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Reviving ‘The Wiz’ Through ‘the Blackest of Black Lenses’

Reviving ‘The Wiz’ Through ‘the Blackest of Black Lenses’

Schele Williams first saw “The Wiz” when a tour of the original Broadway production came through Dayton, Ohio. She was 7 years old, and recalled it being the most “beautiful reflection of Blackness that I had never seen.”

Years later, she was cast as Dorothy in a high school production of “The Wiz,” and the thrill of that experience led Williams to pursue a career in musical theater. She even used the show’s soaring finale, “Home,” as one of her audition songs.

Now, after working on Broadway as an actor (“Aida”) and an associate director (“Motown”), she is directing the first Broadway revival of “The Wiz” in almost 40 years. It’s a chance, Williams said, to celebrate what “The Wiz” has meant to her and to pass the story along to her daughters.

Since becoming a Broadway hit in 1975, “The Wiz,” a gospel, soul and R&B take on Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, largely composed by Charlie Smalls, with a book by William F. Brown, has been a vibrant cornerstone of Black culture. The show blends Afrofuturism with classic Americana to enact a sort of creative reparation, reframing an allegory about perseverance and self-determination to feature Black characters who, in the ’70s, had rarely appeared in popular children’s stories.

The 1978 Motown film adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, was a critical and box-office flop. But the movie has been a trippy favorite of family living rooms for multiple generations, and the musical has remained a staple on local stages around the country.

“The weight of that is not lost on me,” said Williams.

The new production of “The Wiz,” beginning previews on March 29 at the Marquis Theater, arrives in New York after a 13-city national tour that began in September. The creative team said its goal is to celebrate both the property’s legacy and the richness of Black American history and culture.

Dorothy’s odyssey in the original production could be read as a metaphor for the Great Migration, and the film imagines late 1970s New York City as a gauntlet of urban blight. But here Williams focuses the story on the young heroine’s search for belonging.

“Black teenage girls are often portrayed as tiny aunties and know-it-all types,” Williams said, pointing to characters like Rudy Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” “We seldom give them permission to be vulnerable.”

Now when we first meet Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis), in a black-and-white opening scene that pays homage to “The Wizard of Oz” film, she is a city transplant in Kansas, lamenting to Aunt Em (Melody A. Betts) that her rural classmates have shunned her. “Here is exactly where you belong,” Aunt Em says.

The production makes a similar statement about Black culture in America, emphasizing its deep roots and broad influence in the country’s history with the subtlest of details.

The show’s set designer, Hannah Beachler, has lived in New Orleans for some 20 years, and Dorothy’s landing place in Oz is modeled after Tremé, a historically Black neighborhood there. The celebration that ensues, over Dorothy’s flattening of the wicked witch Evamene, resembles a second-line parade, the jazz-infused tradition with origins in West Africa. The overhead set piece is inspired by an arch in New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park.

“I kept bringing it back to this idea of finding the future in the past,” said Beachler, who in 2019 became the first African American Oscar winner for production design, for her work on “Black Panther.”

Like Williams, Beachler was a young girl when she saw a tour of “The Wiz” in Ohio, several years later in 1984. “It broke the dam open for me,” she said, and began a pursuit of design that she described as “getting into my weird.”

The overhead set piece also features patterns found on quilts hung outside houses, quietly marking them as stations of the Underground Railroad. Each symbol corresponds with a stage in the journey of Dorothy and her friends. The North Star means they’re easing on down the right road (the yellow brick one, that is), but wrenches in a square formation signal danger ahead, like an enchanted poppy field.

Some of the more subtle design details evoke African history and the Black diaspora. Adinkra symbols, native to Ghana, are carved into the bark of trees along Dorothy’s path, meant to indicate support from mother nature and the ancestors. And Glinda (Deborah Cox) enters from a stoop bearing the address 1804, the year of Haiti’s independence.

Other visual cues may require less annotation, like the golden gates of the Emerald City, which Beachler designed to resemble “The Wiz” poster for the original Broadway production, an inky silhouette of a woman trailed by swoops of hair. The city’s buildings, in projections designed by Daniel Brodie, are likewise rendered to look like elaborate Black hairstyles.

“Each of us brought a different perspective, so it’s a bit like the diaspora,” Beachler said of the creative team, which includes the costume designer Sharen Davis, an Oscar nominee for “Ray” and “Dreamgirls,” and the choreographer JaQuel Knight.

Like Beachler, Knight collaborated with Beyoncé on the visual album “Black Is King,” and brought the flavor of his hometown, Atlanta, to his work on “The Wiz.” When the Tin Man (Phillip Johnson Richardson) regains the use of his limbs during “Slide Some Oil to Me,” his movement has a hip-hop vibe, rather than the usual tap dance associated with that scene’s choreography.

Knight wanted to put his own spin on the extended dance sequence at the entrance to Emerald City, a beloved scene from the film that comes at the top of Act II in this production. Knight called his take on the number “a master class in Black movement, not just through the choreography” — which includes ballet, jazz, and several iterations of hip-hop — “but in attitude and personality.”

When it came to the script, the book writer Amber Ruffin, who received a Tony Award nomination for her work on “Some Like It Hot,” sought to give its language and familiar characters a contemporary polish. Each of Dorothy’s companions has a more specific back story, and elements that seemed dated or off-color were cut. (“I don’t want to watch a Black lion get arrested by police mice,” Ruffin said of one revised scene.)

She acknowledged that the musical’s creators, who were white, “really did a great job” writing an indelible Black show (which also includes songs by Luther Vandross, Timothy Graphenreed and George Faison). Still, Ruffin’s goal was to write a version of “The Wiz,” she said, “through the Blackest of Black lenses for Black’s sake.” That includes updated slang — so, yes to “word,” no to “jive” — that Ruffin hopes will not sound out of step to future generations.

Williams, who is also co-directing “The Notebook,” opening on Broadway this spring, said that audience affection for “The Wiz” has been evident on the road. But the success of the original theatrical production, which won the Tony Award for best musical and ran for four years, has proved tough to replicate onstage.

For his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich likened the ill-fated 1984 revival, with the show’s original star Stephanie Mills, to “a trunkload of marked-down, damaged goods.” A brief run at New York City Center’s Encores! series in 2009, starring the singer Ashanti, was tepidly received.

“I hope it’s the exception,” Williams said of this revival, which is set to open on April 17 for a limited engagement through Aug. 18. (A second leg of the tour, to begin in February 2025, has already been announced.) The creative team hopes to honor nostalgia for “The Wiz” and to continue its tradition of uplifting Black culture with an eye toward social progress.

“It was really important for us to show how much we care about our heritage,” Williams said. “We have a responsibility to consider how the art we make can influence the way we’re seen in the world.”

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