Broadway history was made forty years ago when the cast and crew of The Wiz: The Supersoul Musical ‘Wizard of Oz’ received 8 Tony nominations and 7 wins. The production was led and performed by African Americans, all of whom shared the honors of winning the 1975 Tony for Best Musical. The Wiz was also groundbreaking for its adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) as a tale that celebrates African American street style as a unique subculture and unapologetically American way of life. The song lyrics, script, sets, and costumes all reference and champion the struggles and triumphs of African Americans.
Director and costume designer Geoffrey Holder took home two Tony awards for his work on the production. Holder was the first African American man to be nominated and win the Tony awards for Director of a Musical and Costume Designer. The collection has seven costumes from the 1975 Broadway show worn by the original cast, part of a much larger donation from the Black Fashion Museum, which was gifted in its entirety to NMAAHC in 2007.
The costumes designed by Holder provide a window into 1970s urban black life as represented in the art form of musical theater. Holder was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when he was in his twenties. The costumes he designed for The Wiz reflect his Caribbean-American experiences as well as the styles of African diasporic culture popular in the 1970s.
Lion’s costume features the king of all Afros and Dorothy’s white dress with its red ribbons is reminiscent of the broderie anglaise dresses popular in traditional Caribbean creole fashion. There are other more subtle references such as Tinman’s oil can, shaped like a Dominican musical instrument called a güira and played by running a metal scraper down the nodules of the cylinder to create a ratchet-like sound. Traditionally this instrument was fashioned from – wait for it – empty oil cans! Of course the musical Tinman needs a musical oil can, what else could it be?!
The Wiz is now a classic in American theater and has seen several revivals and adaptations. Schools and community theaters perform it across the country, it has seen many international versions, and of course there was the 1978 Hollywood version with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. The show had its first Broadway revival in 1984 and rumor has it the Great White Way will see the yellow brick road again soon. A live television broadcast aired in December 2015 featuring costumes by the Tony-winning designer Paul Tazewell. His Lion (David Allen Grier) had dreadlocks instead of an Afro and the androgynous look of the Wiz (Queen Latifah) was a nod to Afrofuturism.
Freedom, you see, has got our hearts singing so joyfully Just look about You owe it to yourself to check it out Can't you feel a brand new day?Lyrics from "Brand New Day" The Wiz
The costumes donated to the Museum help us chronicle a great achievement in the arts through a story that celebrates African American experiences. Visitors can appreciate the magic, humor, and resilience embodied in Geoffrey Holder’s elaborate designs in the exhibition Taking the Stage. Dorothy, Glinda, and Tinman will be on view first, with other characters rotating in so the costumes can rest. The Wizard is on view at the National Museum of American History in the NMAAHC exhibition Through the African American Lens.
Written by Katie Knowles, Cataloger