How 'The Wiz' was inspired by a mysterious 'cult'

The Washington Post/March 31, 2015

By  Justin Wm. Moyer

In this 1977 file photo, Diana Ross, center, as Dorothy, Michael Jackson, right, as Scarecrow, and Nipsey Russell as Tinman perform during filming of the musical “The Wiz” in New York. Ted Ross, portraying the Lion, is partly hidden behind Russell. (AP)

Diana Ross. Michael Jackson. Lena Horne. Richard Pryor.

Released in 1978, “The Wiz” — an African American take on “The Wizard of Oz” — featured some of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. And it lives on — NBC just announced it will produce a live version to follow its productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

But when the movie came out, “The Wiz” flopped. Critics found much to complain about. Diana Ross was too old for the part, some said. The film version was a poor imitation of the stage production, some said. The New York Times even said it helped end African American cinema until the rise of Spike Lee.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ went flat-out for the heart of its story,” Roger Ebert wrote. “There are times when ‘The Wiz’ has just a touch too much calculation.”

There is one criticism of “The Wiz,” however, that is little discussed: The script was influenced by the teachings of Werner H. Erhard, founder of Erhard Seminars training, popularly known as “est.”

Est — unlike, say, Scientology, the subject of an explosive HBO documentary — has faded from American consciousness in the past few decades. It’s perhaps most notable today as a plot point in the FX series “The Americans,” set in the 1980s. But to the million people who signed up for two-weekend courses, est sold self-realization.

“People had enormous and powerful changes occur for them in a very short time,” Psychology Today wrote in 2011 on est’s 40th anniversary, “… whether it was dramatic transformations in their relationships with their families, with their work and personal vision, or most important, with the recognition of who they truly were in the core of their beings.”

What was est’s philosophy? It’s hard to summarize — a little bit Sigmund Freud, a little bit Zen. Someway, somehow, est said the ego had to go. Or, as Erhard reportedly said at the beginning of the $250 seminars during which participants could not eat or use the bathroom: “You’re all complete a——- or you wouldn’t be here.”

“Promising direction, empowerment and enlightenment, the seminars challenged people to throw away their old belief systems and embrace the beauty of the present moment,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2010. “This breakthrough, once achieved, was known as getting ‘it’ — the term ‘est’ is also Latin for ‘it is’ — and those who got ‘it,’ according to Erhard’s program, would also get control of their lives.”

Among est’s celebrity adherents: John Denver, Valerie Harper — and Diana Ross and “Wiz” screenwriter Joel Schumacher.

“Abetted by Schumacher, Ross hoped to turn L. Frank Baum’s charming fantasy into an advertisement for black self-esteem and self-actualization, a message suspiciously close to the credo of est,” reported “The Grove Big Book of Hollywood.” “When the Good Witch, played by Lena Horne … appears at the end to present the movie’s crowning statement, her speech is a litany of est-like platitudes. Her big song, which sends Dorothy home in a glow, is a gospel number called ‘Believe in Yourself.’ ”

This wasn’t what execs had signed up for.

“I hated the script a lot,” producer Rob Cohen said. “But it was hard to argue with Diana because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff she had worked out in est seminars.”

What helped Ross, it turned out, didn’t appeal to audiences. Just six years before, the Supreme had been nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” After “The Wiz,” she never headlined a film again.

Est, meanwhile, fell on hard times. There were reports that the training caused psychological breakdowns and the report of a death during training. One researcher reported a “high probability of psychological and physiological harm” associated with the program. Erhard was accused of tax fraud and child molestation — charges later dropped — and, in 1991, sold the rights to his program, which now lives on as Landmark Education. As the FT explained in 2012: “There is hardly a self-help book or a management training program that does not borrow some of his principles.”

“A hero is an ordinary person given being and action by something bigger than themselves,” Erhard said in 2012. “One thing I’m sure about is I’m real ordinary. Yet I’ve had the chance to touch the lives of a lotta people.”

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