Toto, I Don't Think We're in Harlem Anymore.
Of course you have, you're a human being on this planet, you've seen that movie. We're not talking about that movie today, though (at least mostly not). We're talking about its 1970's step-cousin "The Wiz", starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and a terrifying amount of additional star power.
"The Wiz" had come out on Broadway in 1975, only a few years before this film was made, and it won a slew of awards, notably "Best Score", "Best Choreography" and "Best Musical" at the Tony's. One would expect that a film adaptation of this musical would do just as well, especially if it was made when the stage version was still fresh in everyone's minds.
That's not what happened. This movie flopped, big time. Some critics credit this film with setting African Americans in film back several decades, an astounding claim given that the Wiz is an unsubstantial film in the first place.
Could the creators of this film guess that the stakes would be so high upon its theatrical release? More simply, what happened during the translation from stage to screen to cause this kind of blowback? And what merit does this film have now over 40 years later?
We're taking a trip down the yellow brick road with today's drinking game. Hopefully we'll be left sober enough to walk home; turns out the cabs in Oz are pretty unreliable.
"The Wiz (Promised Me a New Liver)": The Rules
2 oz Mandarin Vodka
1 oz Triple Sec
A splash of cranberry juice
1 oz of lime juice
A splash of orange juice
Shake well. Add more juice if you need to. Because this will knock you on your ass if you're not careful.
1. Drink for Title Drops. That's whenever someone says "The Wiz".
2. Drink when they drink
3. Drink for Daddy Issues
4. Drink for every event that also happens in "The Wizard of Oz".
5. Drink for references to New York City. Don't try too hard with this one, if you can't connect it immediately to the Big Apple it's probably not worth a drink.
All the above rules apply. Also...
1. Drink for song title drops. Motown is another genre of music that likes to repeat the title over and over again.
2. Drink whenever someone says Dorothy's name.
3. Drink for exaggerated posing.
All the above rules apply. Also...
1. Drink when someone makes introductions.
2. Drink for made-up words, or words that are used exclusively in Oz. This, uh, might get harder the more you have to drink.
Krissy: Played the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" (Hard Mode)
Bride of Buggerlas: Played "The Wiz" in "The Wiz" (Easy Mode)
Levi: Believes Diana Ross can do no wrong (Medium Mode)
Big Moose: Obsessed with Toto (Medium Mode)
Velma Jinkies: Wants to live in the Emerald City (Hard Mode)
The plot of "The Wiz" is almost exactly the same as "The Wizard of Oz"; a girl gets transported to a magical land full of little people and witches and has to go on a journey to get back home. The approach that this film takes is just so radically different than the original, starting with how Oz is portrayed.
It's one of the most famous moments in film history: Dorothy leaves her tornado-wrecked house to look out at her surroundings, and suddenly everything is in bright, bold technicolor. Her worldview is forever changed, as is the audience's perception of film.
This brings us to the most significant difference between "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Wiz": Dorothy's portrayal. Diana Ross was criticized for being cold and impersonal as Dorothy, as well as being far too old to convincingly play the role. Part of this is because they're comparing her to the stage version, who hews closer to Garland's Dorothy: bright-eyed, innocent, friendly and curious.
"I don't think she's cold," Levi argues. "She's playing it super repressed." Ross's Dorothy is a shut-in who's never explored New York beyond her neighborhood in Harlem. She's shy, quiet and afraid of truly living. This makes her sudden trip to Oz more tragic and provides her more of an impetus to get home quick, as opposed to Garland's Dorothy who returns to Kansas mostly because she feels like she should. Garland spends the first part of the movie itching to leave home, while Ross's Dorothy plans on staying home for the rest of her life. It's an interesting spin on the hero's journey, and it raises the stakes.
Already we have a much different movie, just by changing the main character's personality and how she relates to her world. Both of these things are directly related to the major concept of "The Wiz", though, which is the retelling of this story through an African American lens with an all-black cast. And here's where things start to get really fun.
The Crows are Back!
The main thing I wanted to stress when talking about the crows in "Dumbo" was that it's important to discuss cultural tropes in a historical context, because otherwise you'll have little idea of how influential these tropes can be. Those crows, it turns out, are incredibly influential; they even show up in "The Wiz".
When we first meet The Scarecrow, played by nineteen year-old Michael Jackson, he's being tormented by crows for his interest in educating himself and bettering his station in life. They force him to sing a self-defeating anthem "You Can't Win" and joyfully dance along, reveling in his fate as their ignorant plaything.
Here's a video of "You Can't Win".
This is why "The Wiz" stands out to me as a piece of film: its use of cultural signifiers to change a well-known story. By using not just any crows, but crows modeled on characters created by one of the most successful animators in the world, the director is calling upon the power and significance of the stereotypes they embody. The Scarecrow is plagued by living symbols of black ignorance and clownishness, forced to worship the beings that keep him literally immobilized. It's an incredibly smart, pointed choice for the director, costume designer, and choreographer to make.
This isn't the only time in the film this is done. When Dorothy and The Scarecrow run into the Tin Man in a Coney Islandesqe landscape, they find him trapped under a weighted copper statue shaped suspiciously like Aunt Jemima. In a running gag throughout the film, Dorothy attempts to hail a cab to take her to the Emerald City, but the cabs speed away as soon as they see her...until Dorothy and the gang are all together, and they gladly skip past the cabs down the yellow brick road as a team.
The Rep Company Curse
So people love this musical, but mostly they love the stage play, which isn't quite as loud about subverting cultural stereotypes; the plot sticks closer to the film version. Dorothy is still from Kansas, for example. Why bring this up? Well, some of my friends at For Your Inebriation were in productions of "The Wiz" in high school, because there's nothing high school directors (and students) love more than a hip musical that stands a chance of putting butts in seats. Bride of Buggerlas, for example, played the titular character.
Bride of Buggerlas, a white girl from Northern California, played the same part that Richard Pryor played in the movie.
As of writing this article, NBC is floating the idea of producing "The Wiz" as one of their next live musical extravaganzas. This may be what the show needs to get a whole new generation of theater-lovers engaged and boost its popularity. Just, please...NBC, your track record isn't great on this kind of thing...please cast black actors in your version of the show. It's not hard. They're right there, and they would LOVE to do this.
It's hard. Really hard. This movie is over two hours long and I was long gone by the time the Cowardly Lion showed up. I decided it would be a great idea to sing ALL of "Defying Gravity" from "Wicked". All of it.
That tape will never see the light of day.
So, this game might not need much tweaking. If you want some alternate rules, though, here's what I've got for you.
Drink for big dance numbers.
"Drink for posing" didn't actually get much play during our test run. This might be a good substitute.
Drink when something sparkles.
Oooh, this could be anything. The silver slippers, Lena Horne's dress at the end of the movie, the lights in the Emerald City...go nuts.
Drink when Dorothy mentions that she wants to go home.
Girl just can't stop whining throughout most of the film. You'll get there, honey, just...god.
For Your Inebriation is written by Krissy Pappau (Hollis Beck). All "The Wiz" images are owned by Universal Studios.