A Conversation Between Hadley S., Sam B., and Lily H. on The Wiz

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!

Tomboys, Brides, and Strippers: Femininity in Oklahoma! and Gypsy

As societal roles for women shifted throughout the early twentieth century, so did the representation of female gender and sexuality on the Broadway stage. The 1943 musical Oklahoma!, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, takes place on a prairie in Indian Territory in 1906. The 1959 musical Gypsy, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, takes place in various cities throughout the United States throughout the 1920s and 30s. While watching the film adaptations of these two musicals, I noticed the contrasting portrayals of femininity in two lead female characters in particular: Laurey and Louise. Laurey, played by Cynthia Gibb in the 1999 film adaptation of Oklahoma!, directed by Trevor Nunn, starts out as a prairie girl stuck in the middle of a love triangle and is married by the end of the musical. She plays a traditionally feminine role, struggling to choose between two men, Curly and Jud, knowing that she can acceptably pick only one. On the other hand, Louise, played by Josefina Gabrielle in the 1993 film adaptation of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, begins the musical as a quiet sidekick to her starlet sister and ends the musical as a stripper in a burlesque show. Louise’s story does not focus on love affairs, but rather on her coming into her own independent personality. While Laurey represents society’s traditional ideals about women, Louise represents the more alternative, modern ideals about femininity.

Despite their respective transitions to bride and stripper, Laurey and Louise are both introduced as tomboys, divergent from the traditional feminine ideal for young girls. Their costumes portray these anti-feminine styles, lacking the fancy, delicate, pastel pinks usually associated with girls. For much of the first act, Laurey wears a red plaid shirt and blue denim overalls, an outfit that would also be suitable for a man. Her simple look is completed with little or no makeup and her hair tied back in a ponytail. She is ecstatic when her Aunt Eller gives her a long, frilly, white dress with a lavender sash, which she wears for the remainder of the musical. Receiving this dress represents the beginning of her transition toward the more traditional portrayal of the female gender.

Louise’s first costume is strikingly similar in style and color to Laurey’s—she wears a red and blue suit with a messenger cap and pants that flair out in an unflattering and unfeminine way. In my opinion, she looks like a clown. Her goofy, tomboyish appearance starkly contrasts with that of her sister June, who is dolled up in a froufrou dress with puffy shoulders and bows on the sleeves. In the performance number “Baby June and her Newsboys,” Louise is such a tomboy that she actually plays one of June’s newsboys. Louise is soft-spoken, constantly being reminded by her mother Rose to “Sing out, Louise!” during the Vaudeville number “Let Me Entertain You.” Louise’s hair is almost always in two long braids, both on and off the Vaudeville stage, including as she gets older throughout the production. Off stage, she wears mostly neutral colors in styles that are more traditionally masculine than feminine. Although both female characters begin as tomboys, their paths diverge significantly as they mature into their own traditional or non-traditional performances of the female gender.

Laurey’s story begins with indecision about which man to go with to the box social—an inherently sexist event in which men bid on picnic baskets that women prepare and take the female basket-makers on a date to eat the food in said basket. Laurey turns down Curly’s offer, despite his extravagant plans to take her there in a “surrey with the fringe on top.” Instead, Laurey agrees to go with Jud even though he frightens her. As a result, she is shamed both for leading Jud on and for trying to make Curly jealous. Beyond the misogynistic box social concept, this scenario depicts the societal expectations placed upon women that they should aim to please men, to provide food for them, and to have relations with only one man at a time.

The themes of purity and monogamy continue through the first act. These rules do not seem to apply to Ado Annie, however, who admits to seeing Ali Hakim while her boyfriend Will was on a trip in Kansas City. In “I Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie laments about her difficulty in turning men down. With a comical tone, she sings “When a person tries to kiss a girl, / I know she oughta give his face a smack. / But as soon as someone kisses me, / I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss him back!” Ado Annie is improper and unladylike in her actions, speech, and mannerisms. Laurey constantly nudges Ado Annie to close her legs and to narrow her suitors down to one. Ado Annie thinks that Laurey can love both Curly and Jud, but Laurey is far too pure for that. Laurey is so distraught over her dilemma that she buys a magic potion from Ali Hakim that is supposed to reveal her true love.

The next scene takes place in Laurey’s dream while she under the influence of this “potion.” In this dream ballet, Laurey gracefully prances around with Curly, dancing and dramatically leaping into his arms. Laurey reaches the epitome of traditional femininity in the dream ballet as she floats around the stage, twirling and revealing her frilly petticoat. Although she cannot seem to wrap her head around being in love—she not too long ago was begging Curly “Don’t throw bouquets at me / Don’t please my folks too much”—she has clearly settled on her choice of a man and confirmed her role in society by settling into a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. From the moment that Curly outbids Jud for Laurey’s basket at the box social until they are finally married, she acts as nothing other than his beautiful and dutiful wife.

Unlike Laurey, Louise’s narrative does not revolve around men, but rather around her own personal transformation. After June quits the show and elopes with Tulsa—following the traditional female narrative of giving something up for a male—Rose asserts in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that she will make Louise into her new star. Louise did not enjoy performing very much in the first place, but she goes along with her mother’s antics. Rose clearly wants Louise to be everything that June was: blonde and talented. In one scene, Rose tries to make Louise, uncomfortably dressed as a cowgirl, wear a blonde wig, claiming that it will “make her look more like a star.” In reality, Louise knows that it will not make her look famous, but instead look just like her sister. Louise believes that she is failing her mother by not being exactly like June. This conflict between Louise and Rose demonstrates Louise’s struggle to avoid the typical feminine mold into which her sister had fit so perfectly.

Searching to find her own niche on the stage, Louise finds herself in a burlesque show. Awkward and out of place, Louise enters the stage in a blue satin gown and a frilly boa-like wrap. After an unwelcoming response from the audience, Louise gradually learns to please them by dropping her shoulder strap slightly. She claims her new name, Gypsy Rose Lee, which becomes her stage persona. The crowd absolutely loves Gypsy Rose Lee, and they go wild when she wears a red sequin dress and suggestively unfastens the front of it while facing away from them. Covering herself with the red velvet curtain, it is apparent that Louise has finally gained her confidence as a woman. Her signature number “May We Entertain You” with the other burlesque dancers alludes to her childhood Vaudeville performance of “Let Me Entertain You.” The lyrics “So let me entertain you / We’ll have a real good time” have a completely different and highly sexualized meaning when a stripper, not a little girl, sings them to the audience. As an on-stage stripper, Louise’s body is sexualized and objectified, as many women’s bodies are. Burlesque is definitely not traditionally feminine or empowering for women, but it does present an alternative expression of the female gender. Louise and the other strippers are extremely confident and independent, using their female bodies to please crowds rather than just one man.

After their similar beginnings as tomboyish girls, Laurey and Louise each grow into distinctly different women. This contrast is due in part to the transitioning roles of women in society at the time. In 1906, women did not yet have the right to vote and were still mostly confined to the limitations of their husbands. In the 1920s and 30s, however, women had much more freedom to express themselves. These historical trends are reflected in the differences in the character development of Laurey and Louise. Both portray aspects of femininity, but in very different ways. Laurey ends up a beautiful wife, making her husband Curly a happy man. Louise ends up a stripper, using her female body to make many men happy. While Laurey’s story revolves around men, Louise’s story focuses on her relationships with her mother, sister, and career. The two actresses perform the female gender very differently, but both successfully mirror the views of society toward women in the historical eras during which the storylines take place.