In the early 1970s, when disc jockey Ken Harper came up with the idea of turning the iconic L. Frank Baum classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” into an all-Black musical, it almost ended before it started with a closing notice on opening night.
What Harper was selling was the country’s appetite for the Detroit-influenced Motown sound of rhythm and blues that occupied the top spots on the record charts. Harper and financial backer Twentieth Century FOX thought the country was ready for the Black twist on the beloved Wizard of Oz and the 13 original songs that carried the popular sounds that were crossing racial lines.
“You pick up Billboard or Cashbox any week and what you’ll find is that five of the Top 10 songs on the charts are Black,” Playbill Magazine reported of Harper’s pitch meeting with FOX executives. “The message was clear. In this country, at this time, a certain kind of Black music, the Motown sound, sells, and it sells to everyone, Black and white.”
The music sold. The play, initially, did not, putting FOX’s $650,000 investment in jeopardy.
Baltimore to the rescue
Known as a tryout town for theater productions headed to Broadway, The Wiz debuted in 1974 at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre chronicling the story of a young Black girl transported to a distant land and trying to get home. At the time, Playbill Magazine reported that that the technical run-through before opening night in Baltimore was so disastrous the managing company told Ken Harper to prepare for its end. Despite its shaky start, the show received a standing ovation and four curtain calls here.
THE WIZ premiered on Broadway in 1975 and found its footing, going on to win seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), Best Choreography (George Faison), and in a Broadway first, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Costume Design (Geoffrey Holder). The signature song, “Ease on Down the Road,” a take on Follow the Yellow Brick Road, became the show’s break-out single. A film adaptation followed in 1978 and starred Diana Ross, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Richard Pryor and Lena Horne. The film marked Quincy Jones’ first collaboration with Michael Jackson. In 2015, NBC adapted a live version of the show.
Back where it began
This weekend, The Wiz returns to the city that first showed it love, at the Hippodrome Theatre. The new production, described as an “entirely reimagined revival,” will open in Baltimore from Sept. 23-30, which includes an additional performance as a result of brisk ticket sales. “Baltimore’s heart is in this show,” Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, said at an August preview of the show. “It’s part of who we are.”
The musical holds a particularly special place in the hearts of fans who grew up with the story, whether their Dorothy was Stephanie Mills in the original stage production in 1974 or Diana Ross in the 1978 movie.
“Baltimore is thrilled to welcome The Wiz’s upcoming visit to our city,” said Mayor Brandon Scott. “This show is a staple that many of us grew up watching, particularly in Black and brown households. The Wiz’s incredible story and music has the power to bring people together, and we are looking forward to an unforgettable experience that will resonate with communities across Baltimore for years to come.”
When the show debuts, it will also include Broadway newcomer and Virginia native, Nichelle Lewis, in the coveted role of Dorothy. Lewis was discovered via a TikTok video and selected out of 2,000 submissions.
Salisbury native, Jay Copeland, is another Broadway newcomer, who joins the revival cast ensemble and is understudy for Tinman and Scarecrow roles. In 2022, Copeland was a contestant on ABC’s American Idol, where he appeared in over 20 episodes and finished in the top seven. His stage credits include Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Andre) Geva and Westport Theatres, Hairspray (Seaweed), Jesus Christ Superstar (Judas). Copeland was performing in Ain’t Misbehaven when he was offered The Wiz role.
“This is a monumental moment for me,” said Copeland, who grew up watching television version of The Wiz. He said it is also meaningful that the show is debuting close to his home and in Baltimore, where he has family. “This is an all-Black cast in an all-Black show in an all-Black city. Fifty years ago, The Wiz was almost cancelled, but here we are today letting the world know that we are not going anywhere.” Copeland, 25, who has his sights on one day winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony for his work, said the production schedule for The Wiz is sometimes grueling, but he uses advice he received from an uncle as a mantra. “Somebody wishes they had your worst day,” Copeland said.
In addition to Lewis and Copeland in their roles, Alan Mingo Jr. will star in the role of the Wiz for the tour’s initial cities, followed by Wayne Brady, who will lead the production as the Wiz in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as on Broadway in spring of 2024.
The cast also includes Deborah Cox as Glinda and Melody A. Betts as Aunt Em and Evillene, Kyle Ramar Freeman (A Strange Loop) as the Lion, Phillip Johnson Richardson (Sharper, Apple+) as the Tinman, and Avery Wilson (The Voice) as the Scarecrow, respectively. Richardson and Wilson will be making their Broadway debuts.
After Baltimore, “The Wiz” will travel to 12 other American cities before beginning a limited engagement on Broadway in 2024. Additional “Emerald Cities” on the pre-Broadway tour include: Cleveland, Ohio; Washington, D. C.; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Greenville, South Caroline; Chicago, Illinois; Des Moines, Iowa; Tempe, Arizona; and San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles in California.
Ticket information about “The Wiz” and other shows at the Hippodrome is available at BaltimoreHippodrome.com. Information about the national tour is at wizmusical.com.