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William F. Brown, who earned a Tony Award nomination for his book for the long-running smash Broadway musical The Wiz, has died. He was 91.
Brown died Sunday in Westport, Connecticut, according to his wife and longtime collaborator Tina Tippit.
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1928, Brown moved to New York City after attending Princeton University and landed his first job as a writer for Look Magazine in 1950. After a year in the Army, he worked as an ad agency television producer and started freelancing as an author, illustrator, cartoonist and TV writer. He began his move into live theater by writing comedy sketches and lyrics for cabaret producer Julius Monk’s revues.
Brown made his Broadway debut in 1967 with The Girl in the Freudian Slip, a comedy about a married shrink attracted to his patient, which ran for just four performances but was notable as the first adult Broadway credit for Bernadette Peters, in the standby cast.
The following year, Brown was hired as head writer on the Broadway revue Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1968, and penned the book for the off-Broadway musical How to Steal an Election, which featured a score by folk artist Oscar Brand.
Brown’s big break and most enduring success came in 1975 with The Wiz, a contemporary retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz with an all-African American cast and an R&B score by Charles Smalls. Its original cast included Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Andre De Shields as The Wiz, Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda, Mabel King as Evilene, Hinton Battle as Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as Tinman and Ted Ross as the Lion. The show ran four years on Broadway, and won seven Tony Awards including best musical, though Brown lost out to the writers of Shenandoah.
The Wiz was revived on Broadway just five years later. It was adapted for the screen in a 1978 version directed by Sidney Lumet that starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and found later success as an NBC live musical in 2015, with an all-star cast featuring Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelly, David Alan Grier, Common and newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy.
Brown’s subsequent stage projects never came close to that impact, including the short-lived A Broadway Musical, which he wrote with Lee Adams and Charles Strouse; Damon’s Song; The Nutley Papers; Coconuts; Straight Up With a Twist; and Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know. However, he wrote the book and lyrics for around 100 corporate industrial shows, for clients including Ford Motors, State Farm Insurance and Pepsi-Cola.
Brown’s extensive television writing credits include David Frost’s That Was the Week That Was, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Johnny Carson Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Dean Martin Show and Love American Style. He also wrote special material for Joan Rivers, Leslie Gore, Joey Foreman and Joel Grey.
Brown was also a syndicated cartoonist with the comic strip, Boomer.
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