Here is an exclusive excerpt from Lane's book:
In the early 1970s, Ken Harper was the program affairs director at WPIX Radio when he had the idea of producing a new musical version of L. Frank Baum’s book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Musical adaptations of the children’s classic were nothing new. In 1903, a musical extravaganza, with book and lyrics by Baum, has been staged on Broadway, where it ran for 293 performances. And, of course, in 1939, MGM’s film "The Wizard of Oz" won praise from both critics and moviegoers, becoming an instant classic. But Harper’s version was to be different, for it would place Baum’s story in the context of black culture and would add all new music. William F. Brown was signed on to write the book, and music and lyrics would be contributed by Charlie Smalls.
The journey of The Wiz to Broadway was fraught with more problems than Dorothy’s journey to Oz. Cast members left, the original director had to be replaced in out-of-town tryouts, and as the play moved toward New York, ticket sales were so low that Harper had closing notices ready for posting on opening night. Yet the play did open in January 1975 at the Majestic Theatre, with the original Broadway cast including Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle, Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Dee Dee Bridgwater, and André De Shields.
The Wiz received poor reviews from New York critics, and it did not seem that the faltering production could withstand the assault. But shortly after the opening, an editorial appeared in the New York Amsterdam News—the oldest black newspaper in the country—urging black theatergoers to see the play. The editorial explained that white critics might be unable to respond to a story “produced by Blacks, sung by Blacks, and seen predominantly by Blacks on opening night.” Mainstream critics also might not understand references to black culture or appreciate the use of black vernacular and the message of black pride. It was therefore up to the people to see and spread the word about this great play.
Spurred by the editorial and subsequent reviews from the black community, as well as by a robust television ad campaign—the second in Broadway history, with the first being the campaign for Pippin—sales soared and The Wiz became a huge hit, running for 1,672 performances. The show was nominated for numerous Tony Awards and won seven: Best Musical, Best Choreography (George Faison), Best Costume Design (Geoffrey Holder), Best Director of a Musical (Geoffrey Holder), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and Best Original Score (Charlie Smalls). In 1978, a film version would be released starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor, and in 1984, Stephanie Mills would reprise her role as Dorothy in a revival of the stage musical. But neither of these productions could rival the success of the 1975 musical, which rocked New York for four years.
Excerpted from Black Broadway by Stewart F. Lane (c) 2015 by Stellar Productions Intl. Inc. Square One Publishers (squareonepublishers.com). Used by permission. Photos featured in said excerpt by Kenn Duncan/(c)Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and are also used by permission.
"Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way" is available for purchase from the Playbill Store.