Black Power. April 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Whenever I feel blue I turn to one of the greatest musicals ever made: The Wiz. The Wiz was a 1978 remake of The Wizard of Oz which was a big ask. To add to the expectation, the cast is entirely black. We have the great Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion. The stupendous cameos include Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch of the North and the formidable Mabel King as Evilene the Wicked Witch of the West.

When Dorothy goes over the rainbow, she finds herself in a surreal example of New York with the munchkins frozen on a wall as graffiti and the flying monkeys on board Hell’s Angel motorbikes. It is fly and a half with patois, mean dance moves and a joyousness that matches the Judy Garland original.

The Wiz flopped at the box office. It cost $24 million to make and turned over only $13.6 million. It also put off the studios from casting any more all-black casts for twenty years. If The Wiz was released today I think it would win Academy Awards for Diana as Dorothy and for the dancing which is hotter than Gene Kelly in his pomp.

This being the 1970s, the stereotypes come thick and fast but I find any criticism is unfounded. This was black power at its best: dancing and singing to shame any musical in history plus acting that was as true as Judy in the original Wizard of Oz. The trick with fairytales is to play it true and Diana Ross is a perfect counterbalance for Judy Garland: a little older, a little wiser but still an innocent in a crazy world.

In place of Dorothy’s gingham dress, we have Diana wearing a lavender knee-length dress with sufficient flare to spin with her and give the rise and fall of the dances. It is not sexy and Dorothy, my dear, is not sexy. She is on the cusp of life waiting to learn lessons that will be taught in Oz. 

It strikes me that even in 1978, if a film was all white cast there would be no comment which is no compliment to the critics who panned The Wiz. Diana Ross dances better than Cyd Charisse in numbers such as Ease on Down the Road and her finale on melting Evilene. Michael Jackson is a joy as the Scarecrow: as black as the day he was born and beautifully naive and caring. Nipsy Russell as the Tin Man brings a tear to the eye that makes one rust.

I find black performers can dance better than the white folk and sing that little bit extra. Is that racist? Only if compliments are racist. Whoever reimagined Oz as New York city was a genius. We have yellow cabs that drive themselves, subway bins that turn into killer monsters and deserted Coney Island fairgrounds where the Tin Man is discovered. Evilene’s lair is a sweatshop and the poison poppy field is a dirty club in Harlem.

I do think one cannot underestimate Diana Ross’s talent. She doesn’t dance any more; rather than sway and flick her hair. But in The Wiz Diana dances like a gypsy on fire. The tight afro with the flowing dress and silver slippers makes a completely contemporary Dorothy from the 1939 version. The vulnerability in Diana’s voice is heart-rending.

Of the cameos, Reichard Pryor is suitably timid and foolish as the Wiz while Mabel King as Eviliene is a ball-breaking diva in a hideous child-like frock and fright wig makeup. Her Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Good News makes me wish that Margaret Hamilton got a number in the original Wizard of Oz.

The eleven ‘o clock number goes to Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She appears as a star in the sky surrounded by little black babies who are evidently good sprites waiting to wake-up. When she sings Believe I am in floods and I mean buckets. Lena Horne has one of the voices of the 20th century and she shows her chops in the few minutes granted to her by The Wiz. 

Michael Jackson inevitably takes top bill now whenever The Wiz is broadcast and there is some justification in the brilliance with which he took the part as the Scarecrow. However, nobody can take away from Diana Ross who deserved the Oscar for The Wiz just as she did playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues in 1973.

Interesting that the first black woman to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in 1939 playing Mammie in Gone With The Wind. Best actress had to wait until 1974 when Dihanne Carroll won for Claiudine in 1974. She was followed by Whoopie Goldberg in 1985 for The Colour Purple, Angela Bassett for the 1993 Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It and Halle Berry for the 2012 film Monster’s Ball.

I still maintain that Hollywood was not so hot on black performers in 1978 when they overlooked Diana Rossa in The Wiz. She sings, she dances up a storm and acts the part of Dorothy beautifully. Who was nominated that year? Jane Fonda as usual and Ingrid Bergman in an unforgettable late role. Diana was robbed.

I never tire of watching The Wiz because it plays tribute to the original while never referencing it directly. There’s always a clever spin on the original Wizard of Oz producing an entirely new musical. And that’s the trick for all of us, isn’t it? Taking the past and weaving something new into it. Until next time…