An Essay By: Brannon Johnston
I am honestly ashamed to admit that before taking this class I had never seen The Wiz. I know, I know, it is truly a shame and I did not realize just how much I was missing out on until now. I mean, The Wiz Live! has Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba, AND Amber Riley (from Glee!). How could anyone not be excited about a cast that star-studded?! Released in 2015, The Wiz Live! is a made-for-television adaptation of the 1978 Broadway musical, The Wiz. The Wiz is based on the classic novel The Wizard of Oz but it is a modernized version that includes an almost entirely Black cast. This live version of The Wiz was directed by Kenny Leon and choreographed by Fatima Robinson. The Wiz Live! was adapted from the original musical book from The Wiz by William F. Brown. The songs and lyrics also came primarily from the original production and were written by Charlie Smalls. The Wiz Live! subverts and alters the traditional thematic and design elements of The Wizard of Oz throughout all aspects of production and ultimately crafts a representation of Blackness on the musical stage that seeks to redefine traditional ideas of race in musicals.
When I was watching The Wiz Live! I couldn’t help but notice how much both the music and choreography of the “Emerald City Ballet” stood out from most other numbers in the musical. Throughout the number, we hear this intense, rhythmic, four-on-the-floor backing beat that feels reminiscent of a club. Composers Timothy Graphenreed and George Faison also sprinkle in horns and some synth effects to really take us back to the 1980s. Upon my first viewing of this musical, I noticed the distinct style of dance that is used in this number but after reading some fellow classmates posts about “Emerald City Ballet” and doing some googling I found out it is called voguing. Thanks to this article from the National Museum of African American History & Culture, I came to learn that this style of dance originated between the 1960s and 1980s in Black and Latino LGBTQ communities. I found it so interesting to compare voguing to my own traditional expectations of ballet. When I think of ballet, I can’t help but imagine slow, smooth twirls and leaps, but voguing appears more sharp, angular and very rhythmic. Choreographer Fatima Robinson’s choice to use voguing in a number titled as a ballet felt like an intentional reclamation to me. Ballet has been historically an extremely white-washed style of dance that has, in the past, been limited to very specific body types, genders, and appearances. In this number, we see dancers of multiple races, genders, and body types in insanely ornate and diverse costumes performing a style of dance created by minority LGBTQ communities. The “Emerald City Ballet” therefore redefines not only our ideas of ballet, but also reclaims and reminds us of the origins of voguing as accredited to the Black community.
Growing up, I probably watched the original Wizard of Oz movie more times than I’d honestly like to admit. Not only did my grandmother love the movie, but so did I and I’m sure she enjoyed playing that more than my other typical choice, Scooby-Doo. To this day I find it nearly impossible to watch the film and not be left singing,
We’re off to see the wizard
The wonderful wizard of Oz
We hear he is a whiz of a Wiz
If ever a Wiz there was
If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was
The wizard of Oz is one because
Because, because, because, because, because
Because of the wonderful things he does
We’re off to see the wizard
The wonderful wizard of Oz!”
Just as “We’re Off To See the Wizard” repeats throughout and bookmarks Dorothy’s journey to Oz in The Wizard of Oz, “Ease on Down the Road” makes its fair share of reprises in The Wiz Live! as well. By the end of the live musical I found myself now singing,
“Come on and ease on down, ease on down the road
Come on and ease on down, ease on down the road!”
I found it so interesting that The Wiz chose to change the iconic and horrendously catchy “We’re Off To See the Wizard”, but I found this change incredibly necessary for the musical as well. To me, The Wiz recreates and reimagines The Wizard of Oz with a much more modern and fresh look and soundtrack. By changing those iconic songs from the original, The Wiz is better able to establish itself as an independent story that is based off of The Wizard of Oz rather than just a remake. In “Ease on Down the Road,” composer Charlie Smalls creates a number that feels more relevant today than the sing-songy tunes of “We’re Off To See the Wizard.” Rather than a song to skip down the yellow-brick road to, Smalls provides us with a track that makes us want to dance down the road. With a funky baseline, catchy low horns, and a studio backbeat that could arguably be in a radio rap song, “Ease on Down the Road” just feels cooler. The song makes The Wiz Live! more accessible to teenagers and many young people than Judy Garland’s soprano voice backed by strings, tambourine, and what sounds like a full-on orchestra. While both songs make use of horns to some degree, The Wiz Live! has ditched the violins for bass guitars and the Christmas-level cheeriness for a funky and fun tune.
Just as The Wiz Live! has modernized classics like “We’re Off To See the Wizard,” it has also modernized our perceptions of Blackness on the Broadway stage. Featuring an almost entirely Black cast and modernizing the music, The Wiz Live! is able to become a musical for everyone. Between fabulous representation for aspiring young actors and actresses and offering non-traditional musical music that would be able to be played on the radio, The Wiz Live! has something that appeals to everyone, musical lover or not. Songs like Tin Man’s “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” are reminiscent of classic R&B tracks while other songs like “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” have elements that sound like samba or salsa music. The musical influences in The Wiz Live! provide yet another great example of musical diversity on the Broadway stage.
While The Wiz Live! kept many characters in costumes very close to the original Wizard of Oz looks, the costume designer Paul Tazewell gave Dorothy a completely new look. Shanice Williams comes onstage as Dorothy in a plaid schoolgirl’s skirt, bright red sneakers, and a matching red jacket. This is a huge change from the Judy Garland Dorothy who wore that knee-length blue frock with ankle socks and carried her basket the whole time. For modern viewers, farm girl Dorothy feels distant, and out of touch with the lives of most children today. However, a fun schoolgirl Dorothy feels instantly more within our reach. By changing Dorothy’s look, Tazewell automatically tells us from the very beginning of the show that The Wiz Live! is new, fresh, and definitely set in a more recent time period than the farm girl Dorothy we have come to expect. All the characters costumes are somewhat updated, but the shining star is Dorothy’s new outfit. It is absolutely essential to making the musical both stand out from The Wizard of Oz and also appeal to a younger generation.
From its star-studded casting to its modern songs and fabulous choreography, The Wiz Live! was destined to impact our views on race and representation on Broadway. The Wiz Live! subverts and alters the traditional thematic and design elements of The Wizard of Oz throughout all aspects of production and ultimately crafts a representation of Blackness on the musical stage that seeks to redefine traditional ideas of race in musicals. The songs featured in The Wiz are a refreshing new look at how diverse and different musical soundtracks can be now as compared to the stricter and more narrowly defined musical and movie soundtracks of the early 20th century. The Wiz shows viewers how we can and should transform our cultural products over time in order to keep up with the cultural institutions within which we exist. Ultimately, by revamping and creating a new musical based off of a classic like The Wizard of Oz we are better able to see the direct comparison in representation not only through the casting, but also through music and choreography. The Wiz Live! boldly calls attention to better representations of Blackness on the Broadway stage and sets a precedent for all musicals to follow.