THE WIZ Librettist William F. Brown Passes Away Age 91
William F. Brown, the Tony-nominated American writer who is best known for his libretto to the long-running Broadway musical The Wiz, died on June 23 in Westport, CT, according to his longtime wife and collaborator, Tina Tippit. He was 91.
Brown was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on April 16, 1928. After attending Princeton University, he moved to New York City and landed a job writing for Look Magazine in 1950. After a year in the U.S. Army, he worked from 1952 to 1954 as a television producer for the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne (BBDO), while also starting a freelance career as an author, illustrator, cartoonist and TV writer. He began his show business career by contributing comedy sketches and lyrics to nine of cabaret producer Julius Monk's acclaimed revues that were popular in Manhattan and Chicago through the 1950s and 1960s.
Brown made his Broadway debut when his play The Girl in the Freudian Slip opened at the Booth Theatre on May 18, 1967. A wild contemporary comedy about a married psychiatrist who finds himself attracted to a patient, the show ran only four performances, but is notably the first adult Broadway credit for Bernadette Peters, who was cast as a standby in the role of the psychiatrist's teen daughter. A popular illustrator, Brown also designed the play's advertising artwork and logo.
The following year, Brown was head writer on the Broadway revue Leonard Stillman's New Faces of 1968 and was hired to write to book for How to Steal an Election. Subtitled "A Dirty Politics Musical," the off-Broadway musical opened in the weeks prior to the 1968 Presidential election that brought Richard Nixon's victory. With a score by folk artist Oscar Brand, the show depicted Jazz Age president Calvin Coolidge materializing to give a cynical political history lesson to two disillusioned protesters (played by Clifton Davis and Carole Demas, who would both go on to successful Broadway careers).
Brown's next project become a Broadway juggernaut and earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical. The Wiz was a contemporary retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, featuring a street-smart book by Brown, an R&B score by Charles Smalls and an all-black cast of performers. Although it opened with little fanfare at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975, it would go on to win a total of seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and run for over four years on Broadway. A movie version was released in 1978, and The Wiz was revived on Broadway just five years after its closing in 1984. Brown was involved in many high-profile new productions of the popular hit throughout his life, and updated his book for a successful 1990s tour that reunited original show stars Stephanie Mills and André De Shields.
Following the success of The Wiz, Brown collaborated with Lee Adams and Charles Strouse to write the book for A Broadway Musical, a backstage musical about their experience writing the show Golden Boy for Sammy Davis Jr. fourteen years prior. It premiered off-Broadway at the Theatre of the Riverside Church for a 26 performance run before transferring to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where it opened on December 21, 1978. Famously, it closed the same night.
Other theatrical ventures include the book for the musicals Damon's Song, Twist and The Nutley Papers and the musical revues Coconuts (which premiered at the Coconut Grove complex in Miami), Straight Up With a Twist and Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know at Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Westport, CT. His play A Single Thing in Common was also published. He also wrote the book and lyrics for about 100 corporate industrial shows, films and videos for clients including Ford Motors, State Farm Insurance and Pepsi-Cola.
Brown has over 100 television writing credits including David Frost Review, That Was the Week That Was, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Johnny Carson Show, The Merv Griffin Show and Love American Style. He also wrote special material for performers including Joan Rivers, Georgie Kaye, Leslie Gore, Joey Foreman and Joel Grey, for whom Brown created a TV pilot.
Brown was also head writer for A Salute to Those Who Served, a two-hour musical event with a cast of over 200 that was held in Washington, D.C. at the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
In addition, Brown was a syndicated cartoonist with the comic strip Boomer and wrote and illustrated five books he also authored, as well as illustrating many others.