Original Broadway Production (1975)


Dorothy Plays the Palace

Michael Feingold
Village Voice After seeing The Wiz, I went home and looked up the word "vulgar" in my Webster's Collegiate, just to remind myself that the word's primary definition has no negative connotations: "Of or belonging to the common people or general public; general; public; popular." The Wiz is a musical show that belongs to the common people. It is general, it is public, and I will be surprised if it isn't extremely popular. As for the rest of us, it is advisable, when seeing the show, to locate the part of yourself that is entertained by popular entertainment of the best sort, and leave your scruples ("All these people should be watching an Ibsen play!") behind.

All that The Wiz intends to do is entertain. The original Wizard of Oz, which is luckily both a strong popular tale and a piece of good moral sense, is only used as a convenience for the purpose of triggering fun and fantasy. William F. Brown's book bears some hints of having once intended to reinterpret the original in the light of black experience: the scarecrow as an unemployable illiterate, the lion as a neurotic big-city dude, and so on. This is kept to a skeletal minimum which is fortunate, as the few scenes in which the script takes prominence (roughly eight minutes out of the two-and-a-half hour evening) suggest by their awkwardness that Mr. Brown is not the best man for the serious job of writing a play or reinterpreting a myth.

He is not bad, however, at the simple functions of transferring L. Frank Baum to the stage (Baum's name ought to be on the program, by the ways, and thinking up a few amiable jokes to pass the time and keep the story rolling. In this context, it is even important that some of the jokes be bad; the only one I object to is to Witch's "Who hired this schmuck?" which is not bad, but cheap ñ the simple substitution of a black slang word would make it funny.

The manufacturers of the entertainment which is lavishly draped over Mr. Brown's bony outline of a book are Charlie Smalls, the songwriter, and Geoffrey Holder, the director. Mr. Smalls's music, is, in the terms of its own genre, extremely stylish and well crafted; the weakness of the one song in the show credited to someone else is a very abrupt demonstration early in the second act of how much good music we have gotten in the first. Lyrics don't, matter much in this form, though it helps if they make sense and fit the mood, which Mr. Smalls's do. It struck me, hearing the singers attack the rich, phrases and so often break the words with improvised decorations, that the form resembles late-period bel canto opera: the words don't matter in Donizetti, either.

Thc singers take all on virtuosic flights, and it is to Mr. Holder's credit that this is done without waterlogging the dramatic movement. Many of the songs are staged almost naturalistically, loaded with emotional specifics and the frequent dancing is rife with touches that convey the presence of a strong dramatic sense. (It is true that the musical stagjng is credited to George Faison, but I have seen Mr. Faison's other work. Maybe he did the steps, but Mr. Holder added the flair.) It's the first time I have seen black music put to valid theatrical use on Broadway.

The cast, it need only by said is full of people who can do things, and Mr. Holder has taken care that they are presented to display fully what they can do. IT is true that he makes Hinton Battle (Scarecrow) sing a bit too much , which is not good, as Mr. Battle's marvelous dancing is a precious asset to us, and we don't want him out of breath. But this is a tiny fault, juxtaposed with the discretion Mr. Holder has employed in using his other non-singers and sem-singers, Clrice Taylor (Good Witch), Ted Ross (Lion) Tiger Haynes (Tin Man), and the immense Mabel King (Wicked Witch), for the special qualities each can bring to a song.

With the singers ñ Tasha Thomas, Andre De Shields, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and the remarkable 15-year-old, Stephanie Mills ñ he extends the performance, where he can, into acting or dancing; otherwise he has the sense to let them stand and deliver. It's entirely to the point that Dorothy, in this version, never gets home to Aunt Em. Instead she delivers a song about home, in a spotlight "in one" as if she had gone on from Oz to play the Palace. And that, as I said, is what The Wiz is all about: Entertainment.