For this essay, we chose to have a candid conversation about the multitude of ways in which The Wiz forever changed the concept of the TV musical. We agree that compared to previous television musicals, The Wiz stayed true to its mission of representing the black community through song and dance. The actors specifically highlighted parts of this culture not only through their visual appearance, but also through movement and dialogue. We chose to have a conversation about this because we wanted to share ideas and insights in a less formal manner, and we wanted to highlight how our perspectives differ.
Lily: In what ways does The Wiz differ from The Wizard of Oz?
Sam: Although the plots and characters in The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz are similar, there are some differences as well. One apparent difference is the casting. The Wiz traditionally has an all black cast, while The Wizard of Oz is all white. The songs are different as well, reflecting these cultural differences. The Wizard of Oz’s soundtrack is full of ballads and classic Broadway-style tunes, while The Wiz incorporates elements of jazz, blues, and gospel, which align with black culture. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the Munchkins sing to Dorothy, telling her to“Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” In The Wiz, this same plot point comes in the form of a jazzy “Ease on Down the Road.” Another difference is that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is from Kansas, while she is from Harlem in The Wiz, also depicting the cultural differences associated with race.
Hadley: The general plots of The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz are practically the same, however the differences show through the casting, musical numbers, styling, and dance. As Sam mentioned, The Wiz has an all-black cast and is meant to be set in New York City rather than Kansas. The musical numbers also show more elements of jazz and gospel, reflecting the black culture that the musical is meant to portray. The styling of the characters was also more modern than the original Wizard of Oz. Dorothy in The Wiz wore a stylish plaid skirt rather than the classic Wizard of Oz Dorothy dress. I think that this made the musical more interesting to people my age because the characters were dressed more modern and the musical numbers were also more stylish and catchy.
Sam: How do song and dance create a progressive representation of black culture in The Wiz?
Lily: This is a great question, Sam! One number that I think is a great example of how The Wiz shows a progressive representation of black culture through song and dance is the number “Ease on Down the Road.” In this number, Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man all come together to sing about their journey to the Wizard. This song includes elements from R&B, Soul, and the Blues to create an incredibly upbeat and exciting moment in the show. Additionally, the dance moves are reminiscent of Hip Hop. Given the change in lyrics from “follow the yellow brick road” to “ease on down the road,” this allows all of the characters to recognize their autonomy; they had the choice to decide where they wanted to go. The deeper meaning here could be that in addition to arriving at a destination where they can find the Wizard, they also have a desire to move toward a more equitable world.
Hadley: I really enjoyed listening to “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” sung by the Wicked Witch of the West. I think that this number stood out to me because it features a woman unapologetically in a position of power, which is definitely a progressive representation. She has complete control over her workers and they definitely take her seriously. Although I don’t have a lot of background knowledge on this, the song is different from typical Broadway numbers that I have seen and is more reminiscent of a gospel style song. This is a representation of black culture, and paired with the strong female vocal is a really cool scene that portrays the intersection of gender and race. Throughout the musical, the song and dance represent different aspects of progressive black culture and this was just one number that stood out to me.
Hadley: How does this musical provide a greater impact than color-blind casting?
Sam: I think that The Wiz made a bold statement by selecting a completely black cast. This is different from color-blind casting, such as in Hamilton, which ignores race in selecting cast members. The Wiz is a black representation of The Wizard of Oz, so it makes sense that the whole cast would be black. If they had instead used color-blind casting, there would not have been the same effect, and the cultural aspects of the music and choreography would not have made sense. I think, in a way, the creators of this musical were pointing out the overwhelming whiteness of the original movie and responding to that by taking it in the opposite direction.
Lily: I agree with Sam. I think that one of the most special and impactful parts of this performance is the choreography and music itself, which honors black culture. This is an integral part of the musical, and color-blind casting would not have captured this aspect of The Wiz Representation means more than just showing representation through casting choices; it involves showcasing cultures and identities. The Wiz displays Afrofuturism, which combines science-fiction, technology, and history to connect African Americans with their past. Clearly, the social impacts of this show are deeper than what would have been accomplished with color-blind casting. In multiple realms—from dance to song to hidden meaning—this show gave the black community visibility in theater.
Lily: Why do you think this musical appealed to more than just black audiences?
Sam: I think that audiences were probably curious to see an adaptation of one of the most classic and well-known movie musicals. Personally, I was curious to see how the storyline and characters differed. I was also curious to hear the music, and I could not imagine what the musical would be like without “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” On a larger scale, I think The Wiz appealed to larger audiences because of the familiarity of the story. If this had been an original musical with an all-black cast, I do not think that it would have been as successful. In addition, it is interesting to consider that most Broadway audiences are white. This musical probably expanded the Broadway audience to a more diverse crowd by appealing to a group other than white people.
Hadley: I agree with everything that Sam said. To add to this, black music styles such as rap and R&B are very popular with my generation, and definitely younger generations as well. I can see the appeal of going to see a classic musical plot with updated music and style, especially to a young person like myself. I can also see older people wanting to see an adaptation of a classic musical that they grew up with. I would hope that a musical like The Wiz was able to reach a broader audience than most broadway shows do, and show young people how fun musicals can be.
Sam: What is an example of oppression in the musical and what is an example of oppression in today’s society relating to race and culture?
Lily: One moment in the show which provides an example of oppression is when crows taunt the Scarecrow, who is powerless in this moment. The Scarecrow is both physically and mentally bound, as he sings “You Can’t Win,” further delineating his inability to have autonomy in this moment. No matter how hard he tries, the crows always bring him back to the post, where he looks helpless. The lyrics of this song certainly hold a hidden meaning, such as when he sings “People keep sayin’ things are gonna change/But they look just like, they’re stayin’ the same.” In other words, though others may attempt to create a more progressive society, racism still very much exists. This connects to an example of oppression in today’s society relating to race. Police brutality is an issue which plagues our society; 1 in 1000 black men might be killed by police over the course of their lives. This statistic is sobering. It is obvious that as a society, we have a lot of work to do to actually create an equitable society and to eliminate racial profiling. We must continue to “Ease on Down the Road” to make a world which is truly fair.
Hadley: Another example of oppression in the musical is when the residents of the Emerald City don’t take Dorothy seriously until they see her shoes. When Dorothy first arrived at the city, the guard was extremely rude to her and didn’t even want to let her in. Soon after, the residents of the city were dancing around her and making fun of her when she asked to see the wizard. However, as soon as they realized that she had killed the evil witch, they took her seriously and wanted to help her. This is reflective of how many women are treated in today’s society. We often have to work harder to be taken seriously by people, even if we are overqualified. In particular, black women have to deal with even more oppression. Just like how Dorothy wasn’t taken seriously by the people in the Emerald City, many black women are not taken seriously in today’s society based on nothing more than appearance.
Hadley: Why were people hesitant to turn this into a live TV musical?
Sam: With the previous underwhelming receptions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan performed on live television, I can understand the hesitation of taking on The Wiz in the same format. Because it is an all-black musical, a poor performance would have reflected very poorly on the black community in general. There are critics of every performance, but it would be difficult to separate the criticisms of the musical or performance itself from the underlying implications of black culture. Both The Sound of Music and Peter Pan are very white musicals, so I think they were definitely taking a risk by doing The Wiz. However, The Wiz was better and more successful than either of the two predecessors, and they did the musical justice in the live version with an outstanding cast and performance.
Lily: As we’ve learned in class, people were hesitant to turn The Wiz into a live TV musical for a number of reasons. As Sam said, if the live TV performance of The Wiz had gone poorly, there were real concerns about this altering the meaning and intention of the show to highlight black culture through song and dance. Skeptics were worried that this would have translated into people conflating black culture with a bad performance. While people unfortunately did “hate watch” this show, it was a huge success, showcasing black culture on the big screen in a way that had never been done before. While it certainly makes sense why this hesitance existed, the world is better because of this performance!
We really enjoyed our conversation about The Wiz and gained new perspectives on the live musical from listening to each other’s responses. Overall, we think that The Wiz was revolutionary in its depiction of black culture in a traditionally white story, both in its original debut and in its remake in 2015. For many, this was the first time that black audiences could see themselves represented on television—a true feat and something that was long overdue. It has never been more relevant to have these conversations about respecting and gaining and understanding of different cultures and diversity of thought!