On October 21, 1974, The Wiz premiered at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. Since then, it has become one of the most recognizable stage plays on Broadway, and a staple in American culture. Being an early example of the power of Black creativity, the original production won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 50 years after its debut, it returned to where it all started, but with a brand new cast and crew.
The current adaptation of this classic musical features an amazing list of performers, including Nichelle Lewis, who plays Dorothy, Deborah Cox, as Glinda and Melody A. Betts, playing both Aunt Em and Evillene. Amidst its 13-city pre-Broadway tour, the three aforementioned actors spoke with ESSENCE to discuss working on The Wiz, the play’s historical impact, show preparation, and more.
It’s an iconic production,” Cox says. “The significance of this piece for our culture is very, very important – and there’s expectations when you have certain talent in productions like this.” Those expectations stem from the stellar outings of the previous cast’s iterations of The Wiz; namely Lena Horne, who shined as the character that the “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” singer is portraying.
“Being in the role of Glinda, I knew that I had big shoes to fill, because Lena Horne had such a presence in the movie,” she says. “I remember just the vision, the visuals of her performing and what she made me feel when I heard her sing. So I wanted to be able to capture the essence of that, and I wanted to capture the spirit of that, but also take it further.”
Similar to its predecessor, today’s version of this show highlights the beauty of Black culture, and maintains a universal resonance, even five decades after its debut. “It was a story that we all could relate to,” Betts says. What is special about The Wiz now, is that it’s not a revival of the original Broadway play but a reimagining, while still keeping the creative team and cast filled with people of color that again, serves as a testament of the ingenuity of these talented visionaries.
For Lewis, the story of Dorothy isn’t just specific to a small group of people. Played by icons such as Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills, this 24-year-entertainer draws from her perspective and life happenings in order to bring about a sense of warmth and comfortability to everyone in the audience, especially young women. “I feel like everyone feels like Dorothy in their life,” she explains. “They’re all just trying to find that sense of home.”
The Wiz has something for everyone. It’s the perfect blend of ballet, jazz, modern pop, and hip-hop; creating a new feeling while still paying homage to yesterday. In addition to the musical’s sonic attributes, the message is what is truly important. Betts feels that this stage play can be a reminder of the work that needs to be done in oneself, which in turn will manifest into a larger, more critical change on the outside.
“I’m hoping that people will start to look within to figure out the things that need to happen for themselves, whether that’s a healing process or whether that’s a self-evaluation process,” she says. “We have to start figuring out how to be the things that we want to see in the world, the change that we want to see in the world. We have to start believing that we are powerful and that we have a lot of the things that we already need, and we just need to figure out how to unlock that lockbox that has all that treasure inside.”
The Wiz is now on its national tour, and will slide into cities across the country before it begins its limited engagement on Broadway in the Spring of 2024.