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Over the (Bigger) Rainbow

A review of "The Wiz" starring Diana Ross


It’s easy to dislike The Wiz (Universal), but it’s also easy to like it. It’s torrentially syrupy, calculatedly simplistic, and the star is weak. On the other hand, it’s lavish lavish lavish: no one really believes in the syrup or the simplicities except as a medium through which some skills can operate; and the skills are there: almost every person connected with the film except the star is excellent. If you’re going to spend $35 million (reportedly) on a remake of The Wizard of Oz, revised and updated with an all-black cast, you couldn’t do a great deal better than this. You’d probably end up with the same star, Diana Ross. At least I can’t think of another black female singer who has a name in music and a couple of starring films behind her and could go a little way toward protecting your investment. 

I missed The Wiz on Broadway—am still missing it because it’s still on—but since we’re dealing here with a version of a version, I don’t feel especially impoverished by the loss. Kansas has become Harlem, and little Dorothy is now 24. Her problem is that she won’t go south of 125th Street and won’t leave the haven of her teaching job with small children. Afraid of Life, is Dorothy. A snowstorm sweeps her away, and she’s off to see the Wiz (special effects by a real wiz, Albert Whitlock). As before, she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Her road leads, fantastically, south of 125th Street to a city that has a Big Apple rising in the sky above it. Eventually she meets the Wicked Witch, who runs an immense sweat shop, and the Wiz who, like King Kong but craven, is perched on the top of the Trade Center. 

All the story changes fit one another, as far as fitting is needed, and they build a certain kidding charm. The production designs by Tony Walton are lush, with more hyped-up theatricality than sheer cinema feel. The giant plazas, the giant sweat shop are more like incredibly big stage sets than native film sets, and this feeds an unconscious gobbling hunger in us for the impossible. One cavil: why couldn’t the yellow brick road have been brick, instead of crazy pavement? Walton’s costumes are kitsch as kitsch can, when kitsch has millions to spend and some wit, vulgarly gorgeous but knowingly so. Another cavil: I thought I saw touches of Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic in masks like those of the motorcycle gang. 

Extravagance empowered extravaganza, and some talented people reveled in a chance that doesn’t come along often these days of beer-can pictures. The cinematographer, Oswald Morris, is one of the best, and he has fun here in finding a whole spectrum within scenes shot within one overall tonality of red or blue or green. Dede Allen, than whom there is no better editor, dazzles along in her (I think) first musical with her cutting of musical numbers: picking points for emphasis and view-changes for variety without losing the sense of the number-as-number coursing on. And Sidney Lumet, one of the outstanding hot-and-cold directors in film history (his last outing was Equus), is blazing hot here. This is his first film musical (he directed at least one in the theater), and his evident enthusiasm for the job is infectious. There’s energy and enjoyment in the direction, and his discreet use of the crane, rising slightly on the big-floor numbers, whoops up the excitement nicely. One more cavil: the last shot, a big close-up of Ross singing—even though it has some furbelows in the background—suggests the last shot of Funny Girl

Let’s not compare Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, and Ted Ross as the Lion with Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr (Bert Lahr!) of the 1939 film. Let’s just say that Jackson, Russell, and Ross are absolutely endearing in their own rights. Even Mabel King, the Wicked Witch, belts out “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” in a way that makes her endearing. Lena Horne, suspended in the sky as Glinda the Good, delivers her hokey song near the end with the power to bring down a good many roofs. Richard Pryor, the Wiz, isn’t quite up to the others, but then some of the goodies in his role have been given to Dorothy. 

I am just not a Diana Ross fan. Her voice seems to reach for notes and to bleat when it gets them. I think it’s called “styling.” She has no sex or any other appeal for me. I don’t believe she’s 24 or naive, and I don’t like looking at throat tendons on high notes. All through the film I kept playing Dorothy myself, standing in for Ross so that the show could go on. 

Louis Johnson’s choreography is trite, except near the end where it gets large and lively. The music, mostly by Charlie Smalls, does its job well enough while passing through to oblivion. Smalls’ lyrics, however, make Rodgers and Hammerstein sound like The Waste Land. (And the rhymes! “If You’re listenin’, God,/Please don’t make it hard.”) 

Not many musicals can stand a great deal of thought, and The Wiz can stand a lot less than that. If you can take it just as an occasion for the exercise of some real talents, a good time can be had much of the time. 

Segue to a book, “The Wiz ... was an all-black re-creation of The Wizard of Oz, far more faithful to the original ... than was Fred Stone and David Montgomery’s 1903 vehicle.” But the earlier musical was so successful that it was burlesqued eight years after it opened in a revue called The Passing Show of 1913. That’s a sample of the information to be had from American Musical Theater: A Chronicle by Gerald Bordman (Oxford; $35.00). Bordman’s book is a mere 688 large double-columned pages, plus another 40 pages of appendix and indexes. His preparation for this job was to get a doctorate in Medieval English literature. He began his chronicle in the figurative middle ages of the musical, the 18th century, and he continues up to Ain’t Misbehavin’

The book is divided into five “acts,” each of which is a distinctive period of musical writing, with periods of “intermission” between the acts; every section, including “intermissions,” is subdivided into seasons. One outstanding achievement in the book is its subjective tone. Obviously Bordman depended on reviews in the past arid, to some extent, in the present, for his value judgments, and he frequently cites his sources; but all the material is so thoroughly ingested that the overall effect is immediacy, as if he were reporting his personal experience of thousands of shows through a couple of centuries. 

He uses one problematic device. Often the narrative is interrupted for brief biographies of people coming into prominence at that moment, but these notes are left incomplete, as if Bordman thought it would be harsh to mention subsequent death at the moment of debut. Thus for all that the reader knows, Reginald De Koven, b. 1859, is still living. A better plan might have been to save those notes for the appendix, which now only lists works for the entries, and to make them fuller. In his preface Bordman says that “few readers will want to read this book from beginning to end but will rather ‘dip into’ it.” Probably true. I only leafed through the book myself, but I leafed slowly, and it was unexpectedly rewarding. Bordman begins each major section and many seasonal accounts with a state-of-the-art summary, so as one goes through the book one gets a kind of graph of the fluctuation of invention and the arrival and waning of influences—something like a slower version of flicking the pages of one of those books with illustrations in the corner that move when flicked. Bordman is candid, sound as far as one can judge, and has some sharp insights, “In a very important sense ... Hair was a failure, for it failed to usher in a new era in the American Musical Theater.” 

He warns us in his preface that he has had to skimp on statistics—the names of every important contributor to every show—in order to keep the book portable. A companion volume of these statistics is en route. Meanwhile his book, supplemented by the encyclopedias of Stanley Green and David Ewen and the Lewine-Simon listing of songs, should take care of most factual needs. Bordman provides stylistic analysis (like the passage describing how jazz brought about the standard 32-bar popular song), but chiefly he is telling a story, one that is both constituent and reflective of our cultural history. (For example, The Wiz.)