Thursday, September 06, 2012

Two Ways To Wiz

Original Cast Recording
Since the advent of recorded sound, recordings of music have proved to be a popular item. Oz has been musical since the 1903 musical extravaganza, and since then, there have been recordings of Oz-inspired music available for sale.

In this entry, I'm looking at the score for The Wiz. Back in 1973, radio DJ Ken Harper had the idea to do an adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. It soon became a reality on stage with soulful songs by Charlie Smalls, sung by Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battles, Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Andre De Shields, Clarice Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Mabel King.

This cast recorded the first album for The Wiz: the original cast recording, which offered a special keepsake for the musical as well as a way for people to enjoy the songs without going to see the show.

This album was designed to work as a pop music album as well. It opens with a special prologue featuring a chorus singing "Ease On Down The Road" before moving into Tasha Thomas' heartfelt and soulful "The Feeling We Once Had."

No other tracks lead into each other. The only instrumental from the musical retained on the album is the stirring Tornado theme. Next up is Clarice Taylor leading a bouncy and jazzy "He's The Wizard!"

Track 5 gives us Stephanie Mills' first solo song "Soon As I Get Home," which she sings rather movingly as she sets down the yellow brick road. Next up is the soulful "I Was Born The Day Before Yesterday," sung by Hinton Battle, in which the Scarecrow sings about his creation and his determination to not just be a sack of straw on a pole.

Track 7 gives us the album's full version of "Ease On Down The Road." While it's placed chronologically where it first occurs in the musical, it is a combination of all versions of the song as performed in the musical, so instead of three versions, you get one "ultimate" version. It's rather jazzy and energetic, featuring the main cast of Stephanie, Hinton, Tiger Haynes, and Ted Ross.

Track 8 presents the lively "Slide Some Oil To Me" sung by Tiger, while Ted gets to sing very impressively next in "I'm A Mean Ole Lion." Stephanie takes over in the next track, singing "Be A Lion," being joined by Ted at the end, making for one of the more sensitive and moving songs on the album.

Track 11 gives us Andre De Shields' first song "So You Wanted To See The Wizard," where he gets to effectively portray the Great and Terrible Wizard. Almost in a stark contrast, Tiger sings again in the next track in a moving song titled "What Would I Do If I Could Feel."

Track 13 gives us the sole song for Mabel King, as she sings the Wicked Witch's song "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," which has a fun, energetic gospel vibe to it.

Next is Luther Vandross' song "Everybody Rejoice!" which is decidedly joyful as the Winkies celebrate the death of the Witch. This is definitely one of the high points of the musical.

Andre returns with "Y'All Got It!" in which he energetically encourages the people of Oz to govern themselves as he takes his leave.

Again opting to have one version of each main song on the album, Andre's version of "If You Believe" has been dropped in favor of Dee Dee Bridgewater's version that she sings to Dorothy as Glinda. Finally, Stephanie Mills closes out the album with an amazing rendition of her signature song "Home."

While the album works well, a number of songs and instrumentals from the musical were dropped. The album gets the main ones, sure enough, but a few of the more minor ones get the axe. "Who Do You Think You Are?" (sung by Dorothy and her friends when they see the Wizard out of his disguise), Andre's "If You Believe," and Dee Dee's "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind" unfortunately were not preserved on the album.

Soundtrack album
The other album at hand is the soundtrack for the movie adaptation. The film was released in 1978 and sadly decided to not adapt the musical, but re-adapt Baum's book and use the musical's songs. Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle, Tiger Haynes, Clarice Taylor, Andre De Shields, and Dee Dee Bridgewater were replaced by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Thelma Carpenter, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne, respectively.

This has been referred to as a "kitchen sink" album, meaning that no track has been excised, and the album encompasses two discs. Spanning 26 tracks, the songs and score for the film are represented. In addition, elements of dialogue are lifted from the film to tell the story.

Does this make it better than the Original Cast Recording? It may be a matter of opinion, but I think the arrangements in the Broadway album are much better at representing the songs as they were originally intended. Diana Ross, in her songs and screen presence, is unable to sell the adult Dorothy with her problems of being a confident adult. This isn't to say that she's bad. Unfortunately, to sell this idea, additional songs were written for Diana to sing.

The first of the new songs comes right after "The Feeling That We Have," which has been altered to contrast Dorothy's well-adjusted family to her own personal problems. It's titled simply "Can I Go On," but its presence has managed to take some of the soul from an excellent opening song and on its own, it's not a very good or memorable song at all.

I'll skip over the instrumental tracks, mainly as they are original and tailored for the film by Quincy Jones. The next song is "He's The Wizard," and it has definitely lost a lot of its energy in this outing. Thelma Carpenter's voice is a bit rougher than Clarice's, and admittedly, she's not bad, but the music arrangement is what kills it here. Where the original felt bouncy, this feels like falling down flat. The song also runs longer than it does on the Original Cast album, and it feels like it runs far too long.

Diana Ross sings "Soon As I Get Home," but where Stephanie was calm and brave, Diana is quiet and sad. This is, of course, because of how the character was redeveloped for the movie, but comparing the two already shows this is a change for the worse. There is a huge difference between a character who is a teenage girl setting out alone on her own alone and a grown woman pondering how to start her journey about to break into tears.

Stephanie 1, Diana 0.

Next up is Michael Jackson's sole solo "You Can't Win." The song was originally dropped from the musical and was going to be sung in the Witch's castle. I assume that "I Was Born The Day Before Yesterday" was just too soulful for the talent of the soon-to-be King of Pop. The problem is that the song is whiny. Jackson doesn't get to show off much of a vocal range, but he sings the song well. Frankly, it hardly serves the same purpose as the song on the original cast album. It's not a really bad song, but moving it from the Witch's Castle to the Scarecrow's song doesn't complement his character.

Next is the first version of "Ease On Down The Road," featuring Michael and Diana, and to be honest, they put a lot of energy into this one! It manages to be decidedly different from the original cast recording, though longer. As we're looking at the album, not the film, I'll have to say I do like this version.

"Ease On Down The Road" is reprised twice on the first disc with Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross joining in. However, they add little to it, especially as the song is not played to its fullest potential as it is the first time.

Now we come to the two songs by the Tin Man, which have been placed into the scene in which Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet him. The big problem here is that Nipsey Russell was not a singer: he was more of a comedian. One may well wonder why Motown didn't select someone else to sing the songs and have Nipsey lip-synch to them (as he was probably doing to his own songs anyway) instead of speak with the music. So, his renditions of "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" and "Slide Some Oil To Me" pale in comparison to Tiger Haynes' original. This is also why he adds very little to the first reprise of "Ease On Down The Road." In fact, he may actually be detracting from it.

Ted Ross reprises his original cast role in "I'm A Mean Ole Lion," but aside from the music arrangement, there's not much difference in his performance in the two different versions of the song. And though he doesn't add much to "Ease On Down The Road" in its final reprise, he definitely doesn't detract. His additional vocals are actually much better than Nipsey's addition in the last version.

The second disc opens with "Be A Lion," and admittedly, Diana does do a great job, though I prefer Stephanie's more soulful version.

The next song is not from the musical, and is an overlong and unnecessary piece. It's called "Emerald City Sequence," and is sung by the many people outside of the Wizard's tower. The subject: it's the big fashion to wear green and they're all doing it, so they all fit in. Then the voice of the Wizard, Richard Pryor, changes it to red, then after a reprise about them singing how that's the fashion, he changes it to gold. Um... Why did we need this? Is this some sort of social commentary that just didn't age well?

There's also a track called "So You Wanted To See The Wizard," but it's audio from the scene instead of a song because Richard Pryor didn't sing. (Why, oh, why did they cast two people who didn't sing in the main cast in a musical?) It also includes audio from later in the film where they catch him outside of his giant head, which is a rather puzzling and unnecessary touch.

Next up is a song deleted from the film, "Is This What Feeling Gets?" sung by Diana. It's a touching piece, but it's easy to see why it was dropped. There was enough of a dour tone already and no need to drag it on. However, it is quite a bit better than "Can I Go On," in that it's actually memorable.

Mabel King brings back much energy with her "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," which has more of a southern church revival feel to it's gospel-like tone. I won't say it's really better, but it's definitely a lively piece on its own. I'm very glad they got her for the film, because no one else could have done this song justice.

Next is "A Brand New Day," which runs for almost eight minutes. There are additional pieces of music added by Quincy Jones and more of a lead from Dorothy, which make it quite a bit more jubliant and triumphant, but we must remember that now the Witch's slaves are not given a voice as they were on the original cast album. So, while this version is more stirring, when it comes to it, I prefer the original cast version overall as it was the song of the people Dorothy has freed rather than her own freedom.

Now comes the first version of "Believe In Yourself," which was sung by the Wiz in the stage version, but as the guy playing him didn't sing, this time, it's given to Diana Ross as she tells her friends they had what they wanted all along. Diana's performance is finally shining here.

Next is Glinda's version of "Believe In Yourself" but sung by Lena Horne. Lena has a great voice, but for some reason, Dee Dee Bridgewater was able to bring a voice much better fitting the character of Glinda. (Lena's added "Whoo! Yeah! Yeah!" doesn't help, either.)

Wrapping up the album is Diana Ross' take on "Home." Her Dorothy is far too gentle compared to Stephanie Mills' moving performance. Diana's not bad, but I think the original was better. (You can clearly hear Diana inhaling while she sings.)

For those that collect Oz music, I'd say both albums have enough pluses to justify adding them to your collection, whether you collect music on vinyl or CD. (Or both.) But if you're wanting an album to represent what The Wiz should be, then definitely go for the original cast album. The music arrangement is not as grand as the film's soundtrack, but this better showcases how these songs were originally meant to be heard. Sure, the Original Cast Recording drops a few songs, but it's not like the film included them!

Buy the Original Cast Recording
Buy the Movie Soundtrack


Sam A M said...

The Film Soundtrack was the FIRST music I got for "the Wiz" and it took me a while to get used to and even like the original Broadway version.

Don't forget how the OBC, I've heard, also dropped the Emerald City tune and the Funky Monkey trouble.

It's also . . . odd . . . how the dialogue for "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard", set before Mabel's "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News", makes it seem as though they WILL do it anyway, even after what they've found out (though later).

ericshanower said...

The movie was an over-produced, over-long, over-thought-by-people-who-didn't-know-what-they-were-doing trainwreck with a few bright spots, mainly from Ted Ross and Mabel King who were brought over from Broadway.

The changing colors of the Emerald City in the movie was as confusing and bizarre back in 1978 as it is now.

Bill Cosby was asked to play, I believe, the Tin Woodman before Nipsey Russell, but turned down the role because the director on an "all-black" project was white. Guess no one told him about William F. Brown.

I first saw the movie with a friend who brought her baby-sitting charge, a girl maybe 8 years old, along. The kid was so frightened by the Munchkin Country sequence that they had to walk out on the movie. A children's story that a child found repellant--that's really all anyone needs to know about the movie version of the The Wiz.

The stage show is a wonderful experience when done well. I don't think Stephanie Mills was supposed to be teen-age, her Dorothy seemed like maybe 10 to 12 years old to me when I saw the '93 revival.

God, I wish there was a commercial recording of "A Rested Body" somewhere.

Jared said...

Sam, I'm quite aware of what was left off of the OBC. I even said as much in the blog with "a number of songs and instrumentals from the musical were dropped."

Since they attempted to make the OBC also work as a "pop album," it's actually a fortunate thing they'd included the "Tornado" music at all.