"If you believe in yourself, you will have brains, heart and courage to last your whole life through..." So declares Dorothy to her new-found friends as they finally find the way to realize their hopes and dreams in the spectacular musical movie, "The Wiz," a Motown Production for Universal Release.
This humble yet profound bit of philosophy is not only the keynote of the film but is also a reflection of the attitudes of many of the main principals involved in bringing "The Wiz" to the motion picture screen.
Ultimately, it was four men – producer Rob Cohen, director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter Joel Schumacher and production designer Tony Walton – who initially took on the task of creating a lavishly-mounted production that would be driven by the high-energy music of today and boast the look of a highly imaginative tomorrow. Starring in this fantastic, fun-filled and often awe-inspiring filmed trip through a magical land are Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor as The Wiz.
For Cohen, "The Wiz" has been almost a total way of life ever since he first saw the smash hit show on Broadway early in 1975. Later, after he persuaded Universal to buy the movie rights, he got down to the real challenge of how to adapt the show to the screen.
He soon realized that he couldn't simply re-make the classic 1939 MGM musical, "The Wizard of Oz," starring the then teen-aged Judy Garland. To merely film the stage musical, with its setting also in turn-of-the-century Kansas, was also totally inadequate to the broad conception he had in mind. The only way to go, he decided, was "to do something radically different."
What that was to be became apparent only after Lumet signed on as director. "The use of New York – albeit a fantastically transformed New York – grew out of Sidney being the director," Cohen notes.
"The ideas in the original story by L. Frank Baum, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," remain the same," Cohen points out. The notion that was have within us the seeds of whatever we want to be, and that we can be at home wherever we happen to be – this is still the heartbeat of the movie, according to the dynamic young producer.
For Lumet, there were three main considerations – that the production be true to the original book by L. Frank Baum, to the original score for "The Wiz" by Charlie Smalls and to the enormous talents of superstar Diana Ross.
As the highly-imaginative concepts began to take shape and form themselves into a basis for a screenplay that would be a thoroughly modern treatment of the classic story, Lumet signed on other key production personnel, including Ossie Morris as director of photography, Dede Allen as film editor, Quincy Jones as musical director, and Louis Johnson as choreographer.
Finally, on October 3, 1977, "The Wiz" began principal photography. By the time the filming was completed on December 29, 1977, the extraordinary production had become the most expensive film ever made in the City of New York.
"The Wiz" opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975. Produced by Ken Harper, with music by Charlie Smalls, it went on to win seven Tony Awards including those for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Supporting Actor, the latter for Ted Ross who reprises his roles as the Lion in the film.
The following year, the stage musical also won the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Show Album.
Originally entitled, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the book by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, was first published in June, 1900, and has not since then ever been out of print. In 1939, it was estimated that the novel has been read by over 80 million people. It is one of the 15 top best-selling books of the Twentieth Century, with copies now in print in 22 languages.
The first dramatization of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was an enormously successful stage play which opened in the fall of 1902, played for 18 months, and was one of the big hits of the Twentieth Century's first decade. The book and lyrics were written by Baum and music by Paul Tiejens and A. Baldwin Sloane.
The book's first screen adaptation was in 1910 in a one-reeler produced by William N. Selig. Baum formed the Oz Film Company in 1913, and during its two years in existence, produced three five-reel Oz features.
In 1925, a full-length silent film was made called "The Wizard of Oz." based on a screenplay by one of Baum's four sons, L. Frank Baum, Jr., in collaboration with the film's star and director, Larry Semon.
In 1934, producer Samuel Goldwyn bought most of the Oz stories from the Baum estate with the idea of making them into films starring Eddie Cantor. These rights were sold to MGM a few years later and became the basis for the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland.
And now, "The Wiz" – not only a truly spectacular culmination to the history of this beloved and treasured American story but also a production that is bound to become recognized as a signal accomplished in the history of American film.