The Wiz Live – A Tribute to Black Culture

Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, Cameron Madden

Professor Essin

THTR 3333-01

14 April 2021

In December of 2015, NBC television repaired its reputation for airing sub-par musical theater revivals with The Wiz Live. Written by Harvey Fierstein and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the marvel captivated viewers across the country. This live stage production featured a fresh cast and new adaption of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, an reinterpretation of the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Composed by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz Live brings Black musical genres like R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway stage. Further increasing representation in musical theater, the production features an incredibly talented, all Black cast. In its music, choreography, dialogue, and casting, The Wiz Live reimagines the infamous story of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz to not only represent, but wholeheartedly celebrate Blackness. Musical theater critics Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, and Cameron Madden discuss the musical’s elements and its cultural impact as a celebration of Black culture on the musical stage.

  1. The Wiz Live is notoriously known for adapting a mainstream musical – The Wizard of Oz – to be rooted in Black culture in many different facets. One key element of The Wiz that separates it from the original concept seen in The Wizard of Oz is casting. What casting choices do you feel made the most impact on the production of The Wiz Live and why? Do you think that The Wiz was successful in using casting as an intentional approach to combating issues of race and ethnicity on Broadway?

Cameron Madden: I believe that the most impactful casting choice that was made by the producers was actually the choice of the entire cast itself. I am sure you are curious what that could possibly mean. Well, if you look below you’ll know exactly what I am talking about…

The Wiz: Queen Latifah

Evillene: Mary J. Blige

Cowardly Lion: David Alan Grier

Addaperle: Amber Riley

Scarecrow: Elijah Kelly

Tin Man: Ne-Yo

Auntie Em: Stephanie Mills

Dorothy: Shanice Williams

Holy famous! Right! So why did they do this? Well, in my opinion, the answer is simple. The utilization of such big names in music and acting were used in such a volume to bring as much attention as possible to the film. While, yes, having recognizable names within a cast will increase revenue, it is far more than that. I am confident that this was done to put the film in the spotlight to reach the highest volume of watchers. The fact of the matter is that more famous people will yield a larger audience, which in turn, will allow for more people to experience such a celebration of Black culture. In summation, the producers’ choice to utilize such recognizable people was the most important casting choice as it allowed for most people to experience Black culture and the celebration of it.

Sophia D’Agostino: To no surprise, the all Black cast wasn’t well received by all. As one angry twitter user typed, “I just learned there is a Black version of The Wizard of Oz called ‘The Wiz’– How is this not racist?” Well, @MJTM (as of 2015), I’ll tell you how!

Let’s remember that the treasured The Wizard of Oz starring Hollywood sweetheart Judy Garland included an all white cast. In fact, released in 1939, the movie was made during the segregation era. In reimagining the original movie and casting all Black actors to perform a new version on the broadway stage, The Wiz Live gives a voice and stage to a culture that has been historically and systemically suppressed. On top of that, as we have discussed in class, Black actors are often marginalized in musical theater like many other industries. They are frequently defined by their Blackness and pigeonholed into a small number of roles that have “Black” written into their character descriptions. As a revival of a Tony award winning musical that requires an all Black cast, The Wiz Live brings much needed representation and inclusion to musical theater. I just know someone wants to ask, “Why does it require an all Black cast?” Well, because Black culture is embedded in the musical. My peers and I will provide in depth analysis of this soon, but an example that comes to mind is the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout the script. Characters often call each other “brother” or “child,” language that holds nuanced meaning exclusive to Black culture. It’s only right that The Wiz’s script is performed by Black actors. Plus, I’m sure white performers will be fine auditioning for the thousands of roles left for them. 

  1. Written and composed by Charlie Smalls, the music and lyrics of The Wiz weave together gospel, blues, soul, and R&B, genres and sounds created by Black musicians. How do the musical elements – the lyrics, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, etc – of The Wiz’s songbook celebrate Blackness on the musical stage?

Sophia D’Agostino: As a kid who grew up watching the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, I remember humming “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” all the time. Ever since viewing The Wiz Live, I can’t stop singing “Ease on Down the Road.” The funky beat and exuberant melody make me want to get up and dance at every listen. Another one of my favorite numbers is “You Can’t Win” because of the soul in Scarecrow’s voice. I’m no music expert, but the song sounds like a hit rhythm and blues classic, especially with the crows joining in the background like a gospel choir. I also think there is an important meaning behind the song. The Scarecrow’s first line before singing the “Crow Commandments” is “Ain’t no getting ahead for folks like me.” As Cameron mentioned, I saw the song as a metaphor for how Black Americans have been and continue to be oppressed within our racist culture and society, just as the Scarecrow was belittled by the crows. It’s certainly a dark message for such a funky song, but I believe it’s empowering, for as we know Scarecrow breaks free. 

I’ll always love “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the classical songs from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz seem mundane and boring in comparison to the hits from The Wiz Live. It’s no surprise the creators of The Wiz’s songbook scrapped the oldies, for they were written to be performed by white actors for white audiences. In contrast, The Wiz Live weaves together musical genres, historically created by Black musicians for Black folks, to be performed by Black actors for Black audiences to resonate with. In bringing R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway musical stage, these genres and their musicians are given the recognition and respect they deserve.

Zoe Antell: Music always has, and always will be, a very important aspect of Black culture. Dating back to the times of slavery, music has played a crucial role in the lives of African-Americans as a way to come together as one and take pride in their culture. Whether it is Motown, soul, R&B, or any of the other genres that are rooted in Black musical history, there is more meaning to songs than just their lyrics, rhythms, melodies, and tempos. Unfortunately, there is a consistent pattern that features of Black music are poached by White artists who fail to give credit where it is due, and often profit greatly. However, The Wiz Live shines a bright light on Black music and its roots in Black culture. So necessary. The R&B/soul music in the production, performed by an all Black cast, was a powerful combination that essentially takes a stand against this appropriation. Essentially, The Wiz Live re-claims Black culture by bringing it to the musical stage. Televising Black people performing these incredible songs rooted in their culture is a way of saying, “this music is ours and we want the world to know where it came from and what it means for Black culture.”

  1. Not only is the original narrative changed by the musical’s all Black casting, but The Wiz also diverges from the 1939 version with new musical numbers and changes to the plot. How do these changes in this musical adaption empower the Black characters?

Cameron Madden: So when asked this question, the scene where Dorothy and Scarecrow meet immediately comes to mind. Dorothy stumbles upon Scarecrow during her walk on the yellow brick road and immediately conceals herself observing the crows mock him for asking to be let down. It is in the beginning of this scene that calls attention to a sort of ritual lynching was experienced by Black men in the United States and segways into the musical number “You Can’t Win.” Additionally, when the Scarecrow and Dorothy are talking, we see that he has a deep desire for knowledge and how this will give him freedom. Yet, we are able to hear the crows state “you can’t win child, you can’t get out of this game” shutting down any hope towards freedom. We see in these two moments a situation between slave master, the crows, and slave, the Scarecrow. As a caucasian, this was bone chilling to think about. Through analysis, we see this relationship, but in the emotional sense, nothing can truly capture how horrible the Scarecrow must have felt. Not even the crinkles in his skin or his longing facial expressions. Lasly, I think it is important to state how this scene emphasizes knowledge and freedom and utilizes that to highlight a historic slave narrative of literacy leading to freedom and a better life. Ultimately, this scene and number highlight said slave narrative bringing forth the awful circumstances that were once upon us. Yet, it does so in a way that says, “we are not afraid of our past. In fact, we welcome you to experience us with it. This is our past and because of it, we are better.”

Zoe Antell: The most important contrast that I noticed between The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz Live is Dorothy’s character. In the 1939 version, Dorothy is portrayed as a lost and disoriented girl in a strange land, seeking guidance as she tries to navigate through the confusing circumstances. However, The Wiz Live gives Dorothy a twist. She is not just a girl in need of help, but a powerful, Black woman who has agency and the ability to fend for herself. The Hollywood Reporter frames Shanice Williams’ role very well, stating that the character shifted to be “an empowered Dorothy who sets out on a journey driven by her own desires, rather than a victim merely reacting to strong tornadoes and flying houses.” 

One of the best examples of Dorothy’s powerful demeanor in the show is right after the number “You Can’t Win” which Cameron just mentioned. Dorothy stands up to the crows, puts her hands in fists, and shows that she is ready to take a stand and fight off the crows. This is not something that The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy did in the 1939 film. Here, Dorothy is demonstrating her fierceness and strength. Later in the film, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are all ready to walk away and give up on their journey. But, Dorothy is not on the same page. The musical number “We Got It,” written specifically for The Wiz Live, is an incredible depiction of Dorothy’s role as a strong protagonist, rather than a helpless girl. She sings, “this won’t be easy, no way, no how. But, we won’t back down.” In both of these scenes, and many others throughout the film, I really felt the powerfulness of Dorothy’s character. Dorothy in The Wiz Live really encapsulates the role of a powerful and strong Black woman, which is not often something we see on stage. Not only does this empower the characters, but also the viewers watching. For all of the young, Black females watching The Wiz Live, Dorothy is a role model and inspiration. 

Both the original Broadway production and The Wiz Live carry an important message: Black artists, Black performers, Black characters, Black music, and Black culture have a place on the musical stage and beyond. As mentioned, the all Black casting of The Wiz Live gives Black actors an opportunity to represent and celebrate Black culture on stage. The songbook, which weaves together musical genres like R&B, soul, blues, jazz, and gospel, pays tribute to African American contributions to music. By reimagining the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the writers of The Wiz Live create inspiring characters and protagonists that empower and resonate with Black folks. The musical demonstrates the power of representation, and paves the way for musical theater to become a vehicle of diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. 

Sources:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/wiz-live-dorothy-backstory-empowered-844161

The Ironic Duality: Newsies fight to break the system while perpetuating another

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate enough to have tremendous exposure to Broadway, as compared to most. From my apartment, all I had to do was hop on a 15 minute subway ride and there I was: walking through the streets of Times Square, blinded by the bright lights of billboards, pushing through crowds to locate the theater. On a cold December night during my holiday break in eighth grade, I begrudgingly got dressed in my “theater clothes” in preparation to go see Newsies with my father. He explained the show, and how it takes place in New York City and follows a group of young newsboys who, day after day, sell newspapers to try to make ends meet. Infuriated by Pulitzer’s selfish decision to raise the price of newspapers, the newsboys decide to take a stand, form a union, and fight for their rights. My thirteen year old mind was convinced that Newsies would never live up to the bar set by my favorite musicals. (After seeing Kinky Boots just a few months earlier, I decided that it would take second place to Mamma Mia!, modifying my ever changing list of top five musical productions.) 

As I was ushered to my seat in the Nederlander Theater, I flipped through the Playbill that I was handed upon entry, since I always like to know a bit about the show before the curtains open. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, the music was by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and, unbeknownst to me, Newsies would not only be produced by Disney, but would specifically be produced by Thomas Schumacher. I smiled to myself as I remembered that the number five musical on my favorite’s list, The Lion King, was also a Schumacher production. When the curtains closed just a couple of hours later, I stood in applause and sang Seize the Day quietly to myself as I left the theater. What I didn’t know at the time was, almost a decade later, I would be watching a recording of the musical for my theater class at Vanderbilt, analyzing the role of masculinity in the main character Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan. Through an in-depth analysis of Newsies, it will become immensely clear that countless aspects of Jack’s character such as appearance, power, and romance – play a role in promoting harmful gender roles through his amplified toxic masculinity. 

Within minutes of the opening of the show, it is obvious that Jack Kelly is the leader of the newsies. The first scene, setting the stage for the rest of the production, features Jack Kelly and Crutchie, his best friend and fellow newsboy with a bum leg, played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. You might be asking yourself, how exactly did I make the immediate assumption that Jack would be the main character? Well, for starters, Jack is more stereotypically attractive than Crutchie. Also, he is able-bodied, highlighted by Crutchie who has to limp across the stage and can’t even climb down a ladder on his own without help. There was no doubt in my mind that Newsies would be written so that the main role was a quintessential, masculine character – and unattractiveness and disability are not two characteristics that I would pin on a male lead. I am not here to say that it is criminal for musical authors to write shows that have these types of male leads, and I do acknowledge that my immediate assumption of Jack’s lead role is one that is embedded with deep-rooted norms and expectations. However, it is still important to note that the writers did not make any active decisions to defy this norm. The fact that even at the point where I knew close to nothing about the characters and plot, I was somehow able to determine that Jack would be the star, demonstrates these overarching standards of masculinity which Newsies plays into.

The masculine qualities embodied by Jack Kelly’s character continue to be amplified as the musical progresses with the addition of power as a male gender role. All of the newsboys look up to Jack as their leader, and what would masculinity be without leadership and power? The first time we hear dialogue that gives clues into Jack’s status as – what I call – head newsie, is when he meets Davey and Les, who are just starting out selling newspapers. Crutchie makes it clear that “selling with Jack is the chance of a lifetime,” verbally affirming his superiority in the group. (00:15) As the plot continues to develop, the newsies have to brainstorm what they can do in response to the raise in prices for “papes.” After Jack suggests a strike – which requires forming a union – and Davey tells the group that they need officers, Crutchie nominates Jack as president with no hesitation. Cheering and applauding erupts amongst the newsies, as if it was a given that Jack would take leadership without second thought. Even in terms of stage direction and movement in this scene, Jack is highlighted as the head newsie. All of the other boys gather around him on stage, looking directly at him as he thinks and makes decisions from the center of the group. Jack’s position of power among the group is unsurprising. Of course, for a man to be a man, he MUST be a leader. Newsies surrenders itself to this stereotype, as Jack Kelly’s power even further contributes to his normative masculinity. 

I know you have all been waiting for this one, so I won’t leave you stranded any longer: women. There is no better indication of toxic masculinity than seeing how stereotypical male characters interact with their romantic interests and Jack Kelly’s character does anything but defy this norm. From the very first interaction between Jack and Katherine Plummer, a gorgeous reporter, it is clear that he is interested in her from how he pushes his friend away in an effort to talk to her. Later, Jack, Davey and Les make their way to Miss Medda’s theater where Katherine is writing a show review for her job as a reporter. Despite the fact that Jack knows that Katherine is busy working and uninterested, he is persistent and seems to believe that his desire is more important than anything else. He continues to minimize her as he comments on her appearance saying, “the view is better here” when she asks him to leave her alone. (00:29) Jack’s aggressive chase continues even to the extent where, when Katherine asks him what he wants in the context of a career, he responds, “can’t you see it in my eyes?” as he inches up close to her, bites his lip, and (tries to) talk in a seductive voice. (00:47) The cherry on top? You guessed it. She ends up caving and falling for Jack at the end of the show. The way that Jack essentially preys on Katherine through both dialogue and movement is yet another contributing factor to his problematic portrayal of gender and masculinity.  So, if it wasn’t clear before, it is definitely clear now: Jack Kelly lives up to many of the stereotypes of masculinity that invade our culture. Whether it’s the male ‘standard of attractiveness’, the need to be an outgoing, powerful leader to be masculine, or the idea that being masculine is accompanied by the entitlement to aggressively pursue women, Jack has the qualities that check all of the boxes. The fact that many of Jack’s characteristics are predictable and “true to form” for a male main character is evidence that Newsies is definitely not alone in representing and normalizing this toxic masculinity. However, that does not deem it justifiable. For all of the young boys out there who have watched and will watch Newsies, Jack Kelly’s character will be subconsciously added to a list of male figures that fit these problematic gender norms. Boys who look up to Jack’s character as a role model for fighting for change and are inspired to follow in his footsteps might also internalize the other problematic male gender norms that seem to often go along with these masculine lead roles. Newsies is not at fault for creating these harmful norms, but instead, Jack Kelly is just another case for why they are perpetuated over time.