Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz

In his exploration of ‘musicals as entertainment’[1], Richard Dyer writes that ‘two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment as “escape” and as “wish-fulfilment” point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism’[2]. Utopic tales of escape and wish-fulfilment are no better epitomised than by two adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: MGM’s 1939 Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz, and Sidney Lumet’s 1979 screen adaptation of The Super Soul Musical, The Wiz, are both utopian fantasies that reflect upon the colour of their cultural moment.

Released in 1939, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz was part of the ‘breakthrough year for the Technicolor Corporation’[3]. Dorothy’s wish to ‘fly beyond the rainbow’[4] is realised when she leaves monochrome Kansas behind for the bright lights – quite literally, as on-set lighting for the Yellow Brick Road needed to be practically dazzling on account of ‘yellow [being] most saturated at a very high level of lightness, […] quickly los[ing] purity when […] darkened’[5]of Oz, a space defined by colour with its Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, and Ruby Slippers. Furthermore, as Hollywood legend has it, the Ruby Slippers were changed from the silver shoes of Baum’s original novel to showcase and capitalise on the extensive, and expensive, Technicolor filmmaking processes, which, incidentally, it did, as The Wizard of Oz was one of the three Technicolor pictures that made up the ‘most lucrative releases [of] 1939’[6].

Whilst not the commercial nor critical success of The Wizard of Oz, 1978’s The Wiz did reflect on one cultural colour that MGM’s musical and its moment of production did not: black. From the era of Blaxploitation cinema in the ‘70s, The Wiz was part of a bigger picture that painted ‘black America’s […] need [for] an escape from the brutal reality of the past decade’[7]; a decade characterised by Civil Rights, segregation and assassination. The Wiz facilitated that escape by ‘creating a fantasy world on the big screen where black men and women were the heroes’[8], like Diana Ross’s Dorothy and Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow.

Dyer too discusses ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, and argues that it is a ‘given of the fundamental performance elements of the musical – dance and song’[9] – to illustrate the ‘relation both to physical space and to the cultural spaces of other peoples’[10], and thus this study will seek to explore how these two musical texts use dance and song to reflect on the cultural colours of their moments of production.

wizard of oz clouds

To begin, as a utopic tale of wish-fulfilment, The Wizard of Oz boasts the ultimate musical ‘I Wish’ song in ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ (Fleming, 00:05:50-00:08:01). Sung in the sepia-toned Kansas farmyard, Dorothy’s movement dictates the camera as it follows her to keep her framed almost constantly in a medium close-up shot, only cutting away from her for the shot of sunlight streaming through the clouds (Fleming, 00:07:34-00:07:36). This contrasts heavily with ‘Soon As I Get Home/Home’[11], the ‘I Wish’ song of The Wiz, whereby Dorothy is already in Oz when she starts wishing, one way in which The Wiz is unfaithful to what Kate Newell deems a ‘striking structural fidelity […] to MGM[‘s The Wizard of Oz]’[12]. ‘Home’ is also unfaithful, to its Dorothy and its predecessor, in its framing: the sequence is comprised largely of long shots and long takes (Lumet, 00:24:32-00:25:19, 00:25:19-00:25:33, 00:26:14-00:26:42) from a stationary camera, as Dorothy walks through a dark, deserted New York City landscape. Devoid of any sunshine through the clouds, this urban Oz only brightens when Dorothy wishes for ‘home’ (Lumet, 00:28:02-00:28:22) as a red hue warms the otherwise shadowed shot.

When MGM’s Dorothy crash-lands in Oz and the film transitions to colour (Fleming, 00:19:31), it is accompanied by the musical’s antithesis: silence (Fleming, 00:19:00-00:19:31). As the camera steps through the door with Dorothy into Technicolor, the silence – and suspense – is broken only by the soft melody of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ (Fleming, 00:19:39), suggesting that this kaleidoscopic scene (shown in a slow pan from 00:19:46-00:20:49) is that ‘somewhere’.

The Wiz shares none of this silence when its Dorothy descends on a very different Oz (Lumet, 00:13:21). There is no silence once our makeshift saviour arrives, because these citizens have already been silenced. The Munchkins were ‘turned […] into graffiti’ by the Wicked Witch of the West when ‘caught […] painting on her playground walls’ (Lumet, 00:15:48), the Crows mocking caws – ‘didn’t we tell ya reading was a waste of time!’ (Lumet, 00:29:39) – shame the Scarecrow into silence before Dorothy appears, and the Cowardly Lion is ‘just a statue, made of stone’ (Lumet, 00:51:48-00:51:55) after being ‘drummed […] out of the jungle’ and made to keep his cowardice a ‘secret’ (Lumet, 00:55:33-00:56:18).

It’s the lack of silence once Dorothy lands that seems to respond to The Wiz’s moment of production and the representation of black races in musicals. Dyer notes that ‘where the musical most disturbingly constructs a vision of race is in the fact that it is whites’ privilege to be able to [sing]’[13] – the musical’s speech – and The Wiz not only reflects on this, but roars back as black voices abound from the moment Dorothy touches down.

Dyer asserts that ‘Singing’, like dancing, ‘is about space’, with ‘different kinds of singing […] impos[ing] themselves differently on the world around the singer’[14]. Dorothy’s all-white companions in The Wizard of Oz have no care for fighting against the containment of their colour, character or culture, and so sing cookie-cutter reprises of the Scarecrow’s ‘If I Only Had A Brain’ (Fleming, 00:36:36-00:37:37), replacing ‘Brain’ with ‘Heart’ (Fleming, 00:42:54-00:45:29) and ‘Nerve’ (Fleming, 00:52:10-00:52:50) for the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, respectively. Arguably, these reprises function more as mere refrains, part of ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’, as structurally they sit amidst the song as Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road.

In contrast, as ‘blackness is contained in the musical, ghettoised [and] stereotyped’[15], The Wiz reflects on the ‘brutal reality of the past decade’[16] for black America prior to its release by allowing its black stars to do what its white predecessors had been doing in musicals for decades: escape. ‘Bursting from the confines of life by singing [their] heart[s] out and dancing when [they] feel like it’[17], The Wiz’s replacements for the ‘If I Only Had A…’ reprises escape black stereotype with their diversity. Although the sequence is similarly interspersed with a ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ refrain of its own – ‘Ease on Down the Road’ – each of the companions’ songs is crafted around the distinct voice of its actor, and each is markedly different.

Michael Jackson’s unmistakable hiccupping high tenor moves from hesitation to motivation in the Scarecrow’s ‘You Can’t Win’ (Lumet, 00:31:10-00:34:09); the Tin Man’s sentimental crooning with its cherubic chorus (Lumet, 00:45:59-00:46:03) in ‘What Would I Do If I Could Feel’ (Lumet, 00:44:13-00:46:15) segues into the clunky, syncopated swing of ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’ (Lumet, 00:47:30-00:50:19); and, finally, the belting, Broadway-esque jazz of the Cowardly Lion’s ‘I’m a Mean Ole Lion’ (Lumet, 00:52:15-00:54:33) is a far-cry from Bert Lahr’s Brooklynese tremble in The Wizard of Oz.

The Wiz’s different songs, and their diverse voices, are a symbol of the utopian escapism of the black musical, but singing is not the only form escape takes in a musical production. To call upon Dyer once more, ‘dancing is, by definition, about bodies in space, about how bodies relate to other bodies, how they move through space, and how they make use of or submit to the environment around them’[18]. From the moment MGM’s Dorothy dances down the Yellow Brick Road (Fleming, 00:33:00-00:33:45), one finds truth in his assertion that ‘whites in musicals have a rapturous relationship with their environment’[19]. Dorothy’s blue dress – seen for the first time in the multi-colours of Oz after its start in monochrome Kansas – the Ruby Slippers, and the Emerald City comprise a harmonious cinematic colour scheme that mirrors the three-colour Technicolor filming process, and the Yellow Brick Road becomes, as Bordwell and Thompson note, ‘the stage for dances and song’[20].

Yet, Dorothy and her friends are not confined to dancing or singing only on their yellow-bricked stage: they burst out into the red and rosy pink of the poppy field (Fleming, 00:54:38), the green glow of Oz (Fleming, 00:59:54), and the bluish hue of the Witch’s stronghold (Fleming, 01:16:11), and each time the environment, as a token of their rapturous relationship with it, protects them from peril with snow (Fleming, 00:56:29), a scrub-up from ‘Wash & Brush Up Co’ (Fleming, 01:01:16-01:01:59), and a well-placed water pail (Fleming, 01:26:30).

Dyer stresses the ‘potentially colonialist nature of this is suggested not only by the way whites stride down streets as if they own them (which in a certain sense they do)’ but also ‘burst all over other locales (which they don’t).’[21] Furthermore, coupled with his broadening of the relation to other locales to include ‘both […] physical space and […] the cultural spaces of other peoples’[22], one could interpret the Tin Man’s tap dance (Fleming, 00:44:39-00:45:07) as one such burst into a non-white locale. Dyer does note that ‘while the black roots of tap may have been forgotten or never known to white audiences’[23], the adoption – and arguably, appropriation – of a black art form can be identified in the rhythmic fundamentals of the routine, as even in the cutaway to Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the taps remain audible (Fleming, 00:44:42, 00:44:51-00:45:05).

As if in response, The Wiz boasts a tap routine of its own for the Tin Man (Lumet, 00:48:35-00:50:19), and it could be argued, in a reversal of Kate Newell’s reading of The Wiz as a text that ‘appropriates […] to create an adaptation reflective of an urban Black American experience’[24], it is The Wizard of Oz that took parts of a Black American experience and appropriated them.

Newell also notes Bogle’s criticism that The Wiz is ‘hampered by excessive long shots that create too much distance between the viewer and the performers’[25]. Whilst it’s true that extreme long shots dominate director Sidney Lumet’s style, and although Lumet may lack black experience and understanding as a white director, the long shots do seem to have a more poignant purpose that reflects on its moment of production.

This is best illustrated in the celebratory ‘Brand New Day’ (Lumet, 01:43:28-01:49:30) that sees black bodies bursting free from the confines of life and filling the urban space that belongs to them. The lyrics speak of freedom from silence, ‘our silent fear […] is gone’, and ‘harmony’, ‘liberty’, ‘liv[ing] so independently’ – ‘freedom […] has got [their] hearts singing so joyfully’. The close-ups of bare black bodies breaking free (Lumet, 01:47:05-01:47:38) are complimented – aesthetically and culturally – by the long shots of the same black bodies filling the space (Lumet, 01:47:55-01:48:12, 01:48:19-01:50:35). Their high kicks and arms raised to the sky spread their bodies as wide as can be, a movement neither their costume nor a close-up can contain.

Despite this, Jesse Scott argues that ‘as an allegory for the condition of African American men, The Wiz’s ending ignores the realities of African American men[‘s] lives’[26], but perhaps his argument forgets that ‘utopic film musicals represent idealistic “no wheres” while dystopic film musicals represent realistic “somewheres.”’[27]. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz’s Oz is no ‘somewhere over the rainbow’: colour became a reality on screen – even in real-life Kansas – but respectful representation of people-of-colour on screen did not, and, arguably, still hasn’t, considering the incredulous reaction to a 2015 broadcast of The Wiz Live! (‘can you imagine if we made an all-white version of The Wiz?’[28]). The Wiz was, and remains, a utopia. As MacKinnon muses, ‘the fantasy of escape gains power from its very rarity of actualisation’[29].

In conclusion, The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz are both musical fantasies of colour, but whilst the former Oz has become a realistic somewhere, the latter stays a utopic fantasy nowhere. To refute MacKinnon, ‘the more spellbound reading’ in the ‘white […] space of musicals’ isn’t ‘colour blindness’[30], it’s visibility, and The Wiz, less obviously than the Technicolor spectacle of The Wizard of Oz, proves its cultural importance by providing a short respite from a white-washed world, where black heroes and heroines can have their wishes granted and escape beyond the rainbow too.

[1] Richard Dyer, ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, Only Entertainment (2002), pp.19-35, p.19
[2] Richard Dyer, ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, p.20
[3] Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Colour Design in the 1930s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p.172
[4] The Wizard of Oz, dir. by Victor Fleming (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1939), 00:07:45
All subsequent references to this film will be indicated in time references preceded by ‘Fleming’ in parentheses in the body of the essay.
[5] Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Colour Design in the 1930s, p.15
[6] Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Colour Design in the 1930s, p.172
[7] David Walker, Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak, ed. by Andrew J. Rausch, David Walker, and Chris Watson (United States of America: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2009), p.viii-ix
[8] David Walker, Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak, p.viii-ix
[9] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, in Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond, ed. by Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell (Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), pp.23-30, p.25
[10] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[11] The Wiz, dir. by Sidney Lumet (Universal Pictures, 1978), 00:24:32-00:28:23
All subsequent references to this film will be indicated in time references preceded by ‘Lumet’ in parentheses in the body of the essay.
[12] Kate Newell, ‘“We’re off to See the Wizard” (Again): Oz Adaptations and the Matter of Fidelity’, in Adaptation Studies: New Approaches, ed. by Christa Albrecht-Crane and Dennis Cutchins (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010), pp.78-98, p.86
[13] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[14] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[15] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25 (my emphasis).
[16] David Walker, Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak, p.viii-ix
[17] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[18] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[19] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.28
[20] David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson, ‘The Significance of Film Form’ in Film Art: An Introduction Fourth Edition, ed. by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (United States of America: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993), p.51
[21] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.28
[22] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.25
[23] Richard Dyer, ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, p.28
[24] Kate Newell, ‘“We’re off to See the Wizard” (Again): Oz Adaptations and the Matter of Fidelity’, p.86-7
[25] Kate Newell, ‘“We’re off to See the Wizard” (Again): Oz Adaptations and the Matter of Fidelity’, p.85
[26] Jesse Scott, ‘The Black Interior, Reparations and African American Masculinity in The Wiz’, in Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity, ed. by Elwood Watson (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009), pp.68-84, p.81
[27] Travis B. Malone, ‘Crafting Utopia and Dystopia: Film Musicals from 1970-2002 (doctor of philosophy thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2006), p.251
[28] Kiri Blakeley and Justin Enriquez, ‘“How the hell did this guy sneak on set?”: White dancer appears in The Wiz’s cast after outrage over ‘all-black’ team of performers’, (6th December, 2015) <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3347921/How-hell-did-guy-sneak-set-Confusion-viewers-spot-white-dancer-Wiz-s-black-cast.html&gt;
[29] Kenneth MacKinnon, ‘“I Keep Wishing I Were Somewhere Else”: Space and Fantasies of Freedom in the Hollywood Musical’, in Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond, ed. by Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell (Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), pp.40-6, p.46
[30] Kenneth MacKinnon, ‘“I Keep Wishing I Were Somewhere Else”: Space and Fantasies of Freedom in the Hollywood Musical’, p.46

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