Determined step by step, producer Brian Moreland is following his version of the yellow brick road as it flashes before him on the stage of the Hippodrome Theater this week.
Shelley Williams, who is directing a new revival of the pioneering musical “The Wiz,” also has her eye on those shiny bricks. So do set designer Hannah Beachler, choreographer Jaquel Knight and Baltimore-born actress Melody Bates.
After “The Wiz” wraps its weeklong run at the Hippodrome Theater on Saturday, the show will travel through more than a dozen U.S. cities before reaching its final destination: New York City’s 1,600-seat Marquis Theatre, where the production will Its Broadway debut will be on April 17.
This isn’t just any revival, because “The Wiz” isn’t just any musical.
Nearly 50 years ago, musician Charlie Smalls and screenwriter William F. Brown transformed the iconic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” into an exploration of the black experience in mid-20th century America. It was the first Broadway musical created by a team consisting of an all-black cast, and it received seven Tony Awards.
The show had its world premiere in 1974 at the Morris A. The Mechanic was in the theater and many people remember well the first time they saw it.
It was a musical that eschewed traditional Broadway show tunes for a score consisting of Motown, gospel, and blues. “The Wiz” was filled with big-eyed dreamers and characters like preachers and roadside rowdies that its audience knew well. Its message that ordinary people with courage, perseverance and open hearts could overcome a system that was rigged against them embodies the hopes of an entire community.
“It was the first production to present black culture in a beautiful, sophisticated and elegant way,” said Moreland, who first saw the show with his mother as a 9-year-old boy in California.
“It was the first time on Broadway that black people were not seen as pawns or throwaway characters. “It was music that put us front and center in a family story that reached out to you and won your heart.”
The world has changed in the last half century. Therefore, “The Wiz'” creative team thought the music should change as well. He hired writer/comedian Amber Ruffin to rework the script and musical director Joseph Joubert to create new arrangements of Smalls’s tunes.
Moreland said, “Some of the jokes in the 1975 production were really of the time.”
“In the original production, Glinda comes to Oz on a watermelon rind. “We had to do a lot of work to find the right version for 2023.”
Other stereotypes were also left aside.
Instead of winged monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West controls an army of demons called “Kalidah”. And according to tourism site Visit New Orleans, instead of Munchkins in Munchkinland, Dorothy will be welcomed by residents of Tremé, America’s oldest black neighborhood.
The revival is generating considerable theatrical buzz as it is packed with talent both on and off stage.
Casting associate Olivia Paige West watched the young actor’s TikTok videos and asked her to submit an audition tape, after which 24-year-old Nichelle Lewis was selected to play the role of Dorothy out of 2,000 other applicants.
“We really wanted to find someone who was unknown,” Moreland said.
Other cast members include Deborah Cox as Glinda and Broadway veterans such as Aunt Em and Bates in the dual roles of Evelyn, the Wicked Witch of the West. Alan Mingo Jr. has played the Wizard of Oz in Baltimore, while talk show host Wayne Brady has played that role for the Broadway run.
Moreland already knew the director he wanted to oversee his new production. In 2013, he was working as a backstage dresser in the Broadway production of “Motown: The Musical”. Williams was the assistant director.
“Shelley was the gentlest person in the entire production,” he said. “But he still did everything he needed to do. “I knew then that I would work with him again.”
When Williams prepared for “The Wiz,” she thought about what the production wanted to say to her daughters, who are 12 and 13.
“‘The Wiz’ is about what it feels like when you don’t belong to anyone,” Williams said.
“One of the hardest things for any human being is to understand what home means, and how it changes as you grow up. Whenever this has happened in my life it has been terrifying. But when you find your tribe, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
He asked Ruffin to rewrite the scene in which Wiz, recently exposed as a scam artist, presents the Scarecrow with a brain, the Tin Man with a heart, and the Lion with courage. Is.
Williams said, “I didn’t want the most important gift for Dorothy’s friends to receive from someone who promises a lot but doesn’t deliver.” “They get a moment of realization in our production, but not from him.”
The creative team hired Hannah Beachler to design the physical world of “The Wiz”. Beachler, who won the 2019 Academy Award for set design for “Black Panther,” was the first Black American nominated in that category.
For both “Panther” and “The Wiz”, Beachler created ideal worlds that seek to improve upon the planet they currently live on. His set design for “The Wiz” is layered with symbols celebrating black culture, such as the black and beige triangle pattern reminiscent of African tribal fabric that forms a proscenium arch around the stage.
Beachler’s set includes references to quilt codes found in 19th-century Underground Railroad safe houses and symbols of 20th-century ironwork design in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The enslaved people who built the balconies hid signs of their presence inside iron baffles. The two giant trees depict Adrinka symbols for God and Mother Nature, while the buildings of the Emerald City are designed to resemble black hair styles.
“I try to bring history into every set I build,” Beachler said. He said that 26 American states have no laws prohibiting child discrimination.
In these states, “you can be expelled from school or sent home because you wear your hair the way it grows from your head,” she said. “It has to be suppressed. This is the law of the country.”
Choreographer Jacquel Knight is attempting to convey through movement what Beachler is communicating by creating a sense of place.
As Beyoncé’s primary choreographer, it was Knight who created the moves for her 2008 megahit ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’, which became one of the most frequently copied dances of the era.
He’s putting his own twist on George Faison’s 1975 Tony Award-winning choreography, which was based on the long, graceful lines of modern dance.
Plan your weekend with our picks for the best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV shows, and more. Distributed every Thursday.
“‘The Wiz’ is a mix of different worlds, and each world has its own stylistic language,” Knight said.
“I’m incorporating dance styles from the past, present and what I hope dance will look like in the future, from contemporary jazz to ballet to elegant street moves. You’ll get a slam dance in your face.”
That’s what the cast and crew want a revival of “The Wiz” to be: a show that pays homage to tradition while creating something new that will be relevant in 2023.
Bates, who played the dual roles of Evelyn and Aunt Em, had a vinyl record of the original 1975 cast recording when she was 2 years old. The song, “I’m a Mean Ole Lion”, frightened the girl, so she ran from the room. When that song played. But as soon as “Lion” ended, she went back to hear the rest of the story.
“This revival is a huge deal,” Bates said. “The Wiz has a legacy and I feel a sense of responsibility. We all do it.
“This show will impact youth, just like it impacted me.”
“The Wiz” runs through Saturday at the Hippodrome Theater at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. The eight-performance show is sold out, but some tickets may be available through the resale market. For details, visit france-merrickpac.com.