Charlie Smalls was born on October 25th, 1943 and passed away due to an emergency appendix surgery in 1987, at the age of 43. As a child, Smalls started playing piano at a very young age, and by the age of five was putting on piano concerts. He went on to study at the prestigious Julliard School and the High School of Performing Arts in New York. After graduating in 1961, he toured as a pianist with the New York Jazz Repertory Company, which included other musicians such as Harry Belafonte, Esther Marrow, and Hugh Masekela, a famous South African trumpeter, singer, and composer, for who Smalls wrote the song “From Me to You.” Smalls biggest career success by far was the musical The Wiz, which he was the composer and lyricist for.
The idea for The Wiz started with producer Ken Harper who reportedly asked writer William F. Brown to create an adaptation from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but with black slang and an all black cast. Harper hired Trinidadian Geoffrey Holder as director, who had experience directing, acting, and designing, as well as experience choreographing several pieces for the phenomenal Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Smalls was brought on to be the composer and lyricist for the show. His mix of gospel, soul, and blues influenced music created a fun and winning blend. The Wiz opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theater on January 5th, 1975 to mixed reviews, and it was said that a commercial featuring the cast singing “Ease On Down The Road” helped to market the show and turn it into a success, not to mention that the song itself also became a big hit single on the Billboard Soul Singles Chart. This show helped open the doors for other African-American shows such as Dreamgirls and Sophisticated Ladies.
The Wiz is smart and soulful, and follows the story of Dorothy, an energetic Kansas City girl who is eager to get out to see the rest of the world, when her house is swept up by a tornado and dropped in a magical new place filed with munchkins, and mysterious witches. On her journey along a yellow brick road, Dorothy meets and makes some new friends, a tin man, a scarecrow, and a cowardly lion. As the group continues on their adventure they encounter the Wicked Witch Evillene and make their way towards the Emerald City to see the Wizard where they discover a secret.
This retelling became a Tony Award winning show. It won Best Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics. Geoffrey Holder won the Tony Award for Best Direction in a Musical and Best Costume Design. Since it’s opening the show has won a total of seven Tony Awards. The show includes the songs Ease on Down the Road, You Can’t Win, What Would I Do If I Could Feel, and Brand New Day.
The Wiz was later adapted into a film starring Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Richard Pryor, and has recently been adapted into a live television musical as part of a series of live musicals NBC has been doing.
The live television debut is this Thursday at 8pm est on NBC, be sure to tune in or set your DVRs so you can sing and dance along to this super fun show. And check out our wish list of other Broadway shows we hope receive the small screen treatment.