William F. Brown, the Tony Award-nominated playwright and librettist best known for writing the book to the 1975 Broadway hit The Wiz, died June 23 in Westport, Connecticut, at age 91. The news was confirmed by his wife and longtime collaborator, Tina Tippit.
In the early '70s Brown was approached by Ken Harper, a former radio DJ, who was developing a contemporary re-telling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz that would feature an all-black cast and an original score incorporating the sounds of Motown and other Top 40 hits of the day.
Co-written with composer-lyricist Charlie Smalls, The Wiz was a sleeper hit of the 1974–1975 Broadway season. Plagued with technical problems during its pre-Broadway tour, The Wiz arrived in New York with no advance sales, and barely enough money to keep the production running past its opening night on January 5, 1975, at the Majestic Theatre.
New York critics were mixed on The Wiz; however, the musical, which introduced a new sound and style to Broadway, became a hit with audiences. The production began selling out within two weeks of its opening night, running for over four years on Broadway—and spawning a 1978 film adaptation.
Brown received a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical, and The Wiz went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
William F. Brown was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on April 16, 1928.
He made his Broadway playwriting debut with the short-lived 1967 comedy The Girl in the Freudian Slip, which ran for only four performances at the Booth Theatre. The following season he served as head writer for the Broadway revue Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1968, and wrote the book for the Off-Broadway musical How to Steal an Election, which featured a score by folk artist Oscar Brand.
Brown also served as book writer for A Broadway Musical, the backstage story behind the creation of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse's 1964 musical Golden Boy, which starred Sammy Davis, Jr. The Broadway production famously closed on opening night.
Brown's works also include A Single Thing in Common, Damon’s Song, Twist, and The Nutley Papers, as well as the musical revues Coconuts, Straight Up With a Twist, and Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know.