The stage musical, The Wiz, first opened in Baltimore in 1974, with a movie adaptation four years later, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Now, The Wiz is coming back as a live musical for TV, but the history of this beloved musical may surprise you. Here are 15 things you probably didn’t know.
1. One of the first Broadway hits with an all African-American cast
The Wiz, an urban retelling of The Wizard of Oz, started in Baltimore and then moved to Broadway a year later. Actress Renee Harris was playing Dorothy but then took a step down to play Dorothy’s understudy for the Broadway production. Seventeen-year-old Stephanie Mills was cast as Dorothy.
2. The Wiz won seven Tony Awards
The Broadway musical was a critical success, earning seven Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical, Best Costume Design and Best Choreography.
3. A Munchkin married the lead singer of Village People
Before becoming Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad had a thriving theater career, including playing a Munchkin in The Wiz. She even met her second husband, Victor Willis, another cast member in The Wiz, while performing the show. Willis would go on to be the police officer in the disco band, Village People. The couple divorced in 1982.
4. The 1978 movie version was supposed to star Stephanie Mills
Diana Ross was adamant that she wanted to play Dorothy in the film version, however. The original producers at Motown thought Ross was too old for the part, but Ross persuaded Universal Pictures to make the film with her in the lead.
5. Many critics also thought Diana Ross was too old
At 33, Ross insisted she could successfully play the role of Dorothy, who was a mere 12 years old in the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Judy Garland was 16 years old when she played Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Stephanie Mills was 21 years old in 1978, having opened the musical on Broadway when she was just 17.
6. One of Michael Jackson’s very few acting roles
Fans of MJ consider The Wiz movie to be a cult classic. Jackson won an image award in 1978 for playing the Scarecrow.
7. Original Baltimore cast featured Butterfly McQueen
If you’re a fan of the 1939 classic film Gone With the Wind, you’ll remember Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Scarlett O’Hara’s maid who uttered the famous line, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies!” McQueen was not able to attend the film’s premiere because it was held in a “whites only” movie theater. She played the role of Queen of the Field Mice in The Wiz.
8. Movie considered part of the blaxploitation movement
Blaxploitation is a genre of movies that exploit urban African-American stereotypes but are intended for mostly black audiences. Some other blaxploitation films include Super Fly, Blacula and Foxy Brown.
9. Script inspired by EST philosophy
If you’ve ever attended a Landmark self-improvement seminar, you are familiar with the philosophy of its creator, Werner Erhard, who first created Erhard Seminar Training in the 1970s. Both the screenwriter, Joel Schumacher, and Diana Ross were fans of EST, but producer Rob Cohen was quoted as saying, “The movie was becoming an EST-ian fable full of EST buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with [Ross] because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff that she had worked out in EST seminars.”
10. Stephanie Mills will play Aunt Em in live TV version
After a successful singing career that includes such hits as “Never Knew Love Like This,” her career comes full circle as she’s set to play Aunt Em in The Wiz Live!
11. Queen Latifah to play the Wizard
In a rare but awesome move, The Wiz Live! will feature a woman, Queen Latifah, as the Wizard. The role was played by comedian Richard Pryor in the 1978 movie and James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013.
12. The Wiz movie was a commercial failure
The $24 million production earned only $13.6 million at the box office.
13. One new song for The Wiz Live!
The live TV version will feature one new song, “We Got It,” which was composed by Harvey Mason Jr., Stephen Oremus and two of the show’s stars, Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley.
14. Cirque du Soleil dancers
Though we’re not sure exactly who the Cirque du Soleil dancers are going to portray, we think it’s an exciting move to add them to this theatrical experience.
15. Tin Man curse?
In the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, actor Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man. After 10 days of wearing aluminum powder to make his skin silver, he got incredibly sick and ended up in an iron lung, starting rumors that the role was cursed. Though Ne-Yo, who’s playing the Tin Man in The Wiz Live! hasn’t been injured, he has reportedly said the costume is uncomfortable. He tweeted this:
We’ll have to wait until Thursday, Dec. 3, when The Wiz Live! airs on NBC to see if Ne-Yo can break the curse.