(Click for larger view)
Playbill signed by Stephanie Mills
Baltimore Playbill February 1974
Signed by Stephanie Mills
(Click for larger view)
New York Playbill
New York Playbill
Jan. 5, 1975

History of "The Wiz"

History of 'The Wiz' Picture Gallery




A Hip "Wiz" Opens at the Ahmanson

BY DAN SULLIVAN
Times Theater Critic

"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.

^ Top


"The Wiz" CD ad
Original Cast Broadway Show of Wiz March 1992
(Click for larger view)
Ad for "The Wiz"
Nobody Beats The Wiz Ad For THE WIZ  February 17, 1992
(Click for larger view)

A Hip "Wiz" Makes Quite a Splash

(Continued from First Page)
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.

^ Top


Charles Smalls
April 12. 1962
Airman 3rd Class Charles E. Smalls
(Click for larger view)

Charles E. Smalls
(Click for larger view)

"Merry Christmas, Caroline"
April 1962

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 Juilliard School of Music for six years and graduated from High School of Performing Arts. After his Air Force hitch.

^ Top


July 13, 1974
Black Wizard Of Oz July 13, 1974
(Click for larger view)


Stage: "The Wiz" (of Oz)

January 6, 1975
Black Musical Shows Vitality and Style

By Clive Barnes


Criticism is not objective. This does not mean that a critic cannot see qualities in a work that does not evoke much personal response in himself. A case in point is "The Wiz," a black musical that opened last night at the Majestic Theater. It has obvious vitality and a very evident and gorgeous sense of style. I found myself unmoved for too much of the evening, but I was respectfully unmoved, not insultingly unmoved. There is a high and mighty difference.

L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" has been a standard children's story almost since its first publication in 1900. A year later Baum himself made a theatrical adaptation of the piece, and there have been other stage versions. But it was in Victor Fleming's 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland as the little Kansas girl whisked away on a cyclone along the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz, that the story received what was really its definitive treatment.

The idea of the present staging appears to have been that of the producer, Ken Harper, and one can easily see his line of thought. With a musical mixture of rock, gospel and soul music, written by Charlie Smalls, who provided both score and lyrics, "The Wiz" is intended as a new kind of fantasy, colorful, mysterious, opulent and fanciful. It was also obviously meant to be a fantasy for today very modern, a dream dreamed by a space age child.

The concept is very good in theory, but the practice is not made perfect. Mr. Small's music vastly over amplified by the way sounded all too insistent and oddly familiar. It had plenty of verve but it lacked individuality.

It is the over all style of "The Wiz" that gives it its overriding impact. It has all been very carefully conceived and shaped. Not only is Mr. Small's music all of a piece but the visual aspect of the production with handsomely stylized settings by Tom H. John and vibrantly colored and wackily imaginative costumes by Geoffrey Holder offers a fresh and startling profile. This is first rate and highly innovative.

Unfortunately, with the blaring, relentless rhythms of Mr. Small's music and the visually arresting but rather tiring scenic spectacle, the total result is a little cold. This is not helped by a somewhat charmless book by William F. Brown.

It is eventually the story, or more correctly the treatment of the story, that I found tiresome. A fairy tale, to work, has to have magic. We have to give ourselves up to it, to suspend our cynical disbeliefs and, to some extent, identify with the characters. To me, this proved impossible in "The Wiz," never for a moment has those dimensions. And the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion (who, in memory, must always be Bert Lahr), while fantastic, are rarely amusing.

None of this was the fault of the performers, Stephanie Mills, however, who plays Dorothy, while having a really wonderful voice, unusually mature for a 15 year old, did not have a very persuasive personality. The singing throughout was first class, particularly from Mabel King and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who both have big and beautiful voices.

The rest of the cast is admirable, including Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross and the graceful loose-limbed Hinton Battle as the comic trio helping Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City, and Andre de Shields as the sardonic Wiz. Nor can fault be found with the staging. Mr. Holder (who took the assignment while the show was on the road) has directed "The Wiz" with a characteristic feel for movement, and the vibrant choreography by George Falson (here making his Broadway debut) is almost invisibly meshed in with the general staging.

When so much is individually good it is difficulty to justify a personal sense of disappointment. Perhaps it is, at least for me, that fantasy is enthralling only when it is rooted in experience. Also the stylistic unity of the show, which may prove very exciting to many Broadway theater goers are, of course, familiar to me from years of going to the ballet and the opera, so its originality is diluted. There are many things to enjoy in "The Wiz," but, with apologies, this critic noticed them without actually enjoying them.

The Cast

THE WIZ, a musical of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Book by William F. Brown; music lyrics by Charlie Smalls; setting by Tom H. John; costumes by Geoffrey Holder; lighting by Tharon Musser; orchestrations by Harold Wheeler; musical direction and vocal arrangements by Charles H. Coleman; dance arrangements by Timothy Graphenreed; choreography and musical numbers staged by George Falson; production stage manager, Charles Blackwell; directed by Mr. Holder. Presented by Ken Harper. At the Majestic Theater, 245 West 45th Street.

Aunt Em……………………………… Tasha Thomas
Toto…………………………………………… Megs
Dorothy……………………………… Stephanie Mills
Uncle Henry…………………………… Ralph Wilcox
Tornado……………………………… Evelyn Thomas
Addaperie……………………………… Clarice Taylor
Scarecrow……………………………… Hinton Battle
Tinman………………………………… Tiger Haynes
Lion………………………………………… Ted Ross
Gatekeeper……………………………… Danny Beard
The Wiz……………………………… Andre De Shields
Evillene…………………………………… Mabel King
Soldier Messenger……………………… Carl Weaver
Winged Monkey………………………… Andy Torres
Glinda…………………………… Dee Dee Bridgewater

^ Top



March 1975
New York Times Half Page Ad August 1975
(Click for larger view)

B'way Takes On That Tony Look

By William Glover

"The Wiz" a swinging black musical based on one of childhood's favorite fables, and "Equus," a taut British drama about a youth crazy over horses are Broadway's champion shows of the 1974-75 season. Top individual winners of the coveted Tony medallions for "outstanding achievement" which were announced during elaborate ceremonies last night included Ellen Burstyn, repeating her Oscar triumph; and in joint citation, John Kani and Willston Ntshona. In their South African homeland the pair are able to work on stage only under as employment subterfuge as "house servants." Angela Lansbury and John cullum were named the year's star musical performers. Besides being chosen as the best musical. "The Wiz" scooped up six of the other 17 competitive trophies. Peter Shaffer's "Equus," the best drama, also won a directing prize for John Dexter. The virtual blitz of tune show honors by the Afro rhythm version of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', and the Kani-Ntshona victory highlighted an otherwise easily predictable sequence of the triumphs which took place on the stage of the Winter Garden theater during a two-hour telecast over the ABC-TV network. The Tonys, officially the Antoinette Perry Awards, are voted upon in secret ballot by about 450 representatives of all branches of the stage profession, under the auspices of the New York League of Theaters and Producers, in association with the American Theater Wing. They are Broadway's counterparts of Hollywood's Oscars.

Geoffrey Holder was the evening's only double winner, taking both musical director and costume designer awards for "The Wiz."

The show's other victor's were Ted Ross and Dee Dee Bridgewater, for supporting actor and actress; Charlie Smalls, best score; and George Falson, choreographer. The dramatic acting award to Kani and Ntshona, the first joint citation in Tony history, was for their performances in two plays which they co-authored with Athol Fugard, "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island." Ellen Burstyn said she was accepting her Trophy also on behalf of Charles Grodin, the only other performer in "Same Time, Next Year," who did not get a nomination. Supporting drama acting Tonys went to Frank Langella of "Seascape," and Rita Moreno in "The Ritz." She seemed slightly unhappy about her category, declaring "the only thing I support in the show is my beads."

Miss Lansbury took the star musical actress award, the third Tony of her career, for the revival of "Gypsy." Cullum was honored for his part in "Shenandoah." That show, about a peace -loving family during the Civil War, also received the medallion for best musical book, a collaboration by James Lee Barrett, Peter Udell and Philip Rose. Although the Broadway season has included a great many imports from England, the only one cited besides "Equus" was "Sherlock Holmes." Carl Toms was named for scenic design, Neil Peter Jampolis for lighting. The League's executive board also presented a noncompetitive Tony to Neil Simon, author of 14 comedies and musicals; and a scroll to Al Hirschfeld, veteran theatrical cartoonist. A galaxy of past and present celebrities participated as presenters, some in person including Carol Lawrence, Michele Lee, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Julie Harris and Milton Berle.

^ Top




(Click for larger view)

Burstyn Does It Again; 'Wiz' Wins 7 Tonys

By PATRICIA O'HAIRE and WILLIAM MCFADDEN
April 21, 1975

Ellen Burstyn of Hollywood and Broadway became queen of both show biz capitals last night when she pulled down the 29th annual Tony as leading lady in a play for her role in the comedy "Same Time, Next Year."

The award for best actor in a play went to the South African team of John Kani and Winston Ntshona.

Broadway's astonishing black musical, "The Wiz," captured the best-musical award and six others to become the second black musical in a row to win that Tony, in 1974, it was "Raisin." The 1975 award for best play went to "Equus." Other top awards went to: Best actress and best actor in a musical, to Angela Lansbury of "Gypsy" and John Cullum of "Shenandoah"." Best supporting actress and actor in a play, to Rita Moreno of "The Ritz" and Frank Langella of "Seascape." Best supporting actress and actor, in a musical, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ted Ross, both of "The Wiz."


Music and Lyrics by Charles Smalls
(Click for larger view)

"Wiz" Director Gets

"The Wiz" also claimed the awards for best score, by Charlie Smalls; best choreography, by George Faison, and best director of a musical and best costume designer, both Geoffrey Holder. Best director of a play went to John Dexter of "Equus," James Lee Barrett of "Shenandoah" won for the best book for a musical and Carl Thomas of "Sherlock Holmes' for best scenic designer. To a valley of applause at the Winter Garden, Burstyn alluded to her win of an Oscar earlier this month for her role in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore": "I guess this is what it means to be twice blessed." "But the show is really a duet," she added. I'd like to accept this in the name of Charles Grodin, my magnificent partner."

Honoring the Garden

The Winter Garden, on Broadway between 50th and 51st Sts., one of the oldest and biggest in our town, was crowded as show biz greats ranging back to venerable Joe Smith, at 91 the surviving member of 1919's Smith & Dale comedy team put on a nostalgic show for a glittering audience. The awards program moved swiftly, the presentations interspersed with homage to the Winter Garden itself and its record of hits since it opened its doors on March 20, 1911. It was Broadway's biggest night of the year, and the Tony kept to its tradition of presenting a selection of old goodies, from dance routines, straw-hat-and -derby comic bits, medleys of old song hits and a dance team from 1971's "Follies," with Alexis Smith. Old Joe Smith gave the medallion to Miss Moreno, who wore a slinky gown and tan turban. In a fast quip, Miss Moreno said: "Rita Moreno is thrilled."

Lindsay Thanks 'Em

Former Mayor Lindsay, joined Angela Lansbury for the final steps of a production number from 1966's "Mame," then presented the best-director award to Dexter. All through the evening, the award winners had solemnly thanked "those who voted for me, and those who did not." After Dexter got his award, Lindsay said: "And I thank all those who voted for me. And all those who did not." Fred Astaire, who appeared at the Winter Garden in 1918, was heard by tape from Hollywood as he announced the Tony to Miss Bridgewater.

Berle Cautions

Milton Berle, a veteran of the "Ziegfeld Follies," warned: "Don't applaud too loud. This is an old building!" Kani and Ntshona who are not even recognized as actors in their own South Africa made the briefest statements of the night. "Thank you very much," led off Ntshona. "Thanks, said Kani. When producer Kermit Bloomgarden accepted his award for "Equus," he noted that fellow producers were in the audience and said: "I'd like to see us find a way to give these awards without competition."

^ Top


April 21, 1975
Best Musical Wins 7 Tonys The New York Times 4-21-75
(Click for larger view)

'The Wiz,' Best Musical, Wins 7 Tonys


"The Wiz" a black musical version of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," won the Antoinette Perry Award last night as the best musical of 1974-1975 season.

By Capturing seven Tony's as the prizes are now, the show was the evenings biggest Winner at the 29th annual Tony Awards presentation ceremonies, held at the Winter Garden Theater. Geoffrey Holder was honored as best director of a musical for his staging of the colorful, mysterious and opulent "The Wiz". The show also won Tony's for Ted Ross, who played the Cowardly Lion, as best supporting actor in the musical: Dee Dee Bridewater (Glinda), as best supporting actress in a musical: Charlie Smalls, for best score: George Faison, for choreography,, and Mr. Holder for costume design.

"Equis," Peter Shaffer's popular Broadway psychological inquiry into a crime through a journey into someone's mind, garnered the Tony for best play. Sharing the prize with play's author were it's producers Kermit Bloomgarden and Doris Cole Abrahams. "Equis" also earned best directors award for John Dexter, who created the psychic and mythic thriller on staring bare stage. Ellen Burstyn, who this month won an Oscar for her leading role the movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", received a Tony for Best actress for her performance in the play "Same Time Next Year". The award for Best actor in a play was shared John Kani and Winston Ntshona for Athol Fugard's two-man show from South Africa. "Sizwe Banzil is Dead" a production that has enjoyed International success. Angela Lansbury picked up her third Tony last night as best actress in the musical "Gypsy" for her portrayal of Rose, the formidable mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. Angela Lansbury also performed for the awards ceremony, singing the title song from "Mame," the Broadway musical for which she won a

Tony, and "Everything's Coming Up Roses," from "Gypsy."

The Tony for best actor in a musical went to John Cullum, who player Charlie Anderson, a Virginia farmer and widower with six sons and daughters in the Civil War musical "Shenandoah." Frank Langella, who plays a lizard, a deep-sea creature at an advanced stage of evolution in Edward Albee's "Seascape," was judged the best supporting actor in a play. Mr. Langelia was making his Broadway debut. Rita Moreno won the award for best book of a musical went to James Lee Barrett for his strong and ambitious story for "Shenandoah." The ceremonies were televised live by ABC-TV from the Winter Garden Theater. The Winter Garden served as the theme of this year's ceremonies. The gala show which drew on the theater's 64-year history, recalled its long parade of revues and musical comedies and their legendary stars, including Al Jolson, who made the theater his showcase. Alexander H. Cohen, the produced, created the show for the ninth straight year. His wife, Hildy Parks, wrote the script. The winners, chosen in 18 categories, were selected by a committee of eight theater journalists and a group of professionals appointed by the League of New York Theatres and Producers. The final voting was done by 424 members of the theatrical profession. The 1975 Tony nominating committee consisted of Harold Clurman of The Nation; Brendan Gill of The New Yorker; William Glover of The Associated Press; Leonard Harris, writer and critic; Henry Hewes of Saturday Review/ World; Joan Rubin of Playbill; Isabelle Stevenson of the American Theater Wing, and Douglas Watt of The Daily News. Although the Tony administration committee of the league had given the nominating committee the option of voting special Off Broadway awards in three categories-the committee declined to do so.

^ Top


June 6, 1975

(Click for larger view)

Blacks Gain on Broadway; Lag in 2 Other Arts

By Judith Cummings
June 6, 1975

For the first time in the memory of most black theater observers, black people experienced theatergoers and first timers alike find themselves with a choice among Broadway shows that offer them something to identify with. An apparent upsurge of black artistic participation in the commercial theater has brought a new spirit and a new audience to Broadway, and the essence of both is black.

If there is a lesson in the theater phenomenon, it has apparently not been noted of learned in two other performing arts, the ballet and classical music. No Major orchestra or ballet company, by measurable indications, appears to be rushing to engage black performers as permanent members. And some fear that the Broadway phenomenon may be only temporary.

On a given theater night in the current season, the commercial theater audience, black and white, has had the choice of seeing, for example, black established stars like James Earl Jones and Cleavon Little: a musical based on the Wizard of Oz fantasy adapted into a black cultural idiom; an exploration of the psychic torment of a black creative artist, and a pair of dramas dealing with the life of blacks in South Africa.

Sense of "Presence"

All these shows, and nearly a dozen others from the season, use black artistic talent or offer a glimpse of black life, contributing to a sense of greater black "presence" in the commercial theater. Broadway has had earlier periods notably in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen -forties when it has seen a vogue for "black" shows. But today's offering is broader, and it has emerged coexistent with an independent "black theater movement," created by blacks for blacks, that has been growing in size and strength since the civil rights thrust of the nineteen sixties. Why it has emerged now is an open question, but many believe it is rooted in a desire of Broadway to capitalize on a public appetite for black related themes that was whetted by Hollywood a few years ago and more recently spread to a mass audience by popular television series such as "The Jeffersons" and Good Times." Passers-by near West 44th Street on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon are greeted by the sight of predominantly black crowds, and particularly families with young children, pouring out of a matinee performance of "The Wiz." It is an audience that the white theater establishment has for years been saying did not exist.

That such a scene regularly materializes at the Majestic Theater, and to a somewhat lesser degree at the other midtown theaters presenting black influenced productions, is due, most observers say, almost wholly to word of mouth within the black community that stretches from city to city.

Bus tours of blacks from nearby cities are becoming more and more frequent, and a two-year-old Harlem-based organization called Audelco (for Audience Development Committee) has been organizing a growing number of theater parties for commercial and noncommercial productions. Its regular clients include groups ranging from garment industry workers to Harlem Hospital employees to the Brooklyn Links, a prominent women's social club.

Washington Visitors

A black Washington businessman, Mitch Johnson, and his wife, Yvonne, were recently among visitors to the city who fitted an evening at the theater into a business - weekend schedule. They chose "The Wiz," a black adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz," after hearing about it from a Washington friend. "We were unable to get tickets the normal way and had to pay about 20 to 25 percent more at the hotel, but it was well worth it," said Mr. Johnson, a former offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins. The show, converted from its original form by a black producer, Ken Harper, with direction by a black choreographer. Geoffrey Holder, received poor critical reviews but was kept alive by black patrons until it received seven Antoinette Perry Awards, including best musical.

The willingness of Mr. Johnson to deliver upward of $30 into box office for an evening's entertainment is exactly what many theater professionals say has motivated Broadway's new venture into blackness. "If a show has commercial potential, they'll bring people from the moon to do it," said Douglas Turner Ward, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, which is generally regarded as the nation's leading institutional black theater. Its productions include "The River Niger," which moved to Broadway for an eight-month run two years ago, and "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men." What black professionals working in the theater make clear, however, is that, in their view, the shows do not all represent "black theater," which they define as the illumination of the black experience written and shaped by blacks.

New "Climate" Seen

Mr. Ward is one of a number who view the growing black artistic presence on Broadway as a result of a more receptive "climate" created by the efforts over the last 10 years of institutional theaters like his own in the Black Theater Movement. "We have kept established black theater or black performance before the people, and not just when there is a rising fad for it," he said. The Black Theater Movement, a philosophy of theater dedicated to the portrayal of black life through the works of black playwrights, encompasses some two dozen professional and community theaters in New York alone, including the Negro Ensemble Company and an umbrella organization called the Black Theater Alliance. Forged in the heat of the civil rights struggle, the movement nationally includes such groups as Robert Hook's D.C. Black Repertory, the Free Southern Theater of New Orleans and the Inner City Repertory of Los Angeles. Many credit the "hook" that brought black audiences in sizable numbers from the noncommercial theater to Broadway to Melvin Van Peebles's production of two shows, "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" and "Don't Play Us Cheap," in the same season, 1971-72. In the process, Mr. Van Pebbles, as producer, author, songwriter and star, worked hard at publicizing the shows in the black community. The results of that effort have not been ignored. Several weeks into its run, "All Over Town," a Murray Schisgal comedy written for Cleavon Little which is not about blacks but about the eccentricities of the upper middle class household of a white Manhattan psychiatrist began running commercial spots on a black oriented FM radio station. The spots had Mr. Little appealing to listeners to see the show because, "I'm the main man." At the least, observers agree, the Broadway shows are providing more employment for black actors though there are many who say the opportunities have not expanded similarly for directors or producers and even that is an improvement over the more static situation in some other performing arts. How much more employment is not known. Actors Equity stopped maintaining racial data on employment after a push to integrate Broadway casts in the late nineteen sixties. And the job data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are categorized too generally to distinguish performing jobs from other occupations in the industry. But whatever the magnitude of the gains made in theater, blacks aspiring to careers in classical music and the ballet can only look on with envy. Few major performing companies have more than one black participant, although he may be of the caliber of a James de Priest, who last December became the first principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Six years ago, for example, when the New York City Commission on Human Rights began an investigation at the New York Philharmonic, that orchestra had only one black member. It still has only one. An additional factor operates in both these fields that does not exist in theater: youngsters who are to succeed as classical dancers or as instrumentalists, conductors or concert artists must, with rare exceptions, set their direction and begin training by age 9 or 10. Preparation requires time and money most blacks do not have. But most important many ask, what real motivation exists for them or their parents when, with a glance at the local symphony or ballet company, the visible models of success are so few?

In fact, according to Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem to give black youngsters the chance to study classical ballet, the pool of black dancers qualified for the professional ballet companies remains small.

"You See There's No Place"

"When there is nothing for people to identify with, there is nothing to go into," he said. "Many blacks were encouraged to go into modern or ethnic dance because you look at the classical companies and you see there's no place for you." Although he spent 20 years with the New York City Ballet, he believes he got there only through extraordinary perseverance. "They told me because I was black, I had to be better than everybody else. So that's how I got in," he says simply. In the nation's symphony orchestras, Henry Lewis is the only black person in a top job, as conductor of Newark's New Jersey State Symphony. "The symphony is the last bastion of discrimination, and it's the hardest," according to Dick Campbell, executive director of the Symphony of the New World, a 100-member integrated symphony in New York that was formed to provide exposure for minority instrumentalists. With the cooperation of the National Urban League, the New World Symphony conducted a six month survey last year of black musicians in 56 symphonies across the country. Of the nearly 5,000 musicians playing regularly in those orchestras, only 70 were black, Mr. Campbell said. And among the "big Five" symphonies the Chicago, the Boston, the Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic only six out of 528 musicians were black, according to the survey. The Chicago, with 110 musicians, had none.

Divided Opinion

Mr. Campbell and others feel that the symphonies, most of which face a major deficit at the end of each year, are missing an opportunity to tap a new audience among black people by perpetuating an all white image. "Given the opportunity of exposure, black people will support you because black people want to participate in the city." he said." "Imagine a city like Atlanta, with a black Mayor, and only one black person in the symphony. If it had 10 or 12, you couldn't keep them away." Still, even in the area where there has been the most success, there is divided opinion among black theater professionals over whether this phenomenon is a passing fancy or the beginning of a new movement that will place more artistic control in black hands, through the emergence of more black directors and producers, and eventually lead to the development of a resource of black productions.

One of those who is not optimistic is Lindsay Patterson, editor of the "Anthology of the American Negro in the Theater" and a frequent drama critic. "I've seen that black things just don't last," he said, "For example, in the movies, you thought that things were going to build, that black artists, directors and artistic talent generally would get a chance to develop. But now you don't ever hear of any black productions of substance that are going to come out. The same thing is going to happen in the theater." "In the theater particularly, you have fads and this is one," he said. A number of black directors complain that, while white directors are called by producers to direct plays on black themes, black directors are not being asked to work on white shows. "There are lots of white directors who are in always called to do black shows and they feel they are in a position to interpret us," said Vinnetta Carroll, artistic director of the Urban Arts Corporation. "But we are in a much better position to interpret them, because we've been in so many areas where we had to be working in their homes and having to observe their life," she said.

"The Only Thing"

Woodie King, a producer who is the force behind the New Federal Theater presenting seven plays a year out of the Henry Street Settlement, said: "The only thing that would mean anything in the commercial theater would be when you see five or six black people producing shows. Now there's only me, the Negro Ensemble Company, and Ken Harper of "The Wiz." Mr. King said he sees now the beginning of the development of a pool of black people able and willing to finance a show in the less costly Off Broadway arens, among professional persons such as social workers, teachers or artists. The director Shauneille Perry, lately of "The Prodigal Sister," sees a thrust of activity not only forward, but back well, reaching well beyond the Sturmund Drang days of black theater in the nineteen-sixties to earlier fine black playwrights like Owen Dodson, Randolph Evans and Douglas Ward whose works were unable to receive an adequate exposure in their time. We've gotten past the revolutionary stage of the sixties. "We've gotten past the revolutionary stage of the sixties. We can now do musicals and avant-garde and explorations of the black psyche and anything we want," she said. "We can have our own black Shakespeares."

^ Top


About New York

'We Always Called Her Dee Dee'
By Tom Buckley

"She had more insight than I did," Matthew Garrett was saying Yesterday, "I got to say it. She knew that if she was going to get anywhere in music she'd have to go to the big city. Me, I stayed in the boondocks…." Mr. Garrett a wiry man, his Afro graying, shrugged. He had been a trumpeter who played with Nat (King) Cole years ago, but there had been family responsibilities, so he stayed in Flint, Mich, and took a teaching job.

Now he was the principal of Emerson Junior High School there and he had come to New York, hoping to see his daughter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, selected for a Tony Award as best supporting actress in a musical for her performance as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, in "The Wiz," As it turned out, she was. "Everybody in Flint's going to be watching the television tonight," he said. "Just before school let out on Friday I announced to all classes that my daughter was a candidate for a Tony and there was no doubt she was going to win."

Dee Dee's mother, Marion Hudspeth, flew in from Flint yesterday on the same plane as her former husband. They separated nine years ago and were subsequently divorced. Each has since remarried. They were staying under the same roof for the first time in nearly a decade on this trip in guest bedrooms in the apartment in Westbeth that their daughter shares with Gilbert Moses, the director.

Mr. Moses directed "The Wiz" from the time it went into rehearsal last August until he was replaced by Geoffrey Holder, a few weeks before its opening here on Jan. 5. "Just one of those things," he said with a smile. " I had a Tony nomination in 1973 for 'Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death' and I'm directing Ed Bullins's 'The Taking of Miss Janie" at Lincoln Center and I did 'Willie Dynamite' for Universal, so it isn't that I'm worrying about my reputation."

"Her name is Denise, but we always called her Dee Dee," said her mother, a placid, smiling woman who is now married to an electrical contractor in Flint. Even when she was a little girl she used to sing around the house all day long," she said. "She didn't inherit that from me, though. I can't even carry a tune. She would say, I'm going to be famous some day and you're not going to have to work anymore. I'm going to take care of you'."

Miss Bridgewater had been trying on the tuxedo-style pants suit she was going to wear at

the awards ceremony, and now she was hurriedly putting herself together to leave for a matinee performance of "The Wiz." "I'm not nervous, I think," she said. "And I promise I'll be just as tickled if I lose as if I win. I never even knew about the Tonys until last year, and I never thought about even being nominated. I'm only on stage for five minutes at the very end of the show. When I was, I cried for three days and I was in a state of shock for a week." She is a lovely, remarkably unaffected young woman. Her smile is wide and warm and her voice put a visitor in mind of clover honey fresh from the comb, country butter and fresh-baked bread.

Riding uptown in a taxi, Miss Bridgewater said she was 24, began singing in talent contests with her younger sister, was the vocalist for the Michigan State jazz group during the year she spent at the college, and then joined a quintet at the University of Illinois. Her husband, Cecil Bridgewater, from whom she is separated, was the trumpet player in the group. They came to New York in 1970 and he joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, which plays regularly at the Village Vanguard.

"I went to a rehearsal and I asked Mel if I could audition. He liked me, and I sang with the band for four and a half years. We went to Russia a couple of times for the State Department and last summer we toured Japan. "I auditioned for 'The Wiz' last May but nothing happened and I thought, 'That's it.' But when I got back in August I was called again. A week before rehearsals started Gil told me I had the part. I said, 'Eeks.' It's one thing to dream about being in a show, but it's something else when you have to begin to worry about whether you can do it."

In her dressing room, Miss Bridgewater kept talking while she painted her finger nails dark red. "There 's no time to go back to Westbeth after the curtain so I'm going to have my hair done and change here and then Gil and my parents and my vocal coach, Gladyce De Jesus, are going to come by in a limousine to pick me up and then we'll go over to the Winter Garden,' she said. "I'm so excited about going, I'll get a chance to look at all the stars."

Miss Brigewater wasn't kept in suspense very long. Her category was the first to be announced, and she was the winner. It was a delightfully flustered young woman who accepted the award. "I didn't prepare anything," she said "I was so sure I wasn't going to win." However she did not forget to thank G. Moses, who cast her in "The Wiz" and her parents.

^ Top


Stephanie Mills
May 25, 1984

(Click for larger view)

'The Wiz' is back worse than ever

By Clive Barnes
May 25, 1984

There are some musicals you expect to see back on Broadway. And some you don't. The Wiz is one I didn't. Yet it came whizzing back to Broadway last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. It even had its original 16 year-old star Stephanie Mills - who doesn't seem to have gotten older, simply worse - in its leading role. It originally opened at the beginning of 1975, and, despite mostly uncouraging notices ran on Broadway for 1672 performances.

That is a track record for the producers to ponder on - because I cannot imagine, although I could not know, that the notices are going to be any better this time around. Probably - were I to be guessing - worse. I could even envisage, savage. The entire musical is based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has been a standard children 's story almost since its first publication in 1900. A year later Baum himself made a theatrical adaptation of the piece, and there have been other stage versions. But it was in Victor Fleming's 1939 movie, starring Judy Garland as the little Kansas girl whisked away on a cyclone along the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz, that the story received what was really its definitive treatment. The idea of the musical was to provide a musical mixture of rock, gospel and soul music, written by Charlie Smalls, who provided score and lyrics. The Wiz is intended as a new kind of fantasy, colorful, mysterious opulent and fanciful. It was also obviously meant to be a fantasy for today - very modern, a dream

dreamed by a space-age child. The concept is perfectly good in theory but its practice is not made perfect. Small's music - vastly overamplified by the way - sounded oddly insistent and all too familiar. It had plenty of verve but lacked individuality. Incidentally, I wrote the last five paragraphs in 1975. I felt that if producers can revive shows there is no reason why critics cannot revive notices. However - and this is a whopping however - the show is not quite as good as it was in 1975. It has become cruder and cheaper. The dιcor seems slightly different and it is now attributed to Peter Wolf, whereas it was by Tom H. John, but the overall image, as does the staging, remains that of Geoffrey Holder, who took over the whole show when it was on the road in 1974.

Ken Harper - the original producer - and Holder originally did wonders with the material - 1672 performances of wonders for a show that could so easily, and in a sense, so justifiably, have closed on its first night. The new cast is not as good as the old cast. Even Stephanie Mills is not as good as Stephanie Mills, and even first time round she was scarcely great. In box office terms, Yul Brynner she never was. The others of the cast try hard in demanding circumstances. I admired them all - particularly Carl Hall, a cheerfully vicious Ella Mitchell, a glamorous Anne Duquesnay. But is this a musical that needed a second time round on Broadway? On the other hand- in musicals there is often another hand - it got remarkably lucky on its first.

^ Top