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‘The Wiz’: How TV Turned a Troubled Stage Show Into a Smash

On Dec. 3, NBC will air a live production of “The Wiz,” a musical that has been a huge audience draw for 40 years. But that Yellow Brick Road was nearly a dead end, because the show almost closed before it got to Broadway in 1975. And, interestingly, its savior was television.

Producer Ken Harper came up with the idea for an all-black musical version of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1972, since it was in public domain. Fox agreed to back the show in exchange for a first option on a film version, publishing rights and first option on the soundtrack album. It was capitalized at $650,000. The show had tryouts in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia but at each stop, Harper considered shutting down the show because business was so slow.

The Wiz” began its Baltimore run on Oct. 21, 1974, and a Variety review said, “It has a potential for something special but needs more wizardry,” including trimming. Stephanie Mills starred as Dorothy. Also in the cast were Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who later became Phylicia Rashad, as a Munchkin — and, before the show was trimmed, “Gone With the Wind” veteran Butterfly McQueen as the Queen of the Field Mice.

It opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater on Jan. 5, 1975; by that point, Fox’s investment was close to $1 million. “The Wiz” cost $67,000 a week to run, but box office was only half that. After one week of performances and with minimal group/advance sales, the show posted a closing notice. However, producer Harper and Fox’s Warren Lieberfarb convinced 20th topper Dennis Stanfill to commit $110,000 more for a four-week promo blitz, including a then-radical concept: TV ads. Lieberfarb called television “a new media form for selling legit”; the target was the 18-35 audience.

Fox spent $30,000 to produce the TV ad, and another $55,000 to buy 101 spots over two weeks. They surveyed audience members to see where they’d heard of the show; most said TV ads. According to the Variety Archives, the evening performances were 50-50 black-white, and many said they had never seen a Broadway show.

In the first week, the box office doubled and it continued to grow. In a Feb. 26, 1975, banner story, Variety certified that the musical went from “dubious legit prospect to SRO smash.” The show featured a book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls; staging was by Geoffrey Holder (who had taken over from Gilbert Moses III), with musical staging by George Faison. It ran on Broadway for 1672 performances.

But the Yellow Brick Road was rocky again when it was adapted for the screen. The estimated cost of the 1978 “The Wiz,” from Universal and Motown Prods., was $30-35 million. (By comparison, “Jaws” a few years earlier cost $7 million; the 1980 “Heaven’s Gate” was estimated at $44 million.)

Diana Ross, aged 33, was determined to play the young girl. In the New Yorker, Pauline Kael described it as “perhaps the strongest example of sheer will in film history.” It proved to be Ross’ final big screen outing. The film was also Michael Jackson’s only big screen lead (he did a cameo in “Men in Black II” and starred in other works like the Disneyland “Captain Eo.”)

Variety‘s reviewer said the Sidney Lumet-directed film was “for the young in heart and deaf of ear,” adding, “it has to be the highest-decibel film ever made.” Despite the many misgivings, he predicted it would be a success. It wasn’t, with only $21 million in B.O. But the stage version continued to score big on the road and in endless school and community productions.

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