Ease on Down the Road, Again: A Look Back at 'The Wiz'

As The Wiz Live! airs tonight on NBC, here's a look at the musical's first film version, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
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As The Wiz Live! airs tonight on NBC, here's a look at the musical's first film version, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
The Wiz Original Movie Photo

The cast of the 1978 film version of The Wiz (from left): Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tinman, Diana Ross as Dorothy and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion. 

As NBC broadcasts The Wiz Live! tonight, one’s thoughts may drift back to the musical’s first film version, in 1978. That picture, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Diana Ross as Dorothy along with Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, was based on the smash, Tony-winning 1975 Broadway show, which in turn was derived from L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The main comparison point for the 1978 movie, of course, was not the novel or the Broadway musical, but the Judy Garland MGM classic from 1939. The Wiz Live! can only dream of becoming the kind of television perennial The Wizard of Oz turned into after it was first broadcast in 1956. Competing with its indelible impression on the moviegoing public was only one challenge Lumet and company faced when they started production on The Wiz in 1977. 

The movie of The Wiz was significantly different from the Broadway show. Although the show had an all-black cast as well as an African-American composer (Charlie Smalls), director (Geoffrey Holder), and choreographer (George Faison), and featured songs (“Ease on Down the Road,” “No Bad News”) in the soul and rock mode, the story was laid in a Kansas and Oz familiar from earlier versions. For the film, producer Rob Cohen, screenwriter Joel Schumacher, and director Sidney Lumet changed the setting to a “fantastically transformed New York,” in Cohen’s words. The dreary Kansas Dorothy is swept from was re-imagined as a dreary Harlem, while the Oz she is swept into was located mostly downtown, in fantasy versions of landmarks like New York Public Library, the World Trade Center, the subway system, and Coney Island.

The character of Dorothy herself was transformed, mainly because Diana Ross had a bee in her bonnet about playing the role. In the show, 17-year-old Stephanie Mills gave as fair a rendition of Baum’s little girl as did 16-year-old Judy Garland in the MGM movie. But Diana Ross was 32 when she convinced producer Cohen and Motown executive Berry Gordy Jr. to cast her as Dorothy, and so the character mutated into a timid 24-year-old kindergarten teacher who had never ventured south of 125th Street. This development prompted original director John Badham’s departure, and became the focus of much of the criticism directed at the finished film. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said Ross’s insistence on playing the role was “possibly the chief example in movie history of a whim of iron.”

Michael Jackson’s performance as the Scarecrow represented his only significant film appearance. Casting for The Wiz included a mix of actors reprising their stage roles (including Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion and Mabel King as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West) and those who were new to the property (like Nipsey Russell, cast as the Tinman; Lumet’s then-mother-in-law Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch; and Richard Pryor in the title role). Generating the most buzz was the casting of 19-year-old Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow: the youngest member of the Jacksons singing group received some of the movie’s best reviews, but a suitable follow-up role became increasingly hard to find for the ever-evolving King of Pop.

The Wiz Photo

The movie poster for the first film version of The Wiz (1978).

The Wiz was a New York production all the way. Locations used around the city included Lincoln Center, the Broadway theatre district, Astor Place, both Shea and Yankee Stadiums, and the New York State Pavilion at the old 1964 World’s Fair site. Filming actually began with a night shoot on the World Trade Center plaza, where several hundred dancers costumed by such fashion icons as Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Norma Kamali welcomed Dorothy and friends to the movie’s version of the Emerald City. Interiors were shot at Astoria Studios, the 1920s-era, near-defunct Queens production center that subsequently enjoyed a still-vital resurgence of activity.

Was Werner Erhard an uncredited consultant on the film? According to several sources including producer Cohen, Diana Ross and screenwriter Schumacher were both acolytes of Erhard’s faddish EST movement, and incorporated the guru’s self-actualizing philosophies and buzzwords into the script, especially in Glinda the Good Witch’s dialogue. The homily-stuffed song “Believe in Yourself,” though written for the stage show, echoed the EST message handily. 

Neither Ross nor Erhard, in the end, could make The Wiz a hit. Admittedly, it was a tall order, given the production’s ultimate cost. Ross’s first two movies (Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany) had done big business, and with her on board, Universal Pictures greenlit the project without a budget. Despite the best efforts of director Lumet, previously renowned for bringing in films under-schedule and under-budget, the price tag on The Wiz kept on rising to a then-extravagant $24 million. When the movie’s box-office take stalled at around $13 million, it became clear that the ink on Universal’s books would stay red. Bad reviews, a dwindling appetite for musicals, and perhaps limited “crossover” appeal (in other words, not enough interest on the part of white audiences) seemed to seal its doom, although the film did gain a following on homevideo. Will The Wiz Live! fare better? Tune in tonight for the verdict. 

The Wiz Live! airs Thursday, December 3 at 8/7c.