KeKe Palmer’s time on Broadway as “Cinderella” came to a close this week, but today we shall simultaneously celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stephanie Mills’ Broadway debut as Dorothy in “The Wiz” 40 years ago. Most of us are familiar with the out-of-this-world film adaptation, but “The Wiz” actually kicked off as a play based on William F. Brown’s rework of original story, The Wizard of Oz. The show was originally presented in Baltimore at the Majestic Theater in 1974 and this past Monday marked the 1975 opening night on Broadway. Once it hit the great white way, the cast came to include artists such as Phylicia Rashad, DeeDee Bridgewater, Hinton Battle, Andre DeSheilds, Ted Ross — who revised his role in the film — and Mabel King. To round out the legends’ ball, “The Wiz” was directed by none other than the iconic Geoffrey Holder.
As a loud and proud musical geek, “The Wiz” is the author and finisher of my faith. I owned the soundtrack on vinyl growing up and spent many an afternoon singing and dancing my heart out. In celebration of this momentous occasion, let’s take a stroll down the yellow brick road to the tune of the best jams from “The Wiz”.
I was in the child star era of my life and “Ease on Down the Road” was my go-to for every audition. I know we’re paying homage to the play, but Michael Jackson nailed this scene in the movie. I like to think of “Ease on Down the Road” as the pop-locking cousin of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” with the wise words: “Don’t you carry nothin’ that might be a load / come on / ease on down / ease on down / down the road.”
“Ease on Down the Road” was the biggest hit from “The Wiz,” even hitting the Billboard charts, but the real MVP of the musical was “Home.” At 17-years-old and barely five feet tall, Stephanie Mills belted that song out like no other. Diana Ross is truly ‘the boss,’ but we all have to give it up to Mills for her rendition, that later appeared in an extended version on her 1989 album of the same name. Think I’m joking? Give this a listen:
The doors of the church are now open. Will there be one???
Eviline was the Wicked Witch of the West, but she was moreso like your auntie with all the plastic covered funiture in her living room who made you clean all Saturday to gospel, and didn’t take any mess. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is her signature song and it’s so ironic since Eviline, in fact, was the worst news of all. Mabel King played Eviline in both the stageplay and the film and baby, she was mean! Watch her work:
After Dorothy splashes Eviline with water reducing her to nothingness, her slaves gain their freedom and break into one of the best songs in Broadway history, “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day).” It’s the perfect dance-in-the-aisle kind of song to round out the play. Little known black history fact, it was written by Luther Vandross!
I have to end this best of list with the tearjerker of the lot. “When You Believe” by Glinda the Good Witch is such a powerful song. Sure, it was meant as a sendoff for Dorothy, but it’s impossible to listen to it and not feel like you can conquer the world. As much as I love Dee Dee Bridgewater, Lena Horne’s version is just classic. Grab some tissues and have at it:
Broadway has seen hundreds of plays ushered throughout its theaters within the last century, but work like “The Wiz” is a rare gem. Aside from what it has done for black theater and film, the play stands as a pillar in the American arts landscape. For the last few days, the blog-sphere has been filled with people sharing stories of seeing the original play as children and now returning to theaters to share it with their grandchildren. “The Wiz” can easily be reduced to some silly fairytale, but the heart of the story is that everything you need is already inside of you and you’ll always find a home wherever there is love.
Believe in yourself, right from the start
You’ll have brains, you’ll have a heart
You’ll have courage to last your whole life through
If you believe in yourself, if you believe in yourself
If you believe in yourself as I believe in you