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When erstwhile Harlem kindergarten teacher Dorothy (Diana Ross) finally reaches The Wiz, the flimflam man said to be the solution to all her problems, he’s not the all-powerful wizard she anticipated. Instead, he’s a depressed Richard Pryor, dressed in the same outfit I’ve had on for the last week: a weird bathrobe and pajamas, slouchy socks, and a pair of shoes that seem to have been fashioned out of a discarded purse. Where did the purse shoes come from? Who can say! This is how he lives now. He’s been sleeping even though it’s the middle of the day, and he has a desperate, frantic energy about him: sad to be discovered but clearly grateful for human contact. He’s not the hero they deserve and…well, he’s not the hero they need either. He is my work-from-home fashion icon but beyond that, he’s pretty useless.
When you press play on The Wiz, the 1978 movie musical based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, you probably already know what’s coming: A ragtag group of new friends experiences all manner of traumas while trying to protect a pair of heels, and then learn that the power to change their terrifying surroundings was inside them all along. If any story could use a spoiler, it’s this one. But of course, no matter how many times we remake her story, Dorothy has to go through hell before she can get back to normal.
If the metaphor for our present collective journey is a little heavy-handed, I hope you’ll forgive me. I’ve spent the last week workshopping a talk show with my succulents and dreaming of the day we can safely and sanely meet each other in public again. I imagine it’ll be exactly like the “A Brand New Day” scene in The Wiz: After Dorothy melts Evilene (Mabel King), the Wicked Witch of the West, all the workers she imprisoned in her sweat shop (they make sweat) transform from misshapen ogres into lithe, well-moisturized ballet dancers, leaping and prancing in their underwear.
Watching this scene as a child, as a generation of black kids did, was quite an awakening. Everyone I knew had seen The Wiz dozens of times, owned the VHS, and watched it at family gatherings and on random Saturday afternoons. No matter how strict or conservative one’s family was, nobody’s parents seemed to mind the random scene midway through the film when a bunch of half-naked (well, really, three-quarters naked) dancers body roll for freedom. I wasn’t complaining then and I’m not complaining now. The minute we can safely (key word: safely) end isolation measures, I’m rushing into the streets in my finest dancers’ belt and getting my grand jeté on.
One of the fascinating things about The Wiz is that it is a strange, delightful hybrid: a super-soul fantasy and a pointed gloss on ’70s black life in reality. To wit, Dorothy and crew famously Ease on Down the Yellow Brick Road, but they only do so after every cab they approach turns on its “Off-Duty” sign and refuses to pick them up. Social commentary is woven into the fabric of The Wiz; Dorothy is going through a magical crisis, yes, but she’s also facing down systemic injustice. With Evilene’s signature song, the gospel-tinged “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” the thesis is right there in the title, so I won’t belabor an explanation or too heavily underline how closely it echos the ethos of a certain national leader. It’s all sitting on the surface of the film.
Additionally, unlike the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz doesn’t suggest that the whole adventure was Dorothy’s dream. A 24-year-old woman who had never been south of 125th Street really did get swept up in a tornado on Thanksgiving night, was transported to Oz, did a little caper, and then got sung back to New York by the lung power and sheer vivacity of Lena Horne. It all happened. There are no shortcuts to getting back home safe; it takes the time that it takes.
After watching on dozens of occasions, particularly the underwear dance scene, I cannot tell you if The Wiz is good, but I am certain that it is great. It’s full of big swings, wild interpretations, and deranged set pieces (still having nightmares about the subway scene). Diana Ross’s Dorothy is played at a level of near-constant nervous breakdown that rivals Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia. Obviously I relate. And Charlie Smalls’s timeless music seamlessly blends a funky spirit of adventure and celebration with deep pathos. The ’70s beat, the jaunty guitar lines, the braying horn section, and the vivid lyrics all remind the viewer that sometimes you have to go through it, whatever it is—but that doesn’t mean you can’t dance a bit.