Applause / ‘The Wiz’ was Bill Brown’s legacy
They were always there, smack-dab in first row center at Westport Country Playhouse’s opening nights.
More than subscribers seeing a show, Bill and Tina Brown had a vested interest in and were donors to the Campaign for a New Era, which helped fund the Playhouse’s renovation.
Sadly, longtime Westport resident and renowned writer-cartoonist William F. Brown died of a fall on June 23 at the age of 91, leaving behind Tina, his wife of 39 years and frequent writing partner.
“He was totally lucid at first,” said Tina, in a recent interview at their home, as she tearfully recalled Bill’s final travails. “But after an emergency operation, he never regained consciousness.”
Well-known around Westport, Bill, in turn, knew everyone. His and Tina’s parties attracted cartoonists, writers, producers like Lucille Lortel, and actors like June Havoc.
The town was once a hotbed of creativity and familiarity, a small town with locally-owned shops, near enough to New York. Although that profile has changed, Bill and Tina were loyal Westporters, frequenting two of their favorite restaurants: the Red Barn and Bogie’s (now both gone).
Brown was also a TV producer as well as TV, theater and nightclub writer, author of five books and illustrator. Selling his first cartoon at age 19 when still an honors student at Princeton, he eventually co-authored and illustrated the cartoon, “Boomer,” which was syndicated for nine years.
But “The Wiz” was his most successful achievement. Now, 44 years after it opened on Broadway, it has become a talisman for a dangerously divided nation.
An all-black, contemporary retelling of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series with gospel, soul and pop songs, it re-imagines Baum’s books as the tale of a rural girl bedazzled by, but ultimately rejecting, life in an urban center, embodied by the Emerald City.
“The Wiz” won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score (“Ease on Down the Road,” “If You Believe,” “Home”). Bill was nominated for Best Book, but lost to the writers of “Shenandoah.”
His connection to “The Wiz” nearly didn’t happen.
As Tina tells it, “I was in Bill’s studio in New York when producer Ken Harper came in and asked Bill if he would write what was then called ‘The Wiz of Oz.’ ” Bill wondered why Harper had not sought an African-American librettist and was told there weren’t any.
Working on the show, Bill found the black company resented the white librettist. It was nothing personal, said Tina. Not until the show’s second tryout city, Detroit, did everything change.
When one of the company was arrested after an altercation in a local Detroit bar, others called Bill at his hotel.
“He’d already gone to bed,” said Tina, “but he got dressed, went to the police station and took care of everything. Remember, many had resented having a white person writing the show. But the next day, one of the actors threw a party and invited Bill. That was the beginning of the acceptance, turning Bill into an OK person when, before, they wouldn’t even invite him to join them for dinner.”
No longer a “category,” no longer “the other,” he became, in their eyes, an individual with the same goals as everyone else.
“I became one of the family,” Bill once told this columnist. The company came together: polarizing suspicion and resentment gave way to appreciation and acceptance.
Perhaps that was a turning point for the show, which had had a rocky start. After its Baltimore opening, many in the cast plus the director were replaced.
Moving first to Detroit, then to Broadway where it opened Jan. 5, 1975, the show was greeted with less than rapturous reviews. The almighty Clive Barnes of the New York Times said it was “cold” and “charmless.” Discouraged, Harper put up the closing notice on opening night.
Yet, other reviewers were more sanguine.
“A carnival of fun, saucy with black urban humor” said Time. “An enchanting show,” said the Post. And this from Women’s Wear Daily: “The book by Wiliiam F. Brown gives ‘The Wiz’ a sassy archness. ... Marvelously outrageous, sometimes hip, always fun.”
The closing notice was taken down and, thanks to a smashing TV ad campaign and positive word-of-mouth, the show thrived, playing more than four years on Broadway. Since then, it has been seen all over the world, become a TV special and a (disastrous) movie with 33-year-old Diana Ross as the teenage Dorothy.
Brown penned other shows: “The Girl in the Freudian Slip,” “How to Steal an Election,” “Twist” (an adaptation of “Oliver Twist”) and was head writer for “A Salute to Those Who Served,” a D.C. tribute at the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Quick-witted, he once said his primary ambition was to remember the birthdays of his and Tina’s eight grandchildren.
Brown’s own memorial will be celebrated this fall in Westport, said Tina, who had this memory of her husband:
“We were sitting here one night, having an early dinner with a stem glass of wine and all of a sudden, Bill said, ‘I have an idea. I decided that we are going to be the only couple in the world to not die, the only two people in the world to live forever.’ And I laughed and said, ‘I’d go along with that.’ So we clicked glasses and drank to ‘forever.’ ”
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.