Hollywood Flashback: In 1978, 'The Wiz' Went From Broadway Hit to Box-Office Bust

Universal/Photofest
Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow outside The Cyclone in Brooklyn’s Coney Island in 'The Wiz.'

The Universal-Motown production — a Manhattan-set musical starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow — was predicted to be a major blockbuster … until it tanked in ticket sales, grossing just $21 million domestically on a budget of $22 million.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Wiz is the kind of movie that crushes hearts in the film business.

The 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed, Rob Cohen-produced musical based on the Broadway hit was thought to be an unstoppable blockbuster. Previews had audiences cheering. The soundtrack had the hit single “Ease on Down the Road.”

THR’s review began, “To put it succinctly, The Wiz, a Universal-Motown production, spells money in the bank for exhibitors.” And then, kerplunk: The $22 million production grossed $21 million domestically.

The film was a Manhattan-set, African-American-led update of The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy as a 24-year-old Harlem kindergarten teacher. To say the film had great elements is a massive understatement: There’s Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Richard Pryor as the Wizard, who speaks to 400 dancing subjects from a circular bridge between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, lit with 27,000 bulbs. Subway trash cans bite at Toto, and 26 miles of Congoleum form the Yellow Brick Road that crosses the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

Production designer Tony Walton said he took cues from author L. Frank Baum’s poppy field and “hoped the film would look as if it was taking place in a hallucinogenic dream of Manhattan.”

Now The Wiz is set to air as a live musical Dec. 3 on NBC. “We loved the score and the story,” says NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. “Plus, it’s never been revived on Broadway. It’s time to reintroduce it to a new audience. It’s The Wizard of Oz. That’s why it endures.”

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