William F. Brown Dies: ‘The Wiz’ Librettist Was 91

Greg Evans

William F. Brown, whose libretto for Broadway’s The Wiz earned him a Tony Award nomination, died yesterday in Westport, CT, according to his wife and collaborator Tina Tippit. Brown was 91.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey on April 16, 1928, Brown attended Princeton University, wrote for Look Magazine, served a year in the U.S. Army, and, from 1952-54 was a TV producer for the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne (BBDO), all before launching the freelance writing career that would include contributing comedy sketches and lyrics to nine of cabaret producer Julius Monk’s revues in New York and Chicago through the 1950s and ’60s.

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Brown’s Broadway debut came when his play The Girl in the Freudian Slip opened at the Booth Theatre on May 18, 1967. The contemporary comedy about a married psychiatrist who finds himself attracted to a patient ran only four performances but is remembered as the first adult Broadway credit for Bernadette Peters, who was cast as a standby in the role of the psychiatrist’s teen daughter.

Subsequent stage credits included Leonard Stillman’s New Faces of 1968 and How to Steal an Election.

But it was the next project for which he’ll be remembered: The Wiz, for which he wrote the book, was a contemporary retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, featuring an all-black cast, an R&B score by Charles Smalls and a book by Brown that set the tale’s traditional adventure within the context of urban life and African-American culture.

The musical opened quietly at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975, giving little indication that it would win seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and run for more than four years. The movie version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson was released in 1978, and a short-lived Broadway revival was staged in 1984.

Among the various revisitings Brown made to the musical was an updating for a 1990s tour starring Stephanie Mills and André De Shields.

Brown’s follow-up was as unsuccessful as The Wiz was successful. A Broadway Musical, with Brown collaborating with Lee Adams and Charles Strouse on a backstage saga based on their experience writing the 1964 show Golden Boy for Sammy Davis Jr. After transferring from Off Broadway, A Broadway Musical opened – and closed – at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Dec. 21, 1978.

Brown’s other stage credits include Damon’s Song, Twist, The Nutley Papers, Coconuts, Straight Up With a Twist and Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, among others.

Television writing credits include David Frost Review, That Was the Week That Was, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Johnny Carson Show, The Merv Griffin Show and Love American Style. He also wrote special material for performers including Joan Rivers, Georgie Kaye, Leslie Gore, Joel Grey and Joey Foreman.

In addition to his stage and TV writing career, Brown wrote and illustrated five books and was a syndicated cartoonist with the comic strip Boomer.

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