From the Archives: How The Wiz Went From Nearly Closing on Opening Night to Becoming a Tony-Winning Hit | Playbill

From the Archives From the Archives: How The Wiz Went From Nearly Closing on Opening Night to Becoming a Tony-Winning Hit Revisit this original piece, published in the May 1975 edition of Playbill Magazine, in honor of the musical's 46th Broadway anniversary.
Clarice Taylor, Stephanie Mills, and Dee Dee Bridgewater in The Wiz Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

A version of the following article was originally published in 1975, a few months after The Wiz opened January 5, 1975, at the Majestic Theatre.

This is a story of a Broadway phenomenon, a show in so much trouble its closing notice was posted on opening night and which was forcibly turned into Broadway's biggest hit—all in a matter of weeks. The Wiz made theatre history overnight. Here is how it happened.

Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross, and Tiger Haynes in The Wiz. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Begin with the idea—or "the concept," as it’s known in the language of producers. In 1972, an ex-disc jockey named Ken Harper came up with a notion you could look at in one of two ways: either revoltingly cornball or commercial as hell. He wanted to take L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was written at the turn of the century and later became irrevocably associated with sweet Judy Garland and the wonderful white Bert Lahr, and turn it into a Top 40s-style Black musical comedy.

Ken Harper was 32 years old at the time and had just given up a job as a program affairs director of PIX Radio to spend full time time talking up The Wiz. He talked to anyone and everyone. "If I’d met you three years ago," he said to me, "I’d given you the rap and asked if you knew anyone." Eventually, Harper ran across someone who counted: "the president of a very big glass company who had a friend on the board of directors of Twentieth Century Fox. He thought Fox might be interested."

Fox was interested. Before long, they called Harper and asked him to come to the coast with a presentation. Harper was ready. He had a book, written by William Brown, and 13 original songs with lyrics written by Charlie Smalls. Harper and Smalls flew to California and made the presentation, which included some obvious but salient merchandising information. "You pick up Billboard or Cashbox" any week," Harper told them, "and what you’ll find is that five of the Top 10 songs on the charts are Black." The message was clear. In this country, at this time, a certain kind of Black music, the Motown sound, sells, and it sells to everyone, Black and white."

Look Back at The Wiz on Broadway

Fox jumped in with both feet. In exchange for first option for film rights, publishing rights, and album rights, they agreed to put up an ante of $650,000 with a 20 percent overcall (extra money the producer’s allowed to spend if the production needs it—and this one sure did).

With Fox as the sole limited partner, Ken Harper was on his way as a producer. He signed on jack-of-all arts, Geoffrey Holder, as costume designer and, eventually, as director, and he found a couple of unknowns for principal roles, namely 16-year-old Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and 18-year-old Hinton Battle for the Scarecrow.

But as any seasoned producer will tell you, money and talent don’t guarantee a thing. For the seven weeks it was on the road before opening in NYC, The Wiz had problems. A technical run-through before opening night in Baltimore was so disastrous the managing company told Harper he’d be wise to pack it in. "I began to perspire," Harper recalls, "and then I went out into the lobby of the theatre and I fainted. Three years of my life!"

True to showbiz tradition, the show went on that night and received a standing ovation and four curtain calls. In spite of its problems, The Wiz was beginning to build out-of-town audiences. But not so in New York. When The Wiz began previews, it was still pretty much an unknown entity. With a weekly production nut of $67,000, the show was only grossing $46,000 in previews. There were no advance sales, the front money was gone, and things looked so bad a closing notice was posted backstage on opening night.

Andre De Shields and the Cast of The Wiz Martha Swope

Harper had a very clear idea of the kind of audience he believed it was possible to pull in. It was not the usual Broadway audience at all, but moviegoers, people who listen to Top 40s radio stations, young people, Black people,  families, people who've never been to the theatre in their lives, not even to see Raisin. If he could find a way of getting to these people, he was sure The Wiz would win. Trouble was, he needed more money to do it, and what sane backer is going to pour money into a dying show?

At this point in the story we have to back up a little to talk about intelligent press agentry. During previews, Sandy Manley (who with several other bright young press agents formed the Merlin Group, Ltd.) persuaded The Wiz management to give her a virtually unlimited number of press tickets to use at her own discretion. "Normally, you figure on two pairs of press tickets per performance," she explained, "but with no advance sales, if we had nothing else, we had seats. I invited all the DJs, the talent coordinators from radio and TV programs, and all the newspaper reporters and freelance feature writers who I thought would like the show."

They liked it. Even though she knew the closing notice was up, Alyce Finell, producer of AM New York, agreed to have Dorothy and Tin Man and Scarecrow and Lion on her show next morning. "I had to go to the principals after the curtain came down on opening night and ask them to be at the studio at 8:30 AM," Sandy said. "I told them, 'Go to bed tonight or don't go to bed, but please find a way to be there on time.'"

Next day, the reviews. Wiz people describe them as "mixed," but in fact they were the sort that ordinarily would kill so precarious a venture. Clive Barnes clobbered them. "By noon I think we had about four people in line at the box office," Sandy recalls.

Without some action at the box office, any chance of getting more money out of Fox was slim. All day Monday, management was in conference, waiting for the word. Finally, at 2:30 in the afternoon, a decision came through. Fox hadn't been discouraged by the reviews. With Poseidon Adventure as a precedent (terrible reviews but great audience-building capacity), Fox gave The Wiz the greenlight for one more month, with the provisions that it show an increase in business—at least on weekends.

The wheel began to turn immediately. Sandy got on the phone to the staff back at her office and had them follow through on all the stories and radio and TV bookings that had been lined up. Then she called the radio stations advertising managers and made deals, trading off a thousand dollars worth of tickets in exchange for a thousand dollars worth of free air time—the equivalent of 14 30-second spots.

Tickets were selling at the half-price ticket booth on Times Square. Word-of-mouth began to build. Some members of the Black community felt the show had been mistreated by white critics and began to beat the drum. "Stephanie Mills used to sing with the Cornerstone Baptist Church choir," Sandy said, "and I want to tell you, that's a network. When the reviews came out, Stephanie's mother got on the telephone and started calling people."

A week after its dismal opening, The Wiz sold out at Saturday matinee. That was all it took to encourage Twentieth Century Fox to plunk down another $120,000 for saturation advertising campaign. 

Stephanie Mills, Andre De Shields, and Stu Gilliam Martha Swope

Ken Harper had the concept for the TV commercial, a telescoped version of the Yellow Brick Road scene, with punched up orchestration of the song, "Ease On Down the Road." "I wanted the commercial to appeal to people between the ages of 18 and 35," he said. For $30,000 the commercial was produced by Blaine Thompson, the agency that had done the successful Pippin commercial.

Diener-Hauser, an agency with experience in buying air time for commercials and the connections to get the time cleared fast, purchased 101 commercial spots for The Wiz—17 in prime time and 84 in fringe. These commercials were crammed into a two-week period, during which time word of the The Wiz reached 95 percent of all local TV households 7.7 times. "Ease On Down the Road" became so popular it's destined to become a hit single, distributed by Atlantic Records. (In an ironic twist, Atlantic also got to do the cast album because Fox let its option lapse.)

While television advertising of films is a highly developed marketing technique, it's only recently begun to be used for Broadway properties. Apparently, if handled well, it can work wonders. A week after the commercial went on the air, The Wiz began grossing over $100,000 a week. Two weeks after, all performances were selling out. 

"This only works," Harper assured me, "if what you're selling is good. No amount of money and advertising will sell a piece of shiit."

He can say that now, with ease, for The Wiz has been honored by the Tony Awards (as we go to press, it's been nominated in eight categories including "Best Musical"). The album has been cut now, produced in slick, recording studio-style, laid down section by section and mixed later, for utter perfection. It will be a "concept" album and will sell, Harper hopes, like Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The way his intuition has been paying off, Harper may end up making that hundred million dollar dream come true.

That, folks, is how the story of how The Wiz was won.

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