"If you believe in yourself, you will have brains, heart and courage to last your whole life through..." So declares Dorothy to her new-found friends as they finally find the way to realize their hopes and dreams in the spectacular musical movie, "The Wiz," a Motown Production for Universal Release.
This humble yet profound bit of philosophy is not only the keynote of the film but is also a reflection of the attitudes of many of the main principals involved in bringing "The Wiz" to the motion picture screen.
Ultimately, it was four men – producer Rob Cohen, director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter Joel Schumacher and production designer Tony Walton – who initially took on the task of creating a lavishly-mounted production that would be driven by the high-energy music of today and boast the look of a highly imaginative tomorrow. Starring in this fantastic, fun-filled and often awe-inspiring filmed trip through a magical land are Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor as The Wiz.
For Cohen, "The Wiz" has been almost a total way of life ever since he first saw the smash hit show on Broadway early in 1975. Later, after he persuaded Universal to buy the movie rights, he got down to the real challenge of how to adapt the show to the screen.
He soon realized that he couldn't simply re-make the classic 1939 MGM musical, "The Wizard of Oz," starring the then teen-aged Judy Garland. To merely film the stage musical, with its setting also in turn-of-the-century Kansas, was also totally inadequate to the broad conception he had in mind. The only way to go, he decided, was "to do something radically different."
What that was to be became apparent only after Lumet signed on as director. "The use of New York – albeit a fantastically transformed New York – grew out of Sidney being the director," Cohen notes.
"The ideas in the original story by L. Frank Baum, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," remain the same," Cohen points out. The notion that was have within us the seeds of whatever we want to be, and that we can be at home wherever we happen to be – this is still the heartbeat of the movie, according to the dynamic young producer.
For Lumet, there were three main considerations – that the production be true to the original book by L. Frank Baum, to the original score for "The Wiz" by Charlie Smalls and to the enormous talents of superstar Diana Ross.
As the highly-imaginative concepts began to take shape and form themselves into a basis for a screenplay that would be a thoroughly modern treatment of the classic story, Lumet signed on other key production personnel, including Ossie Morris as director of photography, Dede Allen as film editor, Quincy Jones as musical director, and Louis Johnson as choreographer.
Finally, on October 3, 1977, "The Wiz" began principal photography. By the time the filming was completed on December 29, 1977, the extraordinary production had become the most expensive film ever made in the City of New York.