Transforming a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical to film is a monumental task. It is even more difficult when there is a slight change in the story line. That is what Tony Walton faced when he was assigned to be the production and costume designer for the 1978 film version of “The Wiz.”
Recently, the Library of Congress held a two-day event celebrating the anniversary of “The Wiz,” featuring sketches of Walton’s designs, and a presentation by Walton who talked about the process of designing for the film that was followed by a special screening of “The Wiz.”
The Library has acquired the Walton collection of memorabilia from his award-winning career. The anniversary observance of “The Wiz” allowed the Library to display a small portion of the total massive career collection from Walton. Before he spoke, attendees took time to view Walton’s sketches from the movie close up, and from other productions from his impressive career.
“It’s taken us a year to pull this program together,” said Solomon Haile Selassie, production specialist at the Library who organized the anniversary event of the film. “I’ve been desperate to do something for ‘The Wiz’ and finally the stars aligned with the Walton Collection.”
The movie was filmed in New York City. Walton is the person who turned the New York State Pavilion from the 1964 New York World’s Fair into Munchkinland. Astroland at Coney Island was used for the Tinman scene, with The Cyclone rollercoaster as a backdrop. The World Trade Center served as Emerald City, where the scenes filmed at Emerald City were layered and stunning, utilizing 650 dancers, 385 crew members and 1,200 costumes.
Going into the production of “The Wiz,” Walton, an award-winning production designer, costume designers, producer and director, expressed concern about tackling the move.
“I wasn’t sure how it would translate,” Walton said, noting the plot change of the character Dorothy as a child, to Dorothy as a school teacher.
Committed to the task, Walton forged ahead. He wanted to ensure the look of the costumes were an extension of the characters, but he ran into problems early on when the original actor slated to play the Tin Man had an allergic reaction to the gold paint used on his costume and his body. The role was recast with comedian Nipsey Russell.
In the movie, Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West was played by Mabel King, from the original Broadway production. Her dress needed to convey that over-the-top evilness.
“Beyond the look of the dress,” Walton said. “I had to consider how she would look when she melted and died.”
For the character Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, the elegance of Lena Horne, who played the character, needed to come through the screen. Walton designed a gown that included a harness, since Glinda had to fly, while performing the beloved classic, “Believe in Yourself.” When the scene was filmed, unbeknownst to Director Lument, Walton and everyone else on the set, the harness was piercing Horne in her back. She did not complain, completing the song flawlessly. When the scene was completed, Walton said Horne yelled to unhook her from the harness and she was bleeding from the area where the harness had pierced her skin.
“That shows you what a trooper she was,” said Walton. “She was ‘The show must go on!’.”
Katrina Dobbs, from southwest D.C., who played Evillene in the seventh grade in a production at the Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts Academy School in Prince George’s County, said, “I found the movie inspirational as an African-American woman. I was inspired by hearing Mr. Walton talk about the creativity behind Evillene and how the bigness of her character influenced the costume design.”
At age 84, Walton has so many credits to his name that audiences have seen his work for years and may not have known the man behind the creations. On Broadway, he’s been a production designer for “Sophisticated Ladies” starring Gregory Hines, Phyllis Hyman and Judith Jamison. Walton won a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for the musicals “Pippin” starring Ben Vereen and for the revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
On film, Walton’s work is seen in movies such as “Heartburn,” “Regarding Henry,” “All That Jazz” and “Mary Poppins,” starring his first wife Julie Andrews. He designed the Broadway set for “Whoopi LIVE,” Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show, and designed the staging for Diana Ross’ “Live at Central Park.” There also are ballet and opera productions and book illustrations in Walton’s portfolio. In fact, he has illustrated a few of the children’s books authored by Andrews over the past few years.
Walton shared his method for collaborating with a team to create successful productions.
“I just try to cover all of the bases and supply enough of what is needed by the director,” he said.