by Eric Darnell Pritchard
“The Wiz” is, by far, my very favorite musical ever. When I was a child my mother would often sing “If You Believe,” Glinda’s inspirational anthem sung to Dorothy in the musical, and immortalized forever in the movie-musical version by the famous Lena Horne. In college, around midterm and final exam time, my mother would send me me cards to encourage me through my studies and would always sign those and anything she would send to me the famous lyrics from that song, “believe in yourself, as I believe in you! I love you, Mommy.” The Wiz, and its original source material The Wizard of Oz are, I believe, the key to pretty much any existential crisis one might be having in life. Don’t take my word for it? Oprah has said that “Glinda the Good Witch” has been one of her most important role models for her life. She even chose to pose as Glinda in Harper’s Bazaar annual ‘Icons’ fashion editorial, edited by Carine Roitfeld.
While one of Oprah’s favorite spiritual gurus, notable mystic Jean Houston, once a trusted advisor to Hillary Clinton, wrote a whole book The Wizard of Us:Transformational Lessons from Oz,” in which she shows how the now legendary tales of Dorothy’s journey through Oz – with the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion, and her dog Toto – offers key lessons on how to journey well and come to find that you, like Dorothy, are not just ordinary, but extraordinary. And all you need to do is believe in yourself.
So naturally, when it was announced that NBC’s third production in its live musical series would be The Wiz I lost my damn mind! I immediately started dream casting who would play which role (“Miss One”/Addaperle was my favorite, and one I obsessed over the most), who would direct it, and of course, how would the costumes look?
In recent months the answer to many of those questions have come, as the cast for the December 3 The Wiz Live! has been announced, preview trailers have begin to air on NBC and online, and we’ve even gotten to see video of the cast members performing some of the most memorable songs including Shanice Williams who landed the coveted roll of Dorothy singing “Home” with Stephanie Mills, who played the role in the original broadway production of 1975, as well as Williams and Mills, along with Amber Riley (Addaperle the Good Witch), Ne-Yo (Tin Man), Elijah Kelly (Scare Crow) and David Alan Grier (Lion), performing another favorite from the music “Ease on Down the Road.” This week, pictures of Queen Latifah as “The Wiz,” and orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba as “Glinda” have got the Twitter-verse and Facebook-ville turned up for the The Wiz Live! while I and many other enthusiasts noticed Mary J. Blige’s “Evilene” conspicuously missing from photos and commercials promoting the show, which has us even more convinced at how epic both she and this production will be.
But as we anticipate the latest reimagining of The Wiz, it brings up so many memories of how it has moved through our popular culture and costume design lives for four decades. So it feels appropriate to, on the occasion of the both anniversary of The Wiz, look back at some of the ways its characters have been represented across time from the Geoffrey Holder directed broadway musical, with a score by Charlie Smalls and libretto by William F. Brown and earned 7 Tony Awards, to the latest Kenny Leon helmed production with a book by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein that will likely be a big ratings win for NBC. Let’s ease on down the road:
Dorothy and Toto
The Original: R&B legend Stephanie Mills, then a teen, as Dorothy with Toto in The Wiz 1975. Mills will play Aunt Em in The Wiz Live! this December.
The iconic Diana Ross as Dorothy in 1978’s movie-musical version, directed by Sidney Lumet with a screenplay by Joel Schumacher. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, produced the film. Critics threw shade at the film version mostly because they were like Miss Ross tried it playing a geriatric Dorothy (she was 31, while previous Dorothy’s were teens), and they also claimed it was too scary for children (side-eye). But, the movie got the last laugh because it is a cult classic and still airs pretty regularly on television. Also, Miss Ross is and always will be Miss Ross so she’s not bothered. And Berry Gordy is even richer, so he’s good too. So, take that critics.
Yes, Ashanti played Dorothy. Why are you acting like you ain’t know? I’ll just leave this right here and keep on easin’ on down this road. She does win for best baby hair sideburns of all the Dorothy’s, so there’s that. And I have bought Ashanti music. Ya’ll remember “oh, baby!” She’s a great songwriter as well, don’t sleep.
Shanice Williams as Dorothy and our new Toto of “The Wiz Live!”
Hinton Battle as the original Scarecrow in the 1975 broadway production.
The one and only Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie-musical.
Scarecrow as portrayed in 2009’s production at New York’s City Center
Elijah Kelley will portray the Scarecrow in The Wiz Live!
Tiger Haynes as Tin Man in 1975
Beloved comedian and actor, the late Nipsey Russell, portrayed the character in the 1978 film
2009’s stage production saw Joshua Henry as Tin Man
Ted Ross played The Cowardly Lion in the 1975 musical, for which he earned a Tony Award…
… Ross then reprised his role for the 1978 film.
James Monroe Iglehart in the role in 2009; Iglehart later won the Tony for portraying the Genie in the broadway music “Aladdin” based on the Disney film.
David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz Live!
Glinda, The Good Witch
DeeDee Bridgewater was the original Glinda, for which she won the Tony Award in 1975.
The legendary Lena Horne as “Glinda” in 1978’s film.
LaChanze, winner of the Tony in 2000 for her role in Aida, portrayed as Glinda in the 2009 production. The costume of LaChanze’s Glinda is my favorite as the color choice reminds me of artistic renderings of Yemaya, an Orisha ( within Yoruba religion and culture.
Uzo Aduba as “Glinda” in The Wiz Live!
Addaperle, The Good Witch
Clarice Taylor as the original Addaperle The Good Witch in 1975
In the film version, the character Addaperle was renamed “Miss One” in a nod to the character’s northern work as a numbers runner/illegal gambler. Thelma Carpenter played the role, and marvelously so.
The magnificent Amber Riley, formerly of Fox’s “Glee” and winner of “Dancing With the Stars,” will portray Addaperle in The Wiz Live!
Evilene, The Wicked Witch
Mabel King as the Wicked Witch Evilene in 1975. King also portrayed Mabel “Mama” Thomas on the 70s sitcom “What’s Happening?” …
King also reposed the role in the film version in 1978.
Actress and Tichina Arnold portrayed Evilene in the 2009 production. Arnold is best known as Pam on Fox’s sitcom “Martin.”
And finally, “The Queen of Hip Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige rules the stage as Evilene in “The Wiz Live!”
Choreographer and actor, Andre De Shields, portrayed “The Wiz” in 1975.
Comedian and actor Richard Pryor as “The Wiz” in the 1978 film.
Of all the most exciting things of “The Wiz Live!” on NBC, the fact that Queen Latifah will portray The Wiz has me most excited. Get into this hair chile.’ I love the gender neutralness of how she is costumed, and that the producers went for a nontraditional casting choice.
There you have it folks, thanks for easing on down the road with me looking at highlights and key players from 40 years of The Wiz. What are you most excited to see in The Wiz Live! ? Comments, Facebook us, and Tweet us too. Would love to hear from you as we gear up for the latest iteration of the musical December 3 on NBC.