Airman 3rd Class Charles E. Smalls, 18, a pianist and glockenspiel player with the 579th Air Force band in Newburgh, composed “Merry Christmas, Caroline,” in honor of the President’s daughter and sent it to the White House. Recently, he received a reply signed by Ralph A. Dungan, a special presidential assistant, which said in part:
“THE PRESIDENT has asked me to thank you for your kindness in sending him your song. Your thoughtful greetings are very much appreciated by the President and he extends to you his best wishes.”
Caroline’s song is not Small’s first attempt at writing tunes. In his last three years he has turned out 40 songs, including some rock ‘n’ roll. One number, “Bopp’n Pappy,” was recorded. Smalls has also composed several jazz instrumentals.
The musician, son of Airman First Class and Mrs. Charles H. Smalls was launched in his field at the age of three, when he began piano lessons. He appeared in his first concert two years later.
SMALLS, who also has played the Saxophone, attended Julliard School of Music for six years and graduated from High School of Performing Arts. After his Air Force hitch.
A Hip “Wiz” Opens at the Ahmanson
BY DAN SULLIVAN Times Theater Critic[review of the original L.A. opening]
"The Wiz" makes a wonderful splash at the Ahmanson. There’s more to this black musical update of the "The Wizard of Oz" than meets the eye, but what does meet the eye is so dazzling that you have to start with that.
Designers Geoffrey Holder (who also directed it) and Tom H. John boldly give us Oz not as W.W. Denslow saw it in 1903 or as MGM saw it in 1939 but as they see it today-freaky, spacey, what Las Vegas would be if it would only let go. The Wiz’s emerald palace looks like the showroom at the Oz Hilton, where they bring all the drinks at once and charge $25 just to get in. (Appropriately, the Wiz, Andre DeSheilds, looks like the headliner.) The cave where Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, does her thing is the last word in mojo parlors, featuring a buzzard you could fly to Paris. (Evillene, Ella Mitchell, looks like her feet hurt.) Sometimes you can’t tell Holder’s costumes from John’s set. The yellow Brick Road is four dudes in orange Afros and gold cricket-coats with bricks painted on.
The cyclone is a dancer in yards and yards of black cloth followed by a chorus of dervishes with inside-out umbrellas.
The colors are so bold that they’re almost hostile. Bright bright greens, sexy pinks, mean purples (for Evillene’s place), icebox whites-one might wonder whether Tharon Musser’s lighting is needed at all. “The Wiz” gives the eye more to blink at than any musical since “Jesus Christ Superstar” (its designer, Robin Wagner, is an influence) and would be worth seeing for this alone. Flash at this intensity has a kind of magnificence to it. Here’s a show that shows you something.
It’s also a charming and absolutely valid approach to “The Wizard of Oz.” Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim recommends in a new book that parents tell their children the old stories in terms they can understand but without softening the harshness that’s often a part of these stories-kids need witches. “The Wiz” might be a black parent’s version of L. Frank Baum’s tale for his kids, the colors and language changed around both for the fun of it and to bring the story home, but nothing important left out.
Dorothy (Ren Woods, a find) is still a little girl from Kansas who rides the whirlwind to a strange planet where scarecrows and lions talk and wizards aren’t all they seem. She also learns a few things about standing up to witches and looking to herself for happiness. But none of that is any heavier here than it was in Baum. It’s a show, show, not a tract, and white kids will love it as much as black kids. If you have any green ones, bring them too.
Sticking to the Story
Not only is “The Wiz” true to Baum’s spirit, it sticks more closely to his story than the movie did. It Evillene comes in a lot later than Margaret Hamilton did, that’s the order in the book too. Librettist William F. Brown seems to have a sense of honor about points like this, but he’s aware of the language he’s writing in. “I hope you don’t mind second-hand shoes.” says Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North (Vivian Bonnell), as she hands Dorothy the silver slippers, and there’s just a catch of remembered deprivation in it. Anybody who calls this an insensitive show isn’t listening.
Charlie Smalls’ music and , especially, lyrics seem more routine, although they’re idiomatic and propulsive enough to set the Ahmanson clapping, especially in “Ease on Down the Road,” jauntily choreographed by George Faison. Dreadful milking doesn’t help the musical side of the show.
The cast is super, Miss Woods has a big strong singing voice but the manners of a sweet, biddable child just beginning to look around for herself, spunky but a little scared. She is as much the Dorothy of one’s imagination as Judy Garland was. Miss Bonnell and Dee Dee Bridegewater as the good witches might be her aunts, the one who stayed home (Miss Bonnell) and the one who went off to sing in New York (Miss Bridegewater).
Relating With Dorothy
Her uncles, then, would be her companions on the Yellow Brick Road -Valentino as the scarecrow, Ben Harney as the Tin Man and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion. There’s lovely comedy here as these three get their heads together, and good relating with Dorothy, too.
DeShields as the The Wiz projects an interesting sinister quality in that first meeting, a moment when the show seems on the brink-note his white mask of saying something not in the book. All’s went at the end, when in fact he’s relieved to be just another dude. Miss Mitchell as Evillene isn’t all that bad, really- just a little touchy. Too bad she had to go.
“A small dog is needed for a walk-on role as Toto in CENTERSTAGE’s production of “The Wiz.” The canine will perform in four shows a week and will need to be accompanied backstage by owner during the performance. Ideal candidates should be easy to train in basic commands, not sensitive to noise, and not easily excitable. We are looking for unsophisticated dogs with sparkle! [Note: this offer has been filled.]”—
Like the re-broadcast of a radio call-in show, no need to respond to this; just sharing another little tidbit of some what it took to put up The Wiz here. Yes, there will be not one but two Totos alternating in the role. Children and dogs….
another query from rehearsal. Again from the first week of rehearsal, this came our way:
We are swinging into gear up here. On p. 14 of the re-typed script, ADDAPERLE talks about “wave of my wanga” and we have a version of a wanga from props, but Irene is curious about additional research on wangas. She will also be talking to a magic consultant about ADDAPERLE turning this prop into a pair of handkerchiefs or feathers. Any additional information would be a help.
Thank you very much! [see how polite they are? it really helps.]
So, we sent along a few pages of background research—excerpted below—and some additional images, like these. Yep, all for a line of dialogue and a few seconds of stage gimmickry. That is just how we roll.
1) The Wanga are a tribe of the Luhya people of Kenya, one of the most populous and powerful in the area in the 18th and 19th C; today they number about half-a-million. The name seems to have stuck to some religious & magical practices associated with this area, as well as with the nkisi of Congo, that were brought to the West Indies and the Americas.
2) In Obeah and Vodoo, “wanga” most generally just means a spell (see below), but also specifically comes to signify a charm or totem or amulet intended to work a spell (some positive, some negative), and what we think of as a “voodoo doll.” These charms and dolls are known as Wanga Packets, Wanga Dolls, or just plain Wangas…
You might say that the Wizard’s gifts are also a form of Wanga….
3) “The construction of wanga is one of the most often requested ceremonies for a Houngan or Mambo to perform. A wanga is a “spell”. There are many different wanga and many different ways to construct them. Some wanga are the personal secrets of a Houngan or Mambo, and some are known as traditional. When a Houngan/Mambo does a wanga, they are usually said to have ‘mare wanga,’ or tied a wanga.”
Back on September 1, questions were veritably gushing out of rehearsal. Yes, on that first pass through the script some very interesting queries emerged, in part because there had not been time for the usual table work to delve into these before the company got on its feet.
Stage Management inquired:
We are wondering in rehearsal what is the best way to pronounce “kalidah”. This led us to wonder where the word comes from – is it African? is it from the original story?
-Thank you very much.
[They are unfailingly polite.]
And Dramaturg Otis replied:
The Kalidahs do appear in Baum’s book. They show up after Dorothy meets the Lion, in chapter seven. Here is a passage from The Annotated Wizard of OZ:
"What are Kalidahs?" asked the girl.
"They are monstrous beasts with bodies like bears and heads like tigers,: replied the Lion; "and with claws so long and sharp that they could tear me in two as easily as I could kill Toto. I’m terribly afraid of the Kalidahs."
And here is a lengthy note from this annotated edition, including an illustration and the observation/speculation that that Kalidahs may have inspired the chant from the 1939 film, “lions & tigers & bears, oh my”.
…and since you can see some snaps of what things are looking like on stage, here are a few assorted snippets of where things have been and come since that first day of rehearsal almost exactly a month ago. First up, a few excerpts from an early stage manager’s report, showing the evolution of thinking about some set dressing (including that laundry line pictured elsewhere, not to mention some scantily clad ensemble members dressing Glinda’s palanquin). You also get a sense of some of the thoughts behind some supporting characters who make passing appearances. How close did this come to what eventually ended up on stage? Well, you have to see the show to know that, duh! And if you’ve seen it and find yourself reading this, weigh in with a note. Or if you’ve seen it and wonder about another element, pose the query and we’ll try to get you some background.
We are thinking that the clothespins in scene 1 should be the type that actually clip. May we have some to work with in rehearsal? Thank you.
Please ADD feather fans for the four ensemble women to use to fan Glinda.
Irene is thinking that the items that come from the Wiz’ suitcase may be from Vietnam. Possibly the courage medal is something he earned in the war.
The winged monkey that appears first (MaShawn) should be recognizable as the leader of the monkeys.
Irene and Willie would like to use the ensemble women as attendants to Glinda. This is in addition to the four men who carry the litter.
Though the company is poised to go into tech rehearsals any moment, a few new queries dribbled down from rehearsal our way today. Among them was this one:
…on a lighter note, the cast started throwing shoes at the stage today when one of the principals was singing a particularly rousing song. They say it is the highest form of compliment. Irene is wondering where that tradition came from.
Now, if anyone reading or following wants to offer any insight into this arcane tradition—a new one to all of us here, it must be said—feel free to chime in. Really. Please. Chime in. But get out of your head right now images of slippers being hurled at GWB in Iraq.
(Good to know, as an aside, that there are rousing performances of this ilk breaking out in rehearsal, and that spirits are of the sort that reward that with…shoe hurling?)
While we unburdened crawl (well, frolic quite delightedly) towards first preview of The Wiz in less than two weeks, we’re also gearing up around here for quite a few other activities. Tonight, for instance, is the first Cabaret—featuring legendary songstress KT Sullivan—and October 7th ushers in the first Play Lab (James Magruder and his sinfully side-splitting domestic sex-comedy Dunkler Related Disorders). But coming down the pike quickly as well will be ReEntry, based on first-hand accounts of Marine vets and their families. KJ Sanchez (follow me around the base paths on this one), who directs and co-wrote/created the piece, will be down in DC on September 28th to direct a somewhat related work, the increasingly acclaimed Theater of War project. They’ll be doing a one-night reading at Woolly Mammoth, and the link here will tell you all that you need to know about that, and getting tickets if you’re so moved. We’re hugely excited about everything to do with ReEntry around here, as well as being big fans of KJ, so we’re delighted that she has this opportunity. With top brass and DC nabobs slated to attend, along with regular vets and caregivers, it should be a stellar event. It will also be a nifty chance for KJ to promote ReEntry as well. Anyhow; check out the link and make the connection. (A hint: Theater of War involves readings of the ancient Greek tragedy Ajax for an audience of veterans and others, with discussion to follow; ReEntry of course concerns the experience of going to and returning from war as told by current Marine vets and their families, and will be followed nightly with discussion. Pretty easy math.) Whew!
here’s a sneak preview peek at one of the program pieces prepared by dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe for the upcoming production of that glorious rock’n’soul extravaganza, The Wiz.
A Hard Road to Ease
by Otis Ramsey-Zöe
FIRST MUNCHKIN: You can’t miss it.
DOROTHY: I can’t?
FIFTH MUNCHKIN: No.
SECOND MUNCHKIN: You see that road of yellow bricks?
—William F. Brown & Charlie Smalls, The Wiz
In The Wiz, unlike Baum‘s original tale, the Yellow Brick Road is not laid out in a clear path that is readily navigable. For the original production, set designer Tom H. John recommended having four dancers personify the road. At times, the dancers provided clear direction; at others, the road wandered off or disappeared completely, leaving its travelers in the lurch. This concept offers an apt metaphor for the show’s sometimes bumpy journey to realization.
In 1972, Ken Harper, a young radio executive and disc jockey, attended a club version of Cabaret. He was struck by the show’s concept, which featured minimal dialogue, and he decided that the format would be perfect for a television special. Encouraged by the then-current success of Hello Dolly with a Black cast, Harper decided to apply the format to material that would actually let him re-imagine an existing work through the lens of a modern, Black experience¾something akin to what West Side Story did with Romeo and Juliet. He was drawn to The Wizard of Oz, though he feared having to contend with the 1939 classic film. However, TV networks at that moment were backlogged with TV specials, so that road led to a dead end.
Or was it? Harper decided to try a new course, one that would bring his idea to life as a Broadway show. He recruited Charlie Smalls, a little-known Black songwriter-musician, to create music and lyrics, and brought on William F. Brown, a white television writer, to create the libretto. Next, Harper secured a $650,000 investment from Twentieth Century-Fox and, in the summer of 1973, enlisted Geoffrey Holder to play the Wiz. Holder, immediately enamored by the project, offered himself as costume designer. His sketches were so imaginative and functional that they influenced the entire style of the show, and he was named director and choreographer as well. When financiers grew worry of entrusting so much authority in one person, Holder was replaced as director by Gilbert Moses and as the Wiz by André DeShields. The role of choreographer went to the brilliantly imaginative George Faison, whose “Tornado Ballet” inspired Holder (who remained as costume designer) to create a dazzling costume using 100 yards of black silk streaming from a dancer’s head.
Even with this progress and such stellar talent, the road to the show’s first performance, in Baltimore, was not a smooth one. Of that first performance, Harper later recalled, “The show was in such a disastrous shape that my general manager suggested that we don’t open.” Tension was high, and no one knew what to expect. But, Harper noted, “Whatever had gone wrong in the afternoon…just fell into place in the evening. And we received a standing ovation that night plus four curtain calls.” Nevertheless, bumps along the road persisted. Songs came and went. Moses was dismissal from the project and Holder reappointed director, guiding the show to its Broadway opening on January 5, 1975.
However, the closing notice was posted backstage on opening night: during previews, the show was losing money and had no cash in reserve. It featured no name stars recognizable enough to draw large crowds, and its concept was novel. To fill seats, producers distributed free tickets in exchange for radio ads and newspaper stories, and contacted Black church and civic groups. Word of mouth began to spread; the Black community in particular responded. Soon buses were arriving from up and down the East Coast, and ticket sales accelerated at a measurable pace. Fox financed an aggressive television and radio campaign that helped lure more audiences to the theater, and New Yorkers as a whole embraced the show. At last, the winding, pothole-laden road began to straighten and even out.
The Wiz went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and five Drama Desk Awards, for an initial Broadway run of 1,672 performances. Soon, touring versions were playing all over, and by the time it closed the film was underway. It was the first completely Black mainstream musical of the 1970s, at a moment that also saw the rise of Blaxpoitation films like Shaft (1971) as well as rock musicals like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and others.* While it did not reinvent or remake the musical form, The Wiz was both musically and stylistically innovative; it helped to pave the way for subsequent works on stage and screen that draw specifically from African American life, culture, and music.
Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel discusses the groundbreaking nature of The Wiz, playing at City Center.
We’ve come a long way since Jan. 5, 1975, the night The Wiz arrived at the Majestic Theatre on 44th Street, an unexpected, if not exactly unwelcome guest. Back then, no one really had any idea what to expect from a rock and soul musical, an all-black retelling of one of the best-loved American stories. And judging from the morning-after reviews, which were grudgingly favorable but somewhat baffled, no one quite knew that a seismic shift had occurred on one of the most hidebound boulevards in the world: Broadway.
There had been black musicals for decades, of course, going back to the turn of the century. Shuffle Along was a hit way back in 1921. All-black revues like Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds series had been all the rage in the jazz age. George Gershwin tackled the African-American folk drama with his opera Porgy and Bess in the ’30s. In 1967, producer David Merrick scored a triumph by recasting his long-running hit musical Hello, Dolly! with an all black company, headed by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway. And the Civil Rights era inspired shows like Purlie and Raisin, which refashioned the struggle for equality into musical theatre. But The Wiz was something entirely different.
It could not have happened without all that preceded it. Until The Wiz, black Broadway fell largely into two categories: jazzy, energetic shows that exploited black culture and style without even acknowledging the racial divide in the United States, and Civil Rights plays and musicals that made racial politics their central subject. The Wiz did something both bolder and more casual: it took a favorite “white” story, and refashioned it in African-American stylistic terms. It dared to say to a largely white audience: you may think this is your story, but it really belongs to all of us. It’s just a really good story. And we can tell it in our culture in our own way; if you are willing to listen, you will hear it anew.
Critics may have been skeptical of this revolutionary idea. Audiences were not. As they had come rushing to hear Little Richard, Ray Charles and Chuck Berry 15 years earlier, they flocked to The Wiz. Seven Tony Awards and a four-year run later, The Wiz had entered the cultural landscape, never to depart.
Why? First of all, The Wiz was a joy machine, providing audiences with a two-and-a-half hour pleasure cruise, gorgeously designed and tasty for the ear. Beyond that, it empowered black culture in a new way. It dared to be entirely post Jim-Crow. It dared to suggest that no one had to ask permission to borrow “The Wizard of Oz,” and no one should ever have to ask again. Unlike the black Hello, Dolly! , which retained its white, turn-of-the century vernacular and simply placed it in the mouths of black actors, The Wiz spoke the cheerfully slangy argot of the black street. It dressed for the occasion in high style, and it moved in a way that elevated Afro-pop dance vocabulary to a new level. It did all of this without anger or recrimination or, seemingly, having anything to prove at all; it simply told the familiar story back to us in a way we’d never heard it before, inviting white America into a beautiful new world. It was a world that had its own values and invited us to embrace those values purely for the pleasure of it — for the energy, the wisdom, the sophistication, the beauty. The blues, soul music and R&B were, in effect, entirely African-American creations. “The Wizard of Oz” was, in most audience’s minds, entirely white. The Wiz cheerfully declared that these distinctions, while perhaps historically valid, were now and forever out of date. It was a brand new day — an entirely happy and triumphant one at that.
Some critics took the show to task for what they deemed its unpolished craftsmanship, as a few latter-day critics would do with the African-American playwright August Wilson. They couldn’t see that their point of view was entirely parochial. The Wiz wasn’t trying to compete with My Fair Lady — it was brashly speaking its own cultural language on its own terms, with a fierce pride that insisted all Americans could and should learn to speak it, too. Within a decade almost all of us had done so.
How much of this was premeditated? Probably very little. The Wiz was as much a product of its time as a harbinger of things to come. But it took a certain kind of street smarts — show business wisdom — to make use of this particular tale to break this particular barrier. For the story itself is about empowerment and courage. Little Dorothy Gale is a heroine who is neither angry nor at all sure of herself, but who is hard-wired never to quit. In an odd way, this little white girl, conceived by L. Frank Baum in the waning days of the 19th century, embodies the spirit of the Civil Rights struggle without ever saying a word about it. All she wants to do is get home, to know she has a home, where she is welcome and where she counts, the same as everybody else. The Wiz, whether by instinct or calculation, transformed that kernel of a theme into a welcoming, triumphant display of African-American pride and joy.
Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! Summer Stars. This piece ran in the City Center Playbill for The Wiz.