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Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: THE WIZ


This week's decluttering is only freeing up a tiny bit of space in my collection, but it represents an enormous place in my heart. The only version of The Wiz I have on CD is the AMAZING/IF YOU DON'T KNOW IT, YOU'RE NOT A TRUE BROADWAY FAN original cast album starring Stephanie Mills. I do have the movie soundtrack in my iTunes and the soundtrack of "The Wiz Live!" is on Apple Music, so let's dive in.

As everyone knows, The Wiz is the 1975 Broadway musical reimagining The Wizard of Oz from an African American perspective, especially in its Motown flavored score, by Charlie Smalls, who won the Tony, but sadly died too young without leaving any other major works. If some of Smalls's lyrics are a bit watery and undramatic in the manner common in pop music, his melodies sparkle and slither and soar. Reviews were mixed for the show except for Geoffrey Holder and George Faison's verve-tastic staging and choreography, the likes of which we could really use again today.

The Wiz was a big hit on Broadway and immediately entered the canon of shows popular in regional, stock and amateur productions. The title of the show alone (and what it conveys) was so impactful as a pop culture trope that it continues to echo ubiquitously today, like on last week's "Saturday Night Live" with the "Them Trumps" sketch asking what it would be like if our current First Family were black.

Motown Records acquired the film rights to The Wiz and Berry Gordy wisely refused to cast his greatest star, the by then too old Diana Ross, as juvenile Dorothy. Diana went over his head to Universal Pictures and got the movie financed with her starring. Creatively this was a fatal blow as I think the movie released in 1978 is pretty great in every other way. (I'm particularly fond of the movie's taking the "African American reimagining" one big step further, literally setting it in a fictionalized New York City with 1970s Harlem standing in for Kansas.) The movie was panned and flopped at the box office, although it's remained popular in the home video market partly due to megastar Michael Jackson's presence as the Scarecrow.

The Wiz flips The Wizard of Oz mold upside down giving Dorothy a big ballad at the end about how she wishes she could go "Home" instead of one at the top about wanting to go "Over The Rainbow." "Home" is worthy of its legendary legacy, at least as sung by the singular Stephanie Mills on the original cast album. Mills has one of those crazy rare voices that retains its loveliness, or even gets more beautiful, as it grows bigger and beltier and more bombastic. It's huge asset for Dorothy because she can sound brassy without sounding strident (and more impressively, vulnerable without sounding weak). She's just as stellar in Dorothy's other material. She's sweet as pie in "Soon As I Get Home," one of those fun early Act One musical theater moments that end with a preview of the lady's later big number, like "I'm The Greatest Star" or "The Wizard And I"). And Stephanie Mills's rendition of "Be A Lion" is as powerful an anthem to bravery in the face of fear as has ever been recorded. I've literally lip synced to it in the mirror on many mornings before big life events. In the final section of the song where she duets with the Cowardly Lion, at one point she riffs up from her normal pop vocal placement into a virtuoso Gospel high note that is just staggering. I couldn't even hit the note lip syncing! I wonder what Ted Ross thought, after singing the song as the Lion opposite Stephanie for so many performances, when he then had to film it with Diana Ross. At least he had his big solo "(I'm A) Mean Ole Lion" to shine on.

The sad thing about Diana Ross in The Wiz is that she's actually good. I mean she's good in the sense that, "Wow, Diana Ross can act. Maybe I should watch Lady Sings The Blues too?" But she's just plain wrong. She was 33. You can make an artistic choice to cast Dorothy as 13 or 17 or even 19 or maybe 23. But she can't be 33. Or maybe someone else at 33 could do it, but Diana Ross had far too much life experience and world wisdom in her voice and in her eyes and felt like the opposite of a little girl. The movie tried to navigate this by making her a schoolteacher still living at home with her Aunt and Uncle, but it was easy to forget that once she got to Oz and if you ever remembered the fact, it just made her seem neurotic and sad. It was a layer that the story didn't need or want. Obviously, Diana Ross has one of the defining voices of the 20th Century--a perfect pop instrument. But it lacks the youthful fire of Stephanie Mills and it takes the steam out of Dorothy's engines. It's basically like if they made the movie of Annie with Barbra Streisand.

As Dorothy in "The Wiz Live!," Shanice Williams--an unknown selected by a nationwide talent search (yeah, that's how you cast that role!)--delivers the goods. I remember enjoying her acting on the broadcast and on the album, her technically perfect vocals are beyond reproach. If I still find myself missing Mills, well just remember I hate all Annies in Annie for not being Andrea McArdle, but then I turn around and hate Andrea McArdle as the Star To Be in the TV Annie for not being Laurie Beechman. So, to quote a song from The Wiz, "You can't win."

"You Can't Win" is a song that was cut before The Wiz opened on Broadway, but then sung by Michael Jackson in the movie (and Elijah Kelly in "The Wiz Live!") in place of the Scarecrow's song, "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday." It's easy to understand the substitution of the lighter, more pop-flavored song for Jackson, who dazzles in it (and in the role in general), although THREE-TIME TONY WINNER (yes, you heard me, look it up) Hinton Battle is electrifying in the heavier, more R&B original song, even without his (what must have been thrilling) dancing to watch. On the TV version, Elijah Kelley (Seaweed in the 2007 movie musical of Hairspray), is great, but the updated the sound of "You Can't Win" makes me wish they had just gone back to "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday."

Back to Barbra Streisand playing Annie, I mean Diana Ross in The Wiz. I'm not saying Miss Ross stole screen goddess Lena Horne's big song as Glinda because I don't know whose idea it was for Diana as Dorothy to sing the song before it got to be Glinda's turn, although I do know there's another album "Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz" where Miss Ross gets a turn at everyone's stuff--just saying. Regardless, Diana singing Glinda's song in the movie left Glinda's later reprise of it boring and redundant and made me turn off the movie before it ended (when I would watch it as a child). For crying out loud, Diana should have just played Glinda. She sings "If You Believe" (or "Believe In Yourself" as it's alternatively called on the movie soundtrack) more than well enough. It's a shame that I turned off Lena Horne's version all those years, though, because it's divine. For anyone who thinks of Lena Horne as having done all her great work in the old days, this is a reminder of how vital she still was long past that. (Side note to the uninitiated, you must watch her 1981 hit one-woman show The Lady And Her Music, which she performed on Broadway for over a year!)

Dare I say an even better rendition of Glinda is multi Grammy-winning jazz legend Dee Dee Bridgewater's Tony-winning performance on the original cast album. The coffee ice cream she serves is just as sweet and rich and mellow as Lena's, but with an added kick, which is even more goosebump inducing live onstage as I've been lucky enough to witness.

Furthermore, the role of Glinda is truly an embarrassment of riches as the part was played in "The Wiz Live!" by "Orange Is The New Black"'s "Crazy Eyes" Uzo Aduba, who actually began her career in theater, including the 2011 Broadway revival of Godspell where she sang "By My Side." Uzo may be the best of all. For those who only know her as an actor, her luminous Glinda was a revelation. The voice is dark with gorgeous classical richness, yet always expressive and authentic. Broadway needs her.

The other good witch, Addaperle (rechristened Miss One in the movie) was played originally on Broadway by veteran actress Clarice Taylor familiar to my generation as Grandma Anna Huxtable on "The Cosby Show." She got my favorite song from The Wiz, "He's The Wizard." I've spent over 30 years marveling at how much "He's The Wizard" reminds me of the hit 1983 single "The Love Cats" by Post-Punk New Wave rock band The Cure.

I was 7 years old in 1983 and at the peak of my love affair with The Wiz. The Neo-Vaudevillian vibe of both "The Love Cats" and "He's The Wizard" with their bluesy melodies, bouncing basslines and those memorable ragtag scat choruses as the keys shift from minor to major and back again represent my dream fusion of music and theater (or theater and music) like the "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter" Reese's commercial that played during my taped-off-TV VHS of The Wiz.

Singing the song in the movie, show business veteran (and "Donna Murphy" to Pearl Bailey's Dolly Levi) Thelma Carpenter is just as sassy and insinuating as Clarice Taylor, but also has a big ole Broadway belt she lets rip in all the right places. The only problem with the song on the movie soundtrack is that it gets a little too vaudevillian, including the several instrumental breaks (featuring music not from this song) for the Munchkins' choreography, which of course we can't see. In the TV "Wiz," Amber Riley (from "Glee") is fine, but the song has been rearranged to sound more current and it kills what made the song special. It's too bad because the rest of Musical Director Stephen Oremus's orchestrations and arrangements for "The Wiz Live!" are really great and they preserve the distinctive sound of the original (or update it in a way that maintains its greatness), even the iconic "Ease On Down The Road," loses none of its Motown funk.

Moving on to the other ladies in the cast, Aunt Em gets the first song in the show, "The Feeling We Once Had," and it's real tearjerker of a ballad. For "The Wiz Live!," Stephanie Mills matriculates movingly to Aunt Em. On the original cast album, singer Tasha Thomas belts the shit out of it and it's gorgeous, although I'm personally partial to Theresa Merritt's rendition on the film soundtrack. Merritt sings it in a truly beautiful, thick and chunky old lady mezzo that always reminds me of the line about Aunt Em from the original movie The Wizard of Oz, "her face is careworn... she's crying... someone has hurt her, someone she loves very much." Fun fact: stage and screen veteran Theresa Merritt played another role in The Wiz as a replacement Evilene in the original Broadway run.

Speaking of the Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene (Sorry, Elphabas... Evilene got there first!), the part was created on Broadway and recreated on film by the great Mabel King (the mom from "What's Hapenning!!"). It's a fearless performance, with her ripping through her solo "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" as if her life depended on it. At least as good is the version on TV where none other than the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" Mary J. Blige slaaaayyyysssss!!!!!

In a score that just overflows with riches, there is yet another shimmeringly soulful ballad, "What Would I Do If I Could Feel," for the Tin Man. I remember feeling stopped in my tracks watching R&B artist Ne-Yo give real heart and sumptuous vocals to it in "The Wiz Live!" Still, I prefer Nipsey Russell's recording as the Tin Man in the movie. He sings it very much in his Tin Man character voice and of course having Quincey Jones producing the soundtrack helps, especially on a 1970s soul ballad. With the muted trumpets and old vintage keyboards, it's pretty irresistible. Tiger Haynes on the Broadway album isn't as good a vocalist. Hearing him on the Tin Man's other song, the uptempo, "Slide Some Oil To Me" gives a better sense of why he was cast.

Wow, so much to say. Who am I forgetting? Oh, yes, duh, the Wiz himself! Richard Pryor has his moments in the movie, although he doesn't really sing and Queen Latifah was fun on TV, but the only Wiz for now or any other era is André De Shields. He's so distinctive spitting out his song "So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard" that it's hard to sing without doing an André De Shields impression--just like it is with all the really legendary Broadway performances. I once saw him on the subway in civilian clothes from the neck down (actually a velour track suit, thank you very much), but full Bride of Frankenstein afro, cheekbones and eyebrows up top, and it took all my self-control not to serenade him. I did manage a respectful curtsy on my way out. Broadway royalty, baby. And he's coming back this season in Hadestown. I hope he finally wins his long overdue Tony for The Wiz.

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