Posted by blakemp
Writer: Joel Schumacher, based on the play by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum
Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Stanley Greene
Plot: In modern-day Harlem, a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. Dorothy (Diana Ross) is a schoolteacher, living with her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene), who wishes for her to break free and find a life of her own. Her dog Toto rushes out into a snowstorm after dinner, and Dorothy races after him. A cyclone appears in the snow, grabbing them both and pulling them into the air, where we see the cyclone being manipulated by a woman in the stars (Lena Horne). She drops Dorothy into a pit of sand near a graphitti-covered wall, and the people painted onto the wall come to life. Although initially frightened, the people from the walls begin celebrating her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, knocking down a sign on her during her descent. The people, the Munchkins, were trapped in the wall by the Witch’s magic, and now are free. Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), the Good Witch of the North, thanks Dorothy and gives her the Wicked Witch’s Silver Shoes. Miss One doesn’t have the power to send Dorothy home to New York herself, and she knows the Wicked Witch of the West will be uninclined to help. Even Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, will likely be unavailable. Instead, she suggests Dorothy follow the Yellow Brick Road to talk to the Wiz.
As Dorothy walks through the strange city, unable to find the Road, she finds a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) being tormented by a group of crows. She shoos the birds away and frees the Scarecrow. When he realizes the crows had tricked him into captivity, he reveals to Dorothy his head is stuffed with garbage instead of a brain. She suggests he come with her to see the Wiz for help. The Scarecrow finds the rubble of yellow bricks and they finally trace them to the Road. As they walk through the remains of an amusement park they find a trapped mechanical man beneath some rubble (Nipsey Russell). The Tin Man says it’s okay – he lacks a heart, and cannot feel. They help him to his feet and he joins them. As they pass the library, the Tin Man notices a statue of a lion is watching them. Inside the statue they find a real Lion (Ted Ross), who boasts to them but is soon revealed as a coward. He joins them as well.
Following encounters with creatures in the subway and a group of “Poppies” that try to tempt the friends away from the path, they arrive at the Emerald City, where the Great and Power Oz summons “the one with the silver slippers” to his chambers. Oz, appearing as a giant mechanical head, hears their requests and bargains with them: he’ll aid them if they can destroy Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King). They find Evillene in a sweatshop beneath the city, where her Winkie captives are toiling away, when she hears of Dorothy’s quest. She sends out her motorcycle gang, the Flying Monkeys, to capture the girl. Although they are captured easily, Evillene finds she cannot take the Silver Slippers from Dorothy against her will, and instead begins torturing her friends, cutting the Scarecrow in half, flattening the Tin Man, and dangling the Lion from his tail as he shouts to Dorothy not to give up the shoes. When the Witch is about to throw Toto into a flaming cauldron, the Scarecrow tells Dorothy to pull the fire alarm, setting off the sprinklers. Toto is saved, and the water melts Evillene to nothing. The Winkies, free from the Witch’s enchantment, release Dorothy and her friends and celebrate. When they return to the Emerald City, they find the Wiz (Richard Pryor) has closed up shop, and is a phony, powerless little man sleeping on a cot. He reveals he’s just an ordinary man from Atlantic City, and only sent Dorothy to destroy Evillene because he feared her. As her friends lament, Dorothy points out to each of them how they’ve already proven they have everything they need. It seems that Dorothy will be trapped, though, when the woman in the stars appears. She is Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, and reveals to Dorothy that her silver shoes have the power to send her home, now that she truly knows herself. The Wiz asks Dorothy if she can help him, and she tells him that he, like the rest of them, can only be helped by letting people see who he really is. She says goodbye to her friends and she and Toto finally return home.
Thoughts: I can’t believe my first official Reel to Reel encounter with the dreaded Joel Schumacher comes in the form of this Broadway adaptation. There’s just something terribly twisted about that. Anyway, Schumacher’s script takes some liberties not only with the Oz formula, but even with the original play, which skewed closer to L. Frank Baum’s book. The play kept Dorothy on a farm, it’s the movie that moved her to a school in Harlem and put in the metaphor of Oz as a fantastic version of New York City. Fortunately, the changes actually work to create something that feels very different than other versions of Oz, yet still undeniably taps into the soul of what Baum created.
What I like about this version of the story is that is really shows the diversity of the basic Oz concept. The writers of the play and creators of the film took the skeleton of Baum’s story and created something different and unique. The appearance of the Munchkins, for example, is initially terrifying, even for someone who knows the story and surmises that they don’t actually mean her any harm. Resetting Oz in a dark fairy tale version of New York is an effective change as well, giving it a feeling of urban magic that sets it apart from the very rural feel of most traditional interpretations of the story.
On the other hand, there are some aspects in which this version skews closer to Baum than most other film versions… Dorothy wears Silver Shoes instead of Ruby Slippers, and doesn’t (technically) encounter Glinda until the end of the story, keeping the Witch of the North in her proper role at the beginning, whereas the MGM film and most other versions just have Glinda fill both of those parts. On the other hand, the implication that Glinda manipulated events just to bring Dorothy to Oz is a new idea to this version. It would be easy to see it as somewhat cruel, but I think it feels more like the actions of a fairy godmother, putting the pieces in just the right place to do her charge some good. Baum didn’t really have a particular moral lesson for Dorothy, the MGM film added a considerable weight to the idea that “there’s no place like home.” With this film, the message seems to be exactly the opposite – there’s a big world out there and it takes courage to find it.
Diana Ross works very well in this incarnation of Dorothy. At the beginning of the movie she comes across as very timid, even frightened of the smallest things. She slowly changes as the movie goes on, first needing to find a well of courage when she saves the Scarecrow, and expressing joy in the antics of the Tin Man. By the time they reach the Emerald City (which the Wiz then changes to Ruby, then to Gold on whim), she’s becoming more fully-formed. At first, he won’t allow her friends to see him, but Dorothy refuses to speak to him without the others. Ross still has some timidity in her voice here, but it’s paired with determination in a way that shows how far she’s grown as a character already.
The small tweaks to Dorothy’s friends all feel very natural and in keeping with the concept that they all really had what they wanted all along. Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow, for instance, is never particularly foolish, and we accentuate this point by having him periodically pull a scrap of “garbage” from his head with some sort of wise fortune cookie-style quotation on it. Nipsey Russell’s Tin Man, from the beginning, has a lively energy that simply doesn’t fit the conceit that he has no feelings. He seems thrilled from the beginning to have friends and a purpose again. The Lion is the only one who really displays his fault – cowardice – and in fact has a fine moment after the encounter with the Poppies where he laments his weakness. Dorothy, as usual, helps him back from the edge (literally), and from then on when they approach danger, he may tremble, but he pulls himself together in the end.
The music in this version takes a few different paths. “Ease on Down the Road,” probably the most famous number, is vibrant, energetic, and fun. Evillene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” has a similar energy, but a much more sinister flavor. Other songs, like the Scarecrow’s “You Can’t Win,” are considerably darker, and still more project homely feelings, or soulful rhythms. A lot of them are particularly quiet and emotional – Dorothy’s “Believe in Yourself” in particular clearly is meant to reach right to the heartstrings. It makes for an eclectic mix that fits nicely with the wild, unique vision of Oz presented in this movie. Some of them do tend to go on a little too long, with endless refrains and dance numbers that probably work better on stage than in the filmed version, but there’s nothing that ever really gets tedious… just a few moments where I wanted them to get on with it.
This is the first time I’ve ever seen this version of the story, and I’m rather sorry it took so long. While not really like the classic versions, it has a spirit and vibe of its own that’s very entertaining and very satisfying. As far as efforts to “reimagine” Oz have gone, this is one of the better ones.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Tags: 1978, Broadway, Charlie Smalls, Diana Ross, Joel Schumacher, L. Frank Baum, Lena Horne, Mabel King, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Sidney Lumet, Stage Adaptation, Stanley Greene, Ted Ross, The Wiz, Thelma Carpenter, Theresa Merritt, William F. Brown, Wizard of Oz