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A Must See

‘You Can’t Win’ A Win-Win For NBC’s The Wiz

The closer the days get to Dec. 3, the excitement builds for NBC’s The Wiz Live (people are talking sleepovers; and by people… adults) as well as the Broadway revival set for 2016-17. Daily and weekly behind-the-scenes social media updates have given feverish fans of the Kenny Leon-directed project an inside look to choreography courtesy Cirque du Soleil, contemporary costume work by Tony-nominated Paul Tazewell and magical makeup effects by Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey. The Wiz celebrates its 40th year, and, no, Black don’t crack. Despite the naysayers who feel the musical is mediocre or are skeptical about the latest installment of the work, the event is sure to be a win-win experience.

And, speaking of winning…

When it was announced that the song “You Can’t Win” would be featured in the production, I’d like to think that music icon Michael Jackson did the Moonwalk. Shanice Williams, the 2015 “Dorothy,” made a y’all-ain’t-ready post when referring to vocals by Elijah Kelley – the 2015 “Scarecrow” – during a rehearsal of the song.

For the 1978 film of the musical based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Jackson performed the soulful Charles Smalls anthem that was originally written for the Broadway show. By opening night, however, the number – which was performed by the Winkies – was cut. The solo for the Scarecrow in the stage version was “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday” – a commanding narrative with its “This time I’m going to make it” and “Gonna lift my head up/Can you feel my spirit” lyrics – but it was dropped for the film version. “You Can’t Win” was then resurrected, and the depressing albeit upbeat ditty became the second single (produced by Quincy Jones) to be released from The Wiz: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.

In a New York Times article, The Wiz playwright William F. Brown – who called the film version starring Diana Ross awful – discussed the song as being a “Black message song.” Brown, who is White, said: “But it’s all changed. Black people can win. And this is not a Black message show. It’s everybody’s show.” I think it’s pretty safe to say, that some Black people weren’t winning in the 70s. Should the thought be that Black people are winning in 2015, it might be necessary for some re-thinking. In light of the disturbing climate of race relations today, the song can take on a greater meaning when it is broadcast to millions of viewers.

It’s not necessary to have a “can’t-nobody-sing-it-like-MJ” focus in regard to the song. Kelley, and no one else for that matter, will sing it like the infamous King of Pop. Yet, belting out the pain and the contempt is what will do the song justice. Remember, the film’s scene opens with the Scarecrow being mocked for his inspirational quotes and imploring his freedom. Before singing The Crow Anthem, he is forced to recite The Crow Commandments: “Thou shall honor all crows”; “Thou shall stop reading all bits of paper and literature”; and “Thou shall never, never get down offa dis here pole.”

In Jackson’s 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, he said: “The song was about humiliation and helplessness – something that so many people have felt at one time or another – and the feeling that there are people out there who don’t actively hold you back as much as they work quietly on your insecurities so that you hold yourself back.”

It also is interesting to note what Dr. Elwood Watson said about the The Wiz and the symbolism of the scene in his book Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity. He noted that the work suggests “African Americans carry the scars and the idea of racism in their bodies.”

“Daily, Scarecrow begs The Crows to liberate him so that he can pursue his quest for a brain, intellect development… The scene invokes African American experiences in the south and the ritual lynching of African American men. The Crows, however, have no intention of doing bodily harm to the Scarecrow – theirs is a more insidious violence… The Crow Commandments invokes the laws that forbid educating slaves… The Crows reinforce Scarecrow’s subjection at their hands through a song… that aims to disabuse Scarecrow of any aspirations toward freedom.

“The Crows are even more disadvantaged than Scarecrow because, unlike him, they are hopeless. The Crow’s chorus… reflects their disillusionment with their inability to realize the promise of upward mobility. The Crows are suspicious, and perhaps justifiably so, of optimistic political discourse that promise substantive change… The Crows, then, become symbolic of a potentially negative family dynamic, one that subjugates its members and does not encourage an exploration of alternative constructions of the self.”

Much can be ascertained when digging a little deeper. Of course, now you may have some rage and tears welling up. However, you can look at it this way: if you’ve ever listened to a song by 70s soul singer Donny Hathaway, you can’t help but to feel invigorated from the despair his lyrics tackle. “You Can’t Win” – with refrains such as “Better cool it ‘cause it ain’t about losing,” “Ain’t the way it’s supposed to be” and “Learn your lesson/Refuel your mind” – can prompt a negotiation for winning.

No, you don’t need tickets for NBC’s The Wiz (and please don’t pose that question to Broadway Black founder Drew Shade). You just need a TV, preferably with surround sound, to journey to Emerald City (with a makeover provided by Tony winner and Broadway icon Harvey Fierstein, who will contribute new material to the original book by Brown). If you need to be reminded of the musical’s impact and what’s to come, chile, revisit Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Concert. Its tribute to The Wiz – featuring Monica, Deborah Cox, Al Jarreau and Jill Scott as the Scarecrow – is just one more brick to the building of excitement.

What do you think about the song?

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