For Black History Month, I thought I would take the chance to highlight a fraction of the amazing work that is accomplished by artists of color. The three musicals examined will look at shows from 3 different decades. The Wiz which premiered in 1974 and hit Broadway in 1975. Once on this Island which opened on in 1990 and the most recent being A Strange Loop which opened on Broadway in 2022.
The Wiz: Is a retelling of the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum but changes the story to contemporary African-American culture. The story remains true to the novel and the infamous 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland. Farm girl Dorothy dreams of escaping her mundane rural life, but a tornado whisks her off to the fantastic world of Oz, where she searches for the powerful wizard who can get her back home in Kansas. She is pursued by a wicked witch that wants her magical shoes. Along the way she befriends a scarecrow, a tin man and a cowardly lion, all searching for the things that will fix what they are deficient in. The Scarecrow needs a brain, the Tinman needs a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage. At the end they realize they already have all these things and more, they have each other.
The 1975 Broadway production took home a whopping seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, but almost closed after opening night where it got mixed reviews. A publicity campaign utilizing television ads featuring the hit song, “Ease On Down the Road” got audiences in the seats and soon the show was selling out. Along with other musicals like Purlie (1971) and Raisin (1974), The Wiz is credited for laying the foundation for later shows featuring all black casts like Dreamgirls and Sophisticated Ladies. Stephen Sondheim, when asked what his favorite show was that he did not write, he, without hesitation said, “The Wiz” and when pressed with why? He replied, “It’s the one show which makes you feel better when you come out of it than you did when you walked in”.
The show has been revived several times, turned into a movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and a live television special in 2015.
Once on this Island: Is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. The location is moved to the French Antilles in the Caribbean and revolves around a dark skinned peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with the rich lighter skinned boy, a descendant of the French settlers and the indigenous residents of the island. The boy was badly hurt in a storm and Ti Moune nurses him back to health. She makes a deal with the gods to save his life and in the end trades her own for his. Filled with both high energy songs and tearful ballads with a uniquely Caribbean vibe, the story proves love is the strongest power and conquers all.
This is one of my all-time favorite musicals. It is uniquely moving, funny, sad and joyful all at once and in a twist not often seen on stage, our heroes do not end up together, but their sacrifice paves the way for future generations. The original Broadway show was nominated for eight Tony Awards, but didn’t take home any that year (They were robbed!), but the more recent 2017 revival won Best Revival of a Musical. In 2020, Walt Disney Pictures announced it was producing a feature film of the show for their streaming service, but no release date has been given.
A Strange Loop: This is the one show I have not seen, and it is also the least “genre” out of the three being examined in this article. The story centers around Usher, who is an usher for The Lion King on Broadway. Usher interacts with a chorus which represents the other characters in his life and his own thoughts as he tries to write a musical that represents what it is like to “travel the world in a fat, black, queer body”. Through the show we meet his parents who disapprove of his homosexuality, and we learn of the prevalent discrimination that exists within the gay community.
The 2022 Broadway production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards bringing home two, including the Best Musical Award. The show tackles some very heavy themes, but does it in a comical way that still strikes a connection in your heart and soul. The story hits me at home, even though I am not black, I did grow up an overweight gay boy, who still feels the scars of that today. As of September of 2022, the show has grossed $14.2 million in sales with over 136,000 people attending 157 performances.
Although these shows are all very different in time period, style and content, they all highlight the incredible talent of Black artists and this is just a fraction of the wonderful content that is being displayed on stage every day and it should be celebrated!