Friday, February 22, 2008

Quick & Dirty: Guess Who Ruined The Wiz?

By Odienator

Work is beckoning, so this is going to be quick and dirty.

The Wiz is the first Broadway musical I ever saw. Opening in 1975, the musical made a star out of Stephanie Mills and won seven Tonys, including Best Musical. The Wiz told the story of The Wizard of Oz from a Black perspective, adhering closely to its source material but taking some ghetto fabulous detours along the way. I remember being terrified of Mabel King's witch, Evillene, and fascinated when she seemed to melt into the stage. The Wiz also featured Clarice Taylor, Cliff's Mom on The Cosby Show, as Addaperle, the numbers-running witch who tells Dorothy about Oz.

In 1977, Berry Gordy bought the rights to the musical so he could film it. An all-Black musical is an obvious choice for members of Hitsville, U.S.A., and I'm sure Marvin Gaye would have made one hell of a Wiz. Unfortunately, Marvin didn't ask to be cast. Marvin's duet partner on "My Mistake," however, did express a casting desire. In a smart move, Berry Gordy told Miss Ross that, at 33, she was too old to play a 12 year old girl. According to Wikipedia, Diana Ross went behind Berry's back and suggested to Universal Pictures that she play Dorothy. Suddenly, big assed dollar signs started orbiting the Universal logo (after all, Mahogany did make money), and Universal offered to pony up the money. Gordy said yes to his woman, and Sidney Lumet signed on to direct. Pay attention to this paragraph, because both of the thngs that sank the movie version of The Wiz are mentioned here.

Let's look at the casting of the main characters:

Michael Jackson was cast as the Scarecrow, a perfect choice because Michael is limber and can handle the physical comedy. His innocence factor also made him a great casting choice. When he sings "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game," you feel badly for him, but you can also identify. Today, he would have to play a flying monkey with vitilego, but back then, Mike was perfect as the Scarecrow. He gives the film's best performance, too.

Nipsey Russell was cast as The Tin Man, also perfect casting. Russell's wisecracking comic persona and smooth talking complemented a character who sang a song about getting some oil slid to him. When we first meet him in the movie, he's been crushed by a scary looking Mammy statue. Nasty ol' Nipsey milks it for all its worth, and strains the G-rating in the process. The makeup artists also do a fine job welding his face to the Tin Man's metal chin and jaw. There's a special place in my, um, heart, for this role. I once played it onstage. Like I said before, I'm all singing, all dancing, all cullud.

Tony winning Ted Ross, no relation to Miss, recreates his role as the Cowardly Lion. More than anyone else except maybe Mabel King (recreating her role as well), Ross looks like he's having the time of his life in this movie. His explosion from the lion statue in front of the NY Public Library made me jump in the theater--talk about an entrance--and he clearly relishes singing about how mean he thinks he is. The late Ted Ross also gets the best, Blackest line in the film. When the Wiz asks him what he wants, he replies "to get the Hell out of here!"

Lena Horne is Glinda the Good Witch, triumphantly returning to the screen. It's wonderful to see her onscreen, even if her outfit raises some serious questions about what the costume designer was smoking. Nothing can hold Ms. Horne down, though, and her (at the time) son-in-law directs her scenes with the respect she deserves.

Richard Pryor is cast as the Wiz, and unfortunately, he isn't given anything to do. Plus, our pal Joel Schumacher scripts a scene where Pryor is revealed as a fake to us before it's revealed to the characters. Watching the Wiz again last week, I couldn't stop looking at the gigantic, fire breathing metal head that they used to depict the Wiz. Modeled after Pryor's own head, I kept imagining it starring in an all-Black remake of John Boorman's Zardoz. It could fly through the air and call everyone a muthafucka.

As aforementioned, Diana Ross plays Dorothy, and if someone cast an albino as Miles Davis, it would still be a better choice than this one. Schumacher's script remakes Dorothy into a shy 24-year old Harlem schoolteacher who has "never been south of 125th Street." That piece of dialogue is relevant--the land of Oz is portrayed by downtown Manhattan--but little else about about this character rewrite is. Dorothy's sense of wonder, at her age, is ridiculous. And for God's sake, THIS IS DIANA ROSS. It's safe to say she's been around the block a few times.

In some scenes, Ross portrays Dorothy as if she's mentally handicapped, staring into the screen the way old Hollywood used to portray the smiling darky stereotype. And in an early scene that calls for her to speak-sing, she means to be hesitant and quavering; she actually sounds like a cat being electrocuted. "What am I afraid of, don't know what I'm made of," sings the frying cat.

Miss Ross fares much better when she's interacting with the other characters. In the original, Dorothy tells the scarecrow that she'll miss him most of all. Ross' interaction with Michael Jackson highlights that. They have spark and chemistry together, and whenever the two are onscreen, The Wiz earns respite from the heavy hand of its director. Ross also shines when she's called upon to belt out numbers. Her rendition of Home is fine, until you remember how good Stephanie Mills sang it.

Quincy Jones adapted the Broadway score, for which he received one of his 8 Oscar nominations. The score holds up, especially Evillene's number, No Bad News. Charlie Smalls, the score's writer, was clever enough to give the most evil character in the musical the gospel number, and King brings the house down with it. As a side note, the song after Evillene's demise, "Everybody Rejoice," was not written by Smalls but by some unknown-in-1975 guy named Luther Vandross.

Score aside, the real star of the Wiz is its art direction. Using Astoria Studios and the streets of Manhattan, Oscar nominated art directors Tony Walton and Philip Rosenberg turn Oz into a mecca of Big City glamour and grit. The Munchkins are graffiti in the walls and the Yellow Brick road goes over the Brooklyn Bridge and down into the subway. It's here the entire concept of the Emerald City takes a better hold than it did in the 1939 version. This isn't to say that version's Em City was bad--I've been to Kansas and have no idea why the Hell Judy Garland wanted to go back--it's to say that the familiarity of The Wiz's Em City, especially to someone who grew up in the shadow of its real-life counterpart, resonated more with me. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere, right?

If ever there was a movie that screamed out for Michael Schultz, it's this one. Instead, Sidney Lumet has the helm and while he's one of the quintessential New York directors, he's no Stanley Donen. The Wiz is poorly paced, too slow in its beginning and too rushed in its midsection. When the Ease on Down the Road crew gets to the Wiz's domain, there's a horrific musical number featuring a traffic light that stops the movie dead. The number must be 7 minutes long and, according to Sidney Lumet's book, Making Movies (a must-read, by the way), it would have gone longer if Oswald Morris' Oscar nominated cin-tog hadn't had a lighting glitch in one section of the scene. Other scenes sink under the weight of a director who admits he doesn't really have a light touch.

At the end of The Wiz, the movie wants us to take Dorothy's adventure at face value, which to me makes no sense. How long was Dorothy gone? Does Oz actually exist? We see Dorothy run into her house and the credits roll. I wanted to see Theresa Merritt's Aunt Em standing there in the doorway with a belt. "Where the hell have you been, girl?!" she asks, popping the belt. I know Dorothy is supposed to be 24, but as my Mom is known for saying, "you're never too old for an ass whipping."

I expect my dis of The Wiz will cause me to get my ass whipped. It's a movie we love, and I love everything about it except the clunky script, the heavy handed direction and Miss Ross. Even as a kid, I had problems with her casting, and as mean as it sounds, I'm glad her backroom dealings with Universal caused the demise of her movie career. I mean, Mahogany should have done that anyway, but it was a hit. This, however was a dismal failure, sentenced to endless runs on TV, which is probably where most of you saw it. I saw it on a double feature with Which Way Is Up? Putting a G-rated movie with a hard R-rated comedy is just one of the great things about double features. God I miss them.

Your homework assignment:

Save your fire, fans of Miss Ross (this includes you too, Ma!) because tomorrow's Mahogany day.

UPDATE!! Netflix screwed me over again, sending me the wrong goddamn DVD! So, Mahogany will have to wait a few days. Damn you! But don't worry...I'll get to it.


brandon said...

I uh, was just watching 'The Wiz' on Sunday and having not seen it since I was little, I too was annoyed by Diana Ross and the poor direction. Miss Ross just looks weird and as you suggested, around the block a few times, and Lumet's direction, especially a dark-ish, realism doesn't fit the movie at all. It's weird that I just watched it and had similar thoughts. Another great post! And, thanks for the comments on my blog-

Steven Boone said...

Odie, CBS used to show The Wiz every year back in the '80s; my brother, sister and I made an annual ritual of it. (Also, one of my earliest memories is of seeing the Bdway Wiz--gazing down upon the Yellow Brick Road from the nosebleeds.) We loved the movie mainly for the reason you pinpoint in this post: For kids living in the shadow of Manhattan proper (you in Jersey, me in lower Westchester), the film exploited a sense of mystery, menace and romance about NYC. This it had in common with Walter Hill's The Warriors. Fresh memories of field trips and family trips downtown mingled with the film's stylized landmarks.

You also isolate the source of this film's peculiar chalky aftertaste: Ross and Lumet. Damn, right, this was a job for Michael Schultz and Stephanie Mills (or maybe an even younger teenage ingenue). Runner-up director: John Landis. Coulda woulda shoulda.

Ivan said...

My mom blew a gasket when Ross was cast as Billie Holiday, and so I was never predisposed towards any of her screen appearances--especially after the snoozefest that The Wiz movie turned out to be.
Like Odienator and Steve Boone, I was lucky enough to see The Wiz on B'way as a kid (do you remember the show's poster: the dancer's sexy profile? Hot!), and the movie could barely hold a candle to it. (And Manhattan was The City, to us Sheepshead Bay-ers...Ease on down the D-train.)

And I think Boone is right: Landis could've really done something The Wiz.

Odienator, keep up the good work/great site with good reads.

Anonymous said...

What? No mention of the choreography? Or the choice of ballet and Broadway choreographer Louis Johnson "over" the original The Wiz Broadway choreographer and former "Ailey" standout George Faison? There must be some "juicy" back stories there!

Anonymous said...

Personally, I adored the choreography of Louis Johnson's on Broadway in "Purlie"! However, George Faison "won" the Tony Award for his work in the Broadway production of The Wiz. What would he have done with the movie version will never be answered. "Unless" they "remake" the movie now with a "still youthful" looking Stephanie Mills and her "nip tuck" nose! Or "star search" for a young unknown little diva somewhere. "Spike Lee" can direct! If "Mr. Faison",who's still able, isn't up for the choreography task... Roll it over to Broadway veteran, original The Wiz scarecrow and "Idlewild" choreographer Hinton Battle. See what "he" can do with the piece next time out on the "big screen"!

odienator said...

What? No mention of the choreography?

Sorry about that. Shame on me, too, as I played The Tin Man in a (very small and minor) production of The Wiz. If I had to do this piece over, I'd make a satisfactory mention of the Dancin'.

"Unless" they "remake" the movie now with a "still youthful" looking Stephanie Mills and her "nip tuck" nose!

Stephanie Mills would need more than her new nose to convince me she's the Stephanie Mills I saw on Broadway. She'd need a shitload of Vaseline on the camera, more than Warner Bros. put on the lens when they did Lucille Ball's movie version of Mame.

There's no way they could remake this movie, nor should they attempt to do so. This is a time capsule, shot in a New York whose centerpiece doesn't exist anymore, and with a Scarecrow who's gone from a handsome bruva to the scariest White woman since Leona Helmsley.

Hinton Battle did indeed choreograph Idlewild, and when the movie was showcasing that, it worked. Someday I'll have to publish my infamous review of Idlewind (the only piece I ever voluntarily pulled), perhaps here at BMV. I spent a fair amount of time talking about the dancing, specifically Andre Benjamin's closing credits number. It stands as one of the all time great musical numbers (and an homage to Stormy Weather to boot). Had Idlewild pitched itself with the kind of damn-it-all, swing for the fences ferocity of that number, it would have been a masterpiece instead of a failure that didn't trust its weirder angles. (That fascinatingly weird cuckoo clock number, for example, almost feels redacted.)

Hal said...

Odie, just caught up with this again for the first time in probably 25 years. Have to say I agree on all accounts, though this was visually dazzling at times.

Ross was all wrong for all the reasons you mention. If they didn't have confidence in Stephanie Mills headlining a feature in 1978, I think Irene Cara would have been a solid second choice.

Agree that Schultz would have been the perfect man for the director's chair too.

odienator said...

Thanks, Hal. The Wiz was actually on the other night on cable. I caught it on my favorite sequence, Mabel King's showstopping "No Bad News." It's too bad that, while picking actors from the Broadway musical, nobody thought to pick up the lead as well.

Why do musicals always seem miscast? Lucille Ball covered in Vaseline in Mame, John Revolta in Hairspray, etc. Perhaps I was too harsh on Miss Ross on this one!

Anonymous said...

"The Wiz" "Movie" "can" be remade for all the "right" reasons! Just like, for example, all those other "total" remakes of "Batman", "Superman", "Gypsy", "Hello Dolly", "The Day The Earth Stood Still","King Kong" and now "Star Trek". A total new vision for a new Wiz film can be erected! Let's say "not" in a setting of a mega metropolis New York City. But rather "black folks" living in wonderful rural America with many acres of beautiful country side and vistas. Picture "The Color Purple" or Gordon Park's "Sounder". Now, throw the story of The Wiz's "Dorthy" in the middle of something like those examples and start the music "and" that "tornado! We're in buisness!
Emerald City and Munchkin Land can now be the product of a whole new imagination and technology beyond compare.

odienator said...

I love your enthusiasm, Anonymous, and I'm always saying "I wish Hollywood would remake bad movies instead of good ones," but I just can't bring myself to endorse a Wiz remake. You should get on it, however, and pitch it to one of those little studios that make money off the Black community like Lionsgate or Screen Gems.

If you cast Sam Jackson as the Cowardly Lion, I'll go see your remake.

Anonymous said...

OK! Here's "my" pitch. First of all, let's ask "Alice Walker" to pen her treatment of a whole new "The Wiz" screen play. In the beginning, young Dorthy for example, is depicted as being critically abused and neglected in some way, with possibilities of darkly driven subtext. Instead of her trying to find safety with her family as the tornado approaches, she pulls away from at least one of her parents grasp. In an effort to end her secret torment, she runs suicidally toward and into the winding "ground zero" wind saw. Only to find her efforts has awakened her to Oz. A magical place of "survivors". "Spike Lee" or "Passenger 57" "Kevin Hooks" can direct. Dorthy would be a complete "unknown" "triple threat" discovery to be "introduced" to the world. The Cowardly Lion would be "Anthony Anderson". The Tin Man would be "Dave Chappelle". The Scare Crow would be "Chris Brown". The Wiz would be a singing, sleek, dramatic, but eventually flawed "Eddie Murphy".Three candidates for choreographer would be "Hinton Battle","Dwight Roden" or "Alonzo King". The music could be overseen by "Prince" and/or "David Foster".
Special effects would be innovative and off the chart across the board! Via "Industrial Light & Magic"! The supporting cast would be most of best actors, singers and dancers available.
Dorthy eventually returns from Oz
and swiftly confronts her antagonist head on. Because
this is her "HOME"!

Anonymous said...

I am one of the few black people in the USA I know of who never drank the Diana Ross Kool-Aid. I think she's a mediocre singer and actress, Lady Sings the Blues notwithstanding. I knew one of the dancers from the film version, and he insisted that Mills was never really considered for the role because she was bluntly told by movie producers that she was unattractive. But Mills has always had an incredible, show-stopping voice, and I think it is a shame that she didn't recreate the role that made her famous onscreen. It sounds like Ross' ego took control, but girl was always ambitious and let nothing stand in her way.

SagebrushDan said...

Yup. Agree on all counts. I saw it only once, and that was when it first came out. Ross was terrible and I am also glad it ruined her career. I was a Supremes fan in the 60s, and not at all thrilled with what she did to that group. The directing and sets were heavy-handed.

odienator said...

Now, now SagebrushDan!

I look back on this piece and realize I may have been too hard on the movie. It's part of my childhood and I love the parts I do with reckless abandon. I still think Miss Ross is WAY miscast and the direction is a lead balloon. But I've always loved the sets, for example.

I recently saw the film at Kaufman Astoria Studios' Museum of the Moving Image (Kaufman-Astoria studios is where The Wiz was shot) and looking at some of the memorabilia they had at the museum made me really nostalgic.

So part of me feels a little guilty about this one, though I stand by it!

Movielover1929 said...

What you call the biggest problem with THe Wiz is also the only reason it got made. Diana Ross was ( and quite frankly) still is a huge star and though Berryowned the rights it could not be made into a film by a major studio without Diana. Remember Michael wasn't Michael Jackson yet on the scale he was after Off The Wall and Thriller.Through just a phone call Diana Ross brought Michael Jackson to the table as well as Richard Pryor Ashford and Simpson and Quincy Jones. This led to the collaboration of Quincy and Michael and the re-collaboration of DIana and Ashford and Simpson (I.e. : The Boss) . It also reignited her career ( this is before Upside Down,I'm Coming Out, Endless Love etc) she didn't write it or direct it. She had certainly already proven she could act and sing. The real blame should go to the director and the choice to "plain out Diana" (no one wanted to see an unglamorous Diana Ross.
Still Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, NIpsey Russell, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Ted Ross, Mabel King all in one movie. I'll take it

odienator said...

Thanks for your comment. The Wiz ruined Miss Ross' film career, which is kind of sad because she's great in Lady Sings the Blues and her later TV movie work was also good. "Out of Darkness" has a fantastic performance by her.

But "Plaining out Diana" is not the problem. In my piece on Lady Sings the Blues at this website, I admired how raggedy Miss Ross is willing to look onscreen in service to her character. (In the aforementioned TV movie, she plays a schizophrenic, and she's not glamorous at all.) So I can buy plain Diana. The real issue is that she was too goddamn old to be playing Dorothy. And the movie's attempt to sell her to me as an innocent didn't fly even when I was 8 years old and watching this on the big screen.

You're absolutely right about Lumet being at fault here. The "who" in my title extends equal blame to Diana Ross and Sidney Lumet. And you're also absolutely right in saying "I'll take it." I agree, for better and worse. By the way, I wrote a followup piece to this, where I express some nostalgia-based regret after seeing "The Wiz" on the big screen last year, at the studio where it was shot:

What did you think of the NBC live show?

Anonymous said...

It can be argued that 'The Wiz's' decidedly unattractive locations sadly detracted from the actors stellar performances. Whatever the film's budget was spent on, many of its sets got short shrift. That aside, the wonderful cast really did put their heart & soul into their roles & sang their guts out. Since it's established early on that Diana Ross's Dorothy is a super shy teacher & not a child, her age didn't bother me. Her living situation is something many families with limited incomes can relate to. Lots of things can hold you back in life that may or may not be in your control. This film addresses the ones you can control.

When aimed at a black audience (the target audience), 'The Wiz' cleverly succeeds in crafting emotional & psychological subtexts based on the realities of 70's urban life that escape a lot of ivory tower film critics. The people who wrote the screenplay & choreographed the scenes purposefully couched the film's messages in clever subconscious imagery.

The visual impact of seeing such beautiful people strutting their stuff proudly in the Emerald City, looking glorious, is as important psychologically for people to see as the "Brand New Day" scene when the ugly shells are cast off & burned to ashes as the freed people realize how gorgeous they truly are.

Some critics ragged on the 'Believe In Yourself' song as being too schmaltzy but those critics miss the entire point of this film. This song is so important that it's sung twice by two powerhouse singers. It's a message kids NEED to hear & don't hear enough. Dorothy's age in this version of The Wizard of Oz is more relevant than the average critic may realize. The messages in The Wiz are not just for children starting out in life but also for adults starting over & moving on with theirs.