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. Continue reading “Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz”