Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Diana Ross” with a minor in “Academy Award Nominated Crap”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!
This week Supercult eases on down the yellow brick road to visit The Wiz!
Born and raised in Harlem, sheltered kindergarten teacher Dorothy has never traveled far from her parent’s home, but when she is caught in a magical snowstorm she finds herself transported to the Land of Oz! Can Dorothy find her way back home? Ease on Down the Road Supercult! The Stars! The Music! Wow! It’s the Wiz!
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a 1974 musical and book by William F. Brown based on the classic 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The Wiz is an urbanized retelling of the story featuring an original soundtrack by composer, songwriter, and jazz musician Charlie Smalls including songs like “Soon as I Get Home”, “Ease on Down the Road”, “Slide Some Oil to Me”, and “Funky Monkeys”. The show made its way to Broadway and in 1975 won seven Tony Awards including Best Choreography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Musical. The Wiz was an early example of Broadway’s mainstream acceptance of works with an all-black cast and the musical has since had several revivals in New York, London, San Diego, and the Netherlands. There was even a live television production of the stage show, The Wiz Live! Broadcast on NBC in 2015!
But this ain’t Super Broadway Cult. It’s Supercult…
The Wiz is a 1978 musical adventure film produced in collaboration between Universal Pictures and Moton Productions based on the 1974 Broadway Musical, based on the 1900 classic children’s novel. It seemed to be a no-brainer. After all, the classic 1971 musical Grease was set for a cinematic retelling in May of 1978. Musicals were still hot! And you know who else was still hot? Diana Ross, founding member and lead singer of one of the most successful American vocal groups of all time, The Supremes. I mean, yeah, she was in her 30’s at this point, but Robert Preston was 44 when he starred in the film adaptation of the Music Man! Plus, we got Richard Pryor as the Wiz himself, and this new up and coming star, Michael Jackson, who’s looking to make it solo away from his family’s music group, the Jackson 5. We can even film this urbanized fairytale in the actual city using places like the New York State Pavilion, Astroland at Cone Island, and the World Trade Center. How hard could this whole musical adaptation thing be? Even a scarecrow couldn’t screw this up!
Well, it turns out that even the future King of Pop couldn’t make up for what was described as “one of the decade’s biggest failures” and “expensive crud”.
Many critics directed their ire towards Diana Ross who they believed as far too old to play Dorothy. Initially 17-year-old Stephanie Mills, the actress who played Dorothy in the Broadway version of the Wiz, would reprise role for the film, however Diana Ross lobbied intensely for the role insisting that the role of Dorothy was ageless and that she could guarantee Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow is she was cast. This decision also led to the original director John Bedham, director of Saturday Night Fever and Supercult classics War Games, and Short Circuit, to be fired when he objected to the then 33-year-old Diana Ross being cast as the 14-year-old Dorothy. The story was even changed to from a teen to a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher, just to make the casting of Diana Ross make sense. On top of that, Diana Ross’s performance was described as “cold, neurotic, and oddly unattractive.”
The production itself was plagued by weather during the outdoor shooting and difficulty securing the necessary sets. In one scene the Cowardly Lion was meant to emerge from one of the lion statues in front of the main research branch of the New York Public Library, but due to the logistical impossibility of filming the entire scene devoid of pedestrians and traffic, the scene, and many others like it, had to be moved to a studio set. In the end, much of what worked on stage simply did not translate to the screen or was left on the cutting room floor. As a result, the film grossed just $21 million from a budget of $24 million, Diana Ross’s cinematic career was cut short, and The Wiz was dubbed “the year’s biggest musical flop.”
Oddly enough the only person wo survived the ordeal unscathed, was Michael Jackson. Critics noted Jackson’s “genuine acting talent” and praised his performance as one of the only positive parts of the film. Jackson, who had impressed the crew of the film with his dedication to the role and endearing personality on set, would later work with Quincy Jones, the musical supervisor and musical producer on the Wiz, to produce three hit albums, Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. In 1980 Jackson described his time working on The Wiz as “my greatest experience so far…I’ll never forget that”
In spite all the critical panning, The Wiz was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Music Score). The film has gone on to become a cult classic, partially because it is one of Michael Jackson’s starring roles in a film, but also because The Wiz stands alongside other curiously outmoded “black films” like Shaft, Super Fly and Supercult classic Blacula.
So gaze with wonder at this cinematic curio from a bygone era when a Motown remake of “The Wizard of Oz” seemed like a pretty okay idea. After all, even if everything else is a complete train wreck, Jackson and Ross have got some amazing pipes.
The Supercult show is proud to present, The Wiz!