A happy Broadway tale

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Glowing from the recent heat. Photo: JH.

Monday, August 30, 2021. Next week is the real last week of August. The month ends today but August stays around in our heads. Then comes Labor Day. Summer is over in our heads. Then comes the rest of the year.

Last week was a hot and humid one in New York. That ended on the weekend when it cooled down nicely to the mid- and low-70s and even in the high-60s late at night. But the city has had pretty mild and pleasant weather during this summer season. It remains very quiet.

The rain finally came to cool things down.
And the city’s flora and fauna reacted accordingly …

But, for the good news: Broadway is finally reopening! Springsteen is already up and running and in a couple weeks everything from Hamilton to Hadestown, The Lion King to Lackawanna Blues, Chicago to Chicken & Biscuits, and Waitress to Wicked will be ready for their close-up.

Thinking of Wicked and the Land of Oz, a name from the distant past came to mind: Ken Harper.

Ken Harper. The New York Public Library Archives

I had met Ken through Bob Schulenberg back in the late ’60s. He was director of publicity at WPIX and he had some kind of radio talk show although I had never listened. The only thing that intrigued me was that he had an idea for a Broadway musical: a black version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Although I never got to know him I was fascinated by his “idea” if only because it was “thinking big” and he was then just some young guy in his late 20s who admitted to Big Dreams. It seemed surely original although I didn’t know how he could transform that famous movie fable starring Judy Garland and Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr into a black version. Or why, when the “classic” is good enough.

Nevertheless, Harper was definitely serious about it. I learned through Schulenberg that this guy was serious to the point of being obsessed with making it happen. I tend to admire that kind of certainty heavy on the imagination. That is how many things happen in the creative arts and in business.

It so happened that anyone who met Ken Harper knew about his “dream.” Although I didn’t think it was a dream. It was a certainty that he had to make happen. Then, in 1974, after years of searching for backing and finding the playwright and the composer, he finally sold the idea to 20th Century-Fox — in exchange for film, TV and recording rights — for $750,000.

The first public performance of the show opened in October 21st  at the Morris A Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. Many changes had occurred by the time they got to Baltimore including with Geoffrey Holder, then choreographer and costume designer also replacing the original director Gil Moses.

And lo, on January 5, 1975, eight or ten years after meeting him, Ken Harper’s “dream” The Wiz (the Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”) opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre.

What on Opening Night looked like a triumph for Ken Harper was not so easy. The opening reviews in New York were terrible, and so was the box-office. It was as if people felt nothing could beat the MGM version. Closing the show was a distinct possibility right away. But Ken Harper went back to his Fox investors who put up an additional $100,000. for advertising and publicity with which they particularly bombarded predominately black communities and neighborhoods. That did it! The box office was besieged! and soon the show was sold out, running for 1600 performances for four years — through January 24,1979, and now a classic. Its producer had succeeded against what initially looked like all odds.

Talking with Schulenberg this past weekend, I learned more about the man I met but never knew. He was a Bronx boy of color, adopted and well brought up. By his nature he was obviously highly directed to follow his instincts. He was a good student and applied to college but left after a year because he was interested in the lively arts, and got a job at PIX.

Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross, and Tiger Haynes in The Wiz. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Schulenberg mentioned once visiting him at his apartment which was a “sterile as a hotel room, neat and orderly.” The day of that visit when Schu arrived Ken was ironing the curtains for his apartment window — an act that amazed the visitor. And then, “after hanging the curtain, he took off his pants and ironed the creases in the pant legs and put them back on.” It was that orderliness that stood out about his activities as well as his appearance.

Ken Harper in 1965. Illustration by Bob Schulenberg.

What always struck me about this man whom I saw a few times briefly but never got to know, was his consistency in his public presence. This was obviously his own requirement for getting ahead. I never saw him after those early years before he succeeded in achieving his dream. After The Wiz he was now a major Broadway producer and in the big time. He had also had a hand in changing the world for good for all of us. With that great success under his belt, he was then embarked on a new project — another show once The Wiz was running — but in 1986 he contracted an AIDS related illness, and died. He was 46.

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