Diversity Aboveground: Loving The Wiz

Dorothy finds out some news.

Dorothy (Shanice Williams)

Long before the internet battled over whether changing the skin color of beloved characters was trendy or the right thing to do, there was The Wiz. The Wiz started as a broadway show in 1975. The fact that the cast had not a single Caucasian was still strange at that time. It went on to become one of the first successful shows with minority actors and won Best Musical at the Tonys in 1975.

While the original musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz was made into a fun children’s film, The Wiz retains more of the author; L. Frank Baum’s original societal commentary. His stories of triumphing over corrupt rulers, groups of people being kept poor to benefit others and others being too blind to see what’s right in front of them resonated in the years following African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The Wiz was adapted into its own film in 1978. The film was a collaboration between Berry Gordy’s Motown Productions and Universal Pictures. Dorothy has been changed into a resident of Harlem and Oz reflects this urbanized upbringing. The Wizard of Oz lives at the top of the World Trade Center. The scarecrow is made from actual trash, the tin man is an old vaudeville automaton and the lion exhibits stereotypical homosexual tendencies; a dandy lion. He even sings,

“I THOUGHT I’D BE SAFE HERE. NO ONE WOULD… DISCOVER MY TERRIBLE SECRET.”

The Cast of The Wiz 1978

Less than ten years after the Stonewall Riots, gathering the courage to be an openly homosexual man would have been very hard for most.

However, the public wasn’t ready for an Oz musical full of gritty realism. The film was a critical and commercial failure that was only truly appreciated years later. The cult status was also helped by Michael Jackson playing the scarecrow.

Last Thursday, NBC put on a new live production of the musical, The Wiz Live! It went back to the original roots and had Dorothy back on a Kansas farm again. The production had a more hip-hop beat than the R&B of the original show. Small changes were made here and there, like leaving out that the Emerald City is only green because everyone is forced to wear glasses with green lenses; a play on the usual line about rose-colored glasses.

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The cast was superb, including Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley, Common, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo and Shanice Williams as Dorothy. This was Williams’ first major acting role. The actors should also be commended for being able to build back up their momentum through the constant pauses in action for commercial breaks.

The Scarecrow is in danger.

The art design for Oz and the costumes was a melding between The Wiz on Broadway and the film. The sets betrayed that this was a one night only, lower budget affair but the costumes always held a fun new surprise. Combining early 1900s style sensibilities with fantasy expectations and modern touches like pleather jackets was the work of Paul Tazewell. The broadway veteran garnered praise earlier in the year for his work on Hamilton; using contemporary musical styles, like rap, to tell the life of Alexander Hamilton.

If you missed The Wiz Live!, it’s available on DVD from various retailers and probably works better all at once rather than having to wait through commercials. However, NBC is rebroadcasting the musical on December 19 at 8 PM EST and PST.

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Rami Malek

Sometimes, when big budget films fail to cast actors with the same ethnicity as their characters, it’s blamed on a lack of available actors like most transgender characters being played by Cis actors. While the admission from Lionsgate and Alex Proyas about racist casting for Gods of Egypt is a start, there were plenty of talented Egyptian actors that were overlooked for parts.

What about Amr Waked who was one of the stars of Marco Polo? What about Ahmed Ahmed who was most recently in Sullivan & Son but has a wide array of credits including the first Iron Man film? What about Khaled el Nabawy who works with directors from all over the world and participated in Egypt’s 2011 revolution? What about Ghada Adel who’s one of Egypt’s most popular actresses?

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Then, there’s Rami Malek, born to Egyptian parents. Just about everyone learned his name this week as he earned nominations from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press for his work on the USA Network’s Mr. Robot.

Proyas and Lionsgate aren’t the only guilty parties out there. The Flash and Arrow introduced Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee). Both characters are reincarnated Egyptian gods. Neither actor is Egyptian. However, Renee is biracial so that’s still nice to see.

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Jude Law as Lemony Snicket

In August, Daniel Handler, the author behind the fictional writer Lemony Snicket, announced that, “In writing the Snicket series, it was important to me that everyone see themselves in the books. No character was designated by race in the text, and I’m working with Netflix for the show to reflect this.”

The recent casting description reflects this. Netflix has put together a website:

http://lemonysnicketcasting.com

Anyone anywhere in the world matching the descriptions below is welcome to fill out their audition form, record an audition piece and upload it to the website above.

VIOLET: Female, 11-14-years-old – a young, not-too-mature 14-year-old. She is self-confident, capable and smart beyond her years. She helps her brother and sister solve problems with her skills as an inventor. She is the eldest and a natural leader of the group. (SERIES REGULAR)

KLAUS: Male, 10-13-years-old. He is the middle child in the family. He’s very smart and is a voracious reader. He loves books. He is charming. (SERIES REGULAR)

That’s it: no specific race, no specific ethnicity. Filming starts in March.

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So…who do you want as Danny Rand?

Next column will be…

Star Wars, how could it be anything else?

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