loudon starred to brash affect, and sang an excruciatingly bad power ballad, "Fifty Per Cent," that is sometimes revered by certain show queens. A dull score and an AARP vibe overpowered Bennett's efforts and the show folded in three months. San Francisco had its one-block "Bway" consisting of two theaters on Geary, with several smaller houses nearby, but I loved it just the same. Here's where the Civic Light Opera held court, where touring Bway companies, and the occasional tryout played. I saw Chicago that autumn, for the 4th time, and with Chita & Gwen for the last --and this time from the front row. I saw the first tour of Annie (we'll come to that later), and the tryout of Jerry Herman's The Grand Tour--which looked promising, but folded quickly on Bway. A friend I'd met in NY thru Laura, was ASM with the touring company of For Colored  Girls...  and  I  got   to   hang  out  with   the   Girls 
backstage and in their rented flats for the few weeks they were in town. As the funny queer white boy among these brassy, fun-loving, black chicks--I was in a whole new arena (and loved it); alas, an experience I've never chanced to repeat. Local theater troupes seemed too amateur or radical or both. What in college seemed so exciting about the Magic Theater (then in Berkeley) seemed less exciting now that it had grown and moved to SF. Tho it would be reasonable to expect an equivalent, (if not a precursor) to Charles Ludlum's Theater of the Ridiculous in a town like this, none had taken hold, tho a notorious queer collective, The Cockettes, had a brief run at the start of the '70s.; a free-for-all, drug and nudity fueled Hellzapoppin'--which predicatably burned itself out within several years. A far more accessible revue, which traded on local references, current events and exaggerated millenary, Beach Blanket Babylon became over time, and with regular updates, a perennial tourist attraction. A middlebrow one to be sure, but the show is not for export.

I wasn't really looking for a way into theater again. Not in SF, not then. I was strangely content in my niche at the bookstore; in my own apartment; in my relaxed schedule. I'd never felt so free. I'd never watched less TV. I was broadening my cultural horizons in new directions. On Saturdays I'd walk across Russian Hill to Tower Records in North Beach, where I was buying music across the board: current rock, midcentury pop vocals, classical, reggae, jazz, and what was then called New Wave, as distinct from punk. And still my first obsession, my study of Bway continued (in private)--I began a multi-year listening journey from the start of the OCR (Original Cast Recording)  which started in tandem with Bway's musical Golden Age; I'd come home from work after ten, smoke some weed, put on my oversized headphones and sink into the next "new" musical, following thru the years, chronologically. By that point I had all but the most obscure or hard to find --on vinyl (I'd have to replace them all when CDs come along.) My love of the American songbook led me to Alec Wilder's remarkable book, American Popular Song which tho I'd long abandoned reading music, I could understand intuitively. Verve records release of numerous songbook collections led me to Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald--which brought me to Duke Ellington. And if my Ellington-philia is far from comprehensive, the dozen or so albums I cherished were enuf to keep me forever enthralled; eternally awed. I was especially impressed how his sound progressed thru the decades, while remaining unmistakably his. There were at least two narrative musicals for which he wrote scores: Beggar's Holiday (a Harlem 3 Penny) in '46 and Pousse-Cafe (a New Orleans Blue Angel--sans a Dietrich) in '66. Neither got an OCR; the first a narrow succes d'estime, the second a flop. Bway wasn't Ellington's forte. It was mine, but I'd find place for at least one, if not two of Duke's albums on a desert island list of ten. With new books always at hand, I became a constant reader (register shifts at work allowed me to devour chapters)--going from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Philip Roth to The World According to Garp. which in many ways helped me find my own writing voice.

Working 4-10, I became a night-owl. With my days free, I slept in, I joined a gym, I went to the beach (whenever possible--under rule of SF's notorious fog belt). But I also disciplined myself to write. At Books Inc. I started a one panel cartoon strip: Boris Beldock, Bookstore Clerk. My colleagues liked it so much it grew into a nightly obligation.
After reading Woody Allen's Getting Even. I wrote several short stories, one of which I was particularly fond concerned a woman who becomes convinced TV is stealing incidents from her life, titled "She Belonged to Her Captors Now." Alas, The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly & The Paris Review were less enthused. I toyed with the choreo-poem format I learned from For Colored Girls... reconceiving it  for middle-aged businessmen--a sort of new wave revue, Forked Lighting, would have songs between monologues and end with them stripping off their suits, dancing to Cole Porter's dixieland "Red Blues" from Silk Stockings.--but I stalled upon realizing I knew nothing about middle-aged businessmen. In the screenplay corner I was developing an idea for Alec Guinness inspired by his Ealing comedies--which I had only recently discovered and adored. The Geriatricks would have Guinness, released from prison at age 65, trying to retrieve his long-hidden stolen booty while being stalked by his cheated ex-cronies. Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like a prequel to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World--The Smiler Grogan Story. I vacillated between this and an idea for Shirley MacLaine: a romance between a touring stage company manager and a cable car driver-set inside the national tour of Flower Drum Song at the Curran in 1960. (Could it be more arcane?) What emerges is a clear picture that my skill was not as an originalist or visionary--I was a collagist, forever inspired by bits of this and that, and mashing up all the cultural detritus rambling thru my brain. I was young, dumb and full of (creative) cum.

Well, the other kind, too--after all, I was only 26. I thought nothing unusual in that I would get off on the naked boys at the beach or the gym, but yearn for and imagine myself with women--it seemed so much more romantic, which exposes the influence of Hlwd on my psyche. I truly liked my female companions yet my deepest connections were with my male friends, sometimes uncomfortably so. I became enamored with a Southern country boy hippie and his Berkeley girlfriend, and we became a confusingly intense trio, taking acid in Golden Gate Park; hiking Yosemite on the harvest full moon; going to Georgia for Xmas, to stay with Charles's family (I had a thick Southern drawl within a day)--as odd a venture as I'd ever done, and enuf to turn me off the South forever. But that's another story. I tacked on two nights on my own in NY for a triangle fare; but saw only a few friends--not even thinking to call my not-so-old flame. Sitting over chicken corden bleu at a bistro near the Museum of Natural History, I recall enthusing to Heddie about the future--all bluff and bluster. The '80s were coming, and I was certain they were destined to be Our Time. It was fun to be back in Manhattan but I had no regrets leaving on the flight back to California. Whatever the tempest and tumult that had carried me off nine months prior, I realized now it had set me down in Oz. But unlike Dorothy I wasn't looking to go home.

Next Up: Hair

Report Card:   The Wiz
Overall Film:  D
Bway Fidelity:  C
Songs from Bway:  11
Songs Cut from Bway:  7
New Songs:  4 (by Quincy Jones with Charlie    Smalls and Ashford & Simpson) 
Standout Numbers: "Believe" (Lena's version)
Casting:  Black Cornucopia
Cast from Bway: Ted Ross, Mabel King
Standout Cast: Lena Horne
Sorethumb Cast: Diana Ross
Direction:  Utterly misguided
Choreography: Best in show
Ballet: C  "Brand New Day"
Scenic Design:  Disasterous Urban Funk
Costumes:  Worthy of the scenic design
Standout Set:  Scarecrow's field (for bleakness)
Titles: Sparkly letters over Harlem mural
Oscar noms: 4 - Art Directtion, Costumes,
     Cinematography; Scoring Adaptation

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