Women ruling the world? Surely, you’re kidding.
But if you’re in Oz, that’s exactly the case.
The Wiz Live!, a televised musical produced by NBC in 2015, directed by Kenny Leon, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with original book by William Brown, choreographed by Fatima Robinson, and with musical directors Harvey Mason, Jr. and Stephen Oremus, put women in power, with Dorothy, all four witches, and the Wiz being written as women. The production featured Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, David Grier as The Cowardly Lion, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, Amber Riley as Addapearle, Common as The Bouncer, Stephanie Mills as Auntie Em, and Shanice Williams as our heroine, Dorothy.
This production of The Wiz directly challenges gender stereotypes by putting powerful women on the stage at every turn. Female tropes of pliability, fear, innocence, and modesty are transferred onto male characters such as the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man, who all believe themselves incomplete, and who Dorothy convinces to travel with her to Oz in order to be made whole again.
The Dorothy in this production is not the innocent, frightened girl we’ve seen in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, she is confident, brave, and an inspiring leader to those around her. In fact, she leads the musical’s men around, rounding up the incomplete lion, scarecrow, and tin man to go to the Emerald City to be made whole. The image of a confident, courageous, and smart girl leading a group of men is not one that is regularly seen, and it’s an important and progressive take on The Wizard of Oz.
Upon reaching the Emerald City, Dorothy and her friends encounter the court in “Emerald City Ballet,” which is full of references to ball culture, which was a refuge for LGBTQ+ people, and especially those of racial minorities, with the creation of underground ball culture as a response to the racism of earlier balls put on by white men (Buckner, n.d.). The ensemble are dressed in lavish, ‘80s-inspired geometric outfits that accentuate their poses as they dance, incorporating voguing, another nod to ball culture. There isn’t any singing, and the only words that are said are slang from ball culture, such as “slay” and “serve.”
In a fitting extension of our introduction to Emerald City, we first meet the Wiz as a drag king, complete with a totally badass outfit, sharp makeup, and an attitude and authority that frightens even our brave heroine Dorothy. It’s important to note that, even when the Wiz is later discovered to have faked the fire-casting and other intimidating elements of her performance, she still has enormous love and respect from the citizens of Oz, as shown in the scene near the end of the musical when she leaves to go back to her home. Even more remarkable is the fact that such respect is given to the woman behind the stage makeup, who previously embodied the typical brute-force power of a masculine character who ruled by fear without ever even being seen.
When I watched The Wiz Live, I was pleasantly surprised by the overt and extensive elements of queer culture in these sections of the musical. As an LGBTQ+ person, I wasn’t expecting a musical based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to positively pay homage to the history of those who paved the way for my rights and freedom to express that aspect of my identity. It was also refreshing to see references to ball culture including Black performers, since, over time, ball culture has become a safe and affirming space for Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people (Buckner, n.d.).
Later on in the musical, when the Wiz is “found out,” she becomes an approachable character audiences are able to grow fond of in a different way. She and Dorothy debate over the idea of home and what a good life entails, which again emphasizes Dorothy’s confidence and tenacity, and eventually the Wiz is convinced that it’s time to leave her solitude and go back to the real world.
By creating an array of strong, powerful, and respected female characters, The Wiz Live! works to undo gender stereotypes and the tired, sexist depictions of women in mainstream entertainment. I would even go so far as to say that it succeeds in making people think about what makes this musical different from the things they usually watch, and in giving girls traits to aspire to beyond timidity, modesty, and pliability. I cannot stress enough how crucial this is in current times, when everything from diet culture to politics seeks to knock women down and take away our power. The world needs representations like this, and The Wiz Live! has, pun intended, paved the way.
Buckner, R. (n.d.). Underground Ball Culture – Subcultures and Sociology. Subcultures and Sociology. Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-ball-culture/