Behind the Scenes of The Wiz With Michael Jackson

Before there was NBC’s live musical based on the 1978 movie The Wiz, starring Stephanie Mills, Alan David Grier, Mary J. Blige, and Queen Latifah.

The production of The Wiz could have been much better if they had started earlier. The concept of an African-American Wizard of Oz was great. The director, Sidney Lumet, who had just done a strong film called Dog Day Afternoon, cast Diana Ross as Dorothy, Richard Pryor as the Wiz, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, and a solid cast. Before starting his solo career and having dance hits like “Off the Wall” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Michael Jackson was in The Wiz. What was most important behind the scenes of The Wiz was what happened for the young singer. While on set, MJ met Quincy Jones, a longtime colleague and film-score producer, who would later become his collaborator on “Thriller.” MJ explained that he needed someone to help him write down the songs that were forming in his head, and Quincy Jones gladly offered his assistance. Later, MJ called Quincy Jones his new friend.

Despite receiving five Oscar nominations, Cabaret actress Liza Minnelli lost to Best Actress. The 1972 drama was a success, but there were clashes on set between Diana Ross, who made the transition from music star to Hollywood diva, and the demanding diva of the period-piece wardrobe. “This is not a black film,” corrected Gordy. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy had to spend his own $2 million on The Wiz, a black film, to ensure its completion.

A request for a favor, Lumet approached a long-time acquaintance to give The Wiz a powerful orchestral touch. By concluding sentences with “darling sweetheart,” Lumet exhibited his experience and charm in the world of old Hollywood at the age of 53. Sidney Lumet, who had previously worked with a young Al Pacino on Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, became the director who joined the project after several unsuccessful attempts. Ross, who was 33 at the time, was chosen by Gordy and producer Rob Cohen to portray Dorothy. The Wizard of Oz featured African-American actors who added their own unique interpretation to a script adapted from the successful Broadway production, The Wiz, which Motown acquired the rights to in 1977.

He phoned Quincy Jones.

“I was greatly indebted to him,” Jones expressed in reference to Lumet. “I felt like I owed him more than just one,” Jones mentioned in regards to Lumet. However, he felt a sense of gratitude towards Lumet, who had previously employed him for numerous film scores. Jones only enjoyed three songs from the Broadway production – “Home,” “Brand New Day,” and a lively group performance titled “Ease On Down the Road.” Q was reluctant to participate.

To his astonishment, Rob Cohen, leader of Motown Productions, approached Gordy with the concept and believed Michael Jackson would be ideal for the part of the Scarecrow. Lumet populated The Wiz with high-level African-American talent–Ross, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne.

“Michael is a standout,” expressed the Motown leader who had recently been involved in legal disputes with the Jacksons regarding agreements. Gordy concurred, stating, “Oh, Michael is exceptional.”

“I desire him to portray the Scarecrow,” Lumet exclaimed. “That young man is incredibly kind! He possesses such genuine innocence!” Lumet and Jones recognized the attributes that Cohen recognized. Ultimately, Lumet and Jones acknowledged the qualities that Cohen acknowledged. Quincy Jones also had doubts about Jackson, but Cohen organized a meeting, transporting 19-year-old MJ to New York. The director conveyed to Cohen, “Michael Jackson is a performer suited for Las Vegas. The Jackson 5 is also suited for Las Vegas.” Lumet was more resistant to persuasion.

Michael Jackson, the 27-year-old producer, moved into his own apartment in Manhattan when filming for “The Wiz” began in New York. This was the first time Michael had lived a normal life, except for one strange habit – taking baths in Perrier water. Joe Cohen, the producer of the film, offered Michael roughly $100,000 to play the Scarecrow, and this project financially separated Michael from the rest of his siblings. Joe Jackson, who was initially not thrilled about Michael doing this project, was finally appeased by the final barrier – the $100,000 offer.

Cohen says, “Whenever Michael Jackson danced on the gay side of the dance floor, the rest of the club, including regular celebrity regulars like Brooke Shields, Cary Grant, Mick Jagger, and Andy Warhol, noticed. Michael Cohen also joined in the crazy sexual escapades that the Studio 54 disco club was known for, along with other members of the cast. They all went out to play in New York City at night. The shoots were grueling and long, lasting all day underneath the World Trade Center Towers.”

“Lumet, the director, informed an unaware Michael that women surrounding him were scattered like bouncing bullets throughout the lunch break on The Wiz set.”

The Scarecrow costume worn by Jackson was both cumbersome and hot, as it was stuffed with bits of trash bags and newspaper scraps and had a huge curly wig, a vest, and a hat. His constant teasing brothers called him “Big Nose” and “Ugly”. Michael, who was thrilled to have his nose covered by Tony Walton, the costume designer for the film production, mentioned that he was tormented by his brothers for not having a nose painted on with newspaper scraps. He also mentioned that he was a great fan of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, and had seen their early films. Michael took his choreography sessions with Louis Johnson very seriously, especially when working with Diana Ross, and admired Johnson’s pioneering work as an African-American ballet dancer in Hollywood, despite the years of racism he faced. In the film, the Scarecrow character learns to walk clumsily after being imprisoned on a pole by crows. He rolls, stumbles, and falls on the ground, wearing giant clown shoes.

Jones Quincy was always present. In the film, Jones appears dressed in gold, playing the piano like a giant in Square Times. When it was time for Michael to step up to the microphone and sing the bright-sounding “You Want I Back” by Michael Jackson, he began as the Scarecrow. The 18-year-old MJ had evolved his voice into something powerful and smooth like the Concorde. However, producer Cohen noticed that when Michael looked at himself, he looked like a jaguar at a goat, which is the way Jones noticed it too. Cohen said, “I want him like that.”

Quincy, the veteran arranger, became excited when Michael mentioned his nascent partnership in this key moment. “I hear something in my head. I make the sounds with my mouth—I can do that,” said Michael. “There’s an instrument that can make the sounds you want. I can write anything down on paper,” added Quincy. “If you can hear it, I can write it down.” Quincy requested his number, which ends with MJ recorded.

The script of “The Wiz” was really distinctively exuberant, which none other than director Sidney Lumet usually came out with. In the film, Man Tin says, “The Lion cries, and the jag has a crying jag,” and everybody recalls that. The divorce of Lena Horne’s star daughter, Gail Jones, who was asked to be in the film, approached Lumet to be the director. During the filming, it was obvious that there was a problem, but it was less childish and wide-eyed wonder for Gail Jones, who had been shown to the world for forty earlier years as Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.” She played the part of Billie Holiday with the same world-weariness and emaciated quality. However, she is old now (although not too old because she’s still terrific) and that’s why her part is mismatched with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Diana and Michael have terrific chemistry, but the experiment was flawed and spectacular. “The Wiz” did not perform well at the box office, costing $22 million.

The reception of Wiz The was marred by racist backlash, but the film showcases the timeless qualities of Lumet’s city, with scenes lovingly rendered in iconic landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Shea Stadium, as well as Coney Island. The schedule of the Theater scared off white regulars, who had fear of being in predominantly white neighborhoods.

White radio stations dedicated to playing white music and black radio stations focused on black music, like Motown and disco, were rare instances where this division existed. White films primarily targeted white audiences, while black films, except for Shaft, were intended for black audiences. Cohen reflects on the inadequate distribution these films received, expressing a sense of disappointment. “Despite its grandeur, spectacular nature, and musicality, it never received widespread distribution,” Cohen laments.

Someone had to resolve this issue.

This has been modified from Steve Knopper’s MJ: The Brilliance of Michael Jackson (Scribner).

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