The Wiz Live – A Tribute to Black Culture

Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, Cameron Madden

Professor Essin

THTR 3333-01

14 April 2021

In December of 2015, NBC television repaired its reputation for airing sub-par musical theater revivals with The Wiz Live. Written by Harvey Fierstein and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the marvel captivated viewers across the country. This live stage production featured a fresh cast and new adaption of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, an reinterpretation of the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Composed by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz Live brings Black musical genres like R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway stage. Further increasing representation in musical theater, the production features an incredibly talented, all Black cast. In its music, choreography, dialogue, and casting, The Wiz Live reimagines the infamous story of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz to not only represent, but wholeheartedly celebrate Blackness. Musical theater critics Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, and Cameron Madden discuss the musical’s elements and its cultural impact as a celebration of Black culture on the musical stage.

  1. The Wiz Live is notoriously known for adapting a mainstream musical – The Wizard of Oz – to be rooted in Black culture in many different facets. One key element of The Wiz that separates it from the original concept seen in The Wizard of Oz is casting. What casting choices do you feel made the most impact on the production of The Wiz Live and why? Do you think that The Wiz was successful in using casting as an intentional approach to combating issues of race and ethnicity on Broadway?

Cameron Madden: I believe that the most impactful casting choice that was made by the producers was actually the choice of the entire cast itself. I am sure you are curious what that could possibly mean. Well, if you look below you’ll know exactly what I am talking about…

The Wiz: Queen Latifah

Evillene: Mary J. Blige

Cowardly Lion: David Alan Grier

Addaperle: Amber Riley

Scarecrow: Elijah Kelly

Tin Man: Ne-Yo

Auntie Em: Stephanie Mills

Dorothy: Shanice Williams

Holy famous! Right! So why did they do this? Well, in my opinion, the answer is simple. The utilization of such big names in music and acting were used in such a volume to bring as much attention as possible to the film. While, yes, having recognizable names within a cast will increase revenue, it is far more than that. I am confident that this was done to put the film in the spotlight to reach the highest volume of watchers. The fact of the matter is that more famous people will yield a larger audience, which in turn, will allow for more people to experience such a celebration of Black culture. In summation, the producers’ choice to utilize such recognizable people was the most important casting choice as it allowed for most people to experience Black culture and the celebration of it.

Sophia D’Agostino: To no surprise, the all Black cast wasn’t well received by all. As one angry twitter user typed, “I just learned there is a Black version of The Wizard of Oz called ‘The Wiz’– How is this not racist?” Well, @MJTM (as of 2015), I’ll tell you how!

Let’s remember that the treasured The Wizard of Oz starring Hollywood sweetheart Judy Garland included an all white cast. In fact, released in 1939, the movie was made during the segregation era. In reimagining the original movie and casting all Black actors to perform a new version on the broadway stage, The Wiz Live gives a voice and stage to a culture that has been historically and systemically suppressed. On top of that, as we have discussed in class, Black actors are often marginalized in musical theater like many other industries. They are frequently defined by their Blackness and pigeonholed into a small number of roles that have “Black” written into their character descriptions. As a revival of a Tony award winning musical that requires an all Black cast, The Wiz Live brings much needed representation and inclusion to musical theater. I just know someone wants to ask, “Why does it require an all Black cast?” Well, because Black culture is embedded in the musical. My peers and I will provide in depth analysis of this soon, but an example that comes to mind is the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout the script. Characters often call each other “brother” or “child,” language that holds nuanced meaning exclusive to Black culture. It’s only right that The Wiz’s script is performed by Black actors. Plus, I’m sure white performers will be fine auditioning for the thousands of roles left for them. 

  1. Written and composed by Charlie Smalls, the music and lyrics of The Wiz weave together gospel, blues, soul, and R&B, genres and sounds created by Black musicians. How do the musical elements – the lyrics, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, etc – of The Wiz’s songbook celebrate Blackness on the musical stage?

Sophia D’Agostino: As a kid who grew up watching the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, I remember humming “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” all the time. Ever since viewing The Wiz Live, I can’t stop singing “Ease on Down the Road.” The funky beat and exuberant melody make me want to get up and dance at every listen. Another one of my favorite numbers is “You Can’t Win” because of the soul in Scarecrow’s voice. I’m no music expert, but the song sounds like a hit rhythm and blues classic, especially with the crows joining in the background like a gospel choir. I also think there is an important meaning behind the song. The Scarecrow’s first line before singing the “Crow Commandments” is “Ain’t no getting ahead for folks like me.” As Cameron mentioned, I saw the song as a metaphor for how Black Americans have been and continue to be oppressed within our racist culture and society, just as the Scarecrow was belittled by the crows. It’s certainly a dark message for such a funky song, but I believe it’s empowering, for as we know Scarecrow breaks free. 

I’ll always love “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the classical songs from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz seem mundane and boring in comparison to the hits from The Wiz Live. It’s no surprise the creators of The Wiz’s songbook scrapped the oldies, for they were written to be performed by white actors for white audiences. In contrast, The Wiz Live weaves together musical genres, historically created by Black musicians for Black folks, to be performed by Black actors for Black audiences to resonate with. In bringing R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway musical stage, these genres and their musicians are given the recognition and respect they deserve.

Zoe Antell: Music always has, and always will be, a very important aspect of Black culture. Dating back to the times of slavery, music has played a crucial role in the lives of African-Americans as a way to come together as one and take pride in their culture. Whether it is Motown, soul, R&B, or any of the other genres that are rooted in Black musical history, there is more meaning to songs than just their lyrics, rhythms, melodies, and tempos. Unfortunately, there is a consistent pattern that features of Black music are poached by White artists who fail to give credit where it is due, and often profit greatly. However, The Wiz Live shines a bright light on Black music and its roots in Black culture. So necessary. The R&B/soul music in the production, performed by an all Black cast, was a powerful combination that essentially takes a stand against this appropriation. Essentially, The Wiz Live re-claims Black culture by bringing it to the musical stage. Televising Black people performing these incredible songs rooted in their culture is a way of saying, “this music is ours and we want the world to know where it came from and what it means for Black culture.”

  1. Not only is the original narrative changed by the musical’s all Black casting, but The Wiz also diverges from the 1939 version with new musical numbers and changes to the plot. How do these changes in this musical adaption empower the Black characters?

Cameron Madden: So when asked this question, the scene where Dorothy and Scarecrow meet immediately comes to mind. Dorothy stumbles upon Scarecrow during her walk on the yellow brick road and immediately conceals herself observing the crows mock him for asking to be let down. It is in the beginning of this scene that calls attention to a sort of ritual lynching was experienced by Black men in the United States and segways into the musical number “You Can’t Win.” Additionally, when the Scarecrow and Dorothy are talking, we see that he has a deep desire for knowledge and how this will give him freedom. Yet, we are able to hear the crows state “you can’t win child, you can’t get out of this game” shutting down any hope towards freedom. We see in these two moments a situation between slave master, the crows, and slave, the Scarecrow. As a caucasian, this was bone chilling to think about. Through analysis, we see this relationship, but in the emotional sense, nothing can truly capture how horrible the Scarecrow must have felt. Not even the crinkles in his skin or his longing facial expressions. Lasly, I think it is important to state how this scene emphasizes knowledge and freedom and utilizes that to highlight a historic slave narrative of literacy leading to freedom and a better life. Ultimately, this scene and number highlight said slave narrative bringing forth the awful circumstances that were once upon us. Yet, it does so in a way that says, “we are not afraid of our past. In fact, we welcome you to experience us with it. This is our past and because of it, we are better.”

Zoe Antell: The most important contrast that I noticed between The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz Live is Dorothy’s character. In the 1939 version, Dorothy is portrayed as a lost and disoriented girl in a strange land, seeking guidance as she tries to navigate through the confusing circumstances. However, The Wiz Live gives Dorothy a twist. She is not just a girl in need of help, but a powerful, Black woman who has agency and the ability to fend for herself. The Hollywood Reporter frames Shanice Williams’ role very well, stating that the character shifted to be “an empowered Dorothy who sets out on a journey driven by her own desires, rather than a victim merely reacting to strong tornadoes and flying houses.” 

One of the best examples of Dorothy’s powerful demeanor in the show is right after the number “You Can’t Win” which Cameron just mentioned. Dorothy stands up to the crows, puts her hands in fists, and shows that she is ready to take a stand and fight off the crows. This is not something that The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy did in the 1939 film. Here, Dorothy is demonstrating her fierceness and strength. Later in the film, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are all ready to walk away and give up on their journey. But, Dorothy is not on the same page. The musical number “We Got It,” written specifically for The Wiz Live, is an incredible depiction of Dorothy’s role as a strong protagonist, rather than a helpless girl. She sings, “this won’t be easy, no way, no how. But, we won’t back down.” In both of these scenes, and many others throughout the film, I really felt the powerfulness of Dorothy’s character. Dorothy in The Wiz Live really encapsulates the role of a powerful and strong Black woman, which is not often something we see on stage. Not only does this empower the characters, but also the viewers watching. For all of the young, Black females watching The Wiz Live, Dorothy is a role model and inspiration. 

Both the original Broadway production and The Wiz Live carry an important message: Black artists, Black performers, Black characters, Black music, and Black culture have a place on the musical stage and beyond. As mentioned, the all Black casting of The Wiz Live gives Black actors an opportunity to represent and celebrate Black culture on stage. The songbook, which weaves together musical genres like R&B, soul, blues, jazz, and gospel, pays tribute to African American contributions to music. By reimagining the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the writers of The Wiz Live create inspiring characters and protagonists that empower and resonate with Black folks. The musical demonstrates the power of representation, and paves the way for musical theater to become a vehicle of diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. 

Sources:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/wiz-live-dorothy-backstory-empowered-844161

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6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. The initial question is really well asked because it talks about casting. I agree with Cameron’s analysis that The Wiz Live! provided excellent casting choices, especially actors who are famous within the Black community, so that more publicity would be provided to the production. Another thing that I agree with in this analysis is that the musical choice in The Wiz Live! is less mundane in comparison to original Wizard of OZ production. I didn’t realize this and I was happy to see that Sophia picked upon this disparity.

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  2. This is a great dialogue between Sophia, Zoe, and Cameron. I enjoyed the focus on how the character choices played a large role in displaying black culture in a previously non-black production. Aside from all of the great things this production started, Sophia brings up a great point that the black cast was not well received by everyone. For example, the roles of characters included aspects of African-American culture. The music in this production is vital to its narrative, similar to how music played a crucial role in the time of slavery. Back then, songs were a way that slaves can come together and take pride in their culture. This dialogue does a great job noting how music expresses culture and pride. 

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  3. I really loved your analysis of The Wiz!! You all did an incredible job of explaining how The Wiz represents the oppression and exclusion that black people face in America but also the hope they have that everything will become better one day. I think what stood out while reading your responses were the analogies that you wrote about like the slavery narrative- the idea that the song “You can’t win” alludes to an interaction between a slave owner, which are the crows and a slave, which is the scarecrow. This analogy was perfectly executed because of how it highlights the terrible experiences that black people have faced in this country at the hands of an oppressive system. Great responses! Did not want to stop reading!

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  4. This is an incredibly well-written and entertaining conversation about such a powerful production. As a tribute to black culture, this musical production very effectively gives full and unwavering representation of the different aspects of the culture which you all thoroughly explain. I completely agree with the musical being a vehicle for representation and empowerment. Although there are grim concepts within some of the songs, they are all woven together perfectly for a rightful reacquisition of several norms which have almost been stolen by other cultures which is really important.

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this dialogue. As Sophia mentions, I think The Wiz Live subverts the racial norms we typically see in musical theater. The use of an all Black cast, distinctly Black vernacular, and traditionally Black styles of music help make this musical an unequivocally black creation. For example, the number “Your Can’t Win” mixes genres like soul and R&B. These genres are central to the African American musical tradition. I also loved what Zoe brought up about the characterization of Dorthy in The Wiz Live. Dorthy is characterized as not “just a girl in need of help, but a powerful, Black women” with agency. This point really stood out to me. We don’t typically see woman leads with agency in musical theater, let alone Black woman leads. I think the musical’s representation of Dorthy set a precedent for the trophe of the “strong Black woman” in popular productions. As a Black woman, on one hand, I find this representation empowering. On the other hand, I think pop culture often defaults to this trope to the extent that the representation of Black women in popular media is often one-dimensional. We grapple with mental health, and other issues. No one has the bandwidth to constantly take on a savior-esque role. I think as we get more Black stories, we’ll hopefully see the portrayal of Black-woman take on a more realistic, humanizing bent.

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  6. This a great essay! Cameron’s point in the beginning really got the wheels turning for me because I think it is a very interesting perspective on the casting, but now that it is pointed out to me I could not agree more. I also very much agree with how Sophia and Zoe expanded on the point with the color-conscious casting as well as their analysis of the numbers within the musical. The contrast between the Dorothy’s between the original musical and The Wiz is also very insightful and I really enjoyed reading all of the analyses made.

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