5 Big Takeaways from the New Broadway Revival of ‘The Wiz’

When The Wiz debuted on Broadway 50 years ago, it became a beloved new take on the classic L. Frank Baum story The Wizard of Oz as seen through an African American lens. It took the familiar central characters—Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion—as they sought the help of the almighty Wiz and brought different variations to their journey, expanding on some of the stories of her counterparts. The show, with book by William F. Brown with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls, won seven Tony Awards.

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Then there was the 1977 film with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, and Richard Pryor. It changed up some of elements from the original, as have subsequent touring and regional productions since then, not to mention the brief Broadway revival in 1984. The cinematic version did not fare well at the box office but has since become a cult favorite.

The new Wiz revival is colorful, exuberant, and full of spirited performances. It also has some tweaks that have been made along its journey back to the Great White Way. In working with writer Amber Ruffin to update the show’s language, director Schele Williams told HuffPost, “I thought of my daughters, who are 12 and 13, and how they’d find ownership inside this story.” She and Ruffin worked to update the show with elements that “acknowledge the cultural impact that Blackness has had on fashion, music, and dance.”

Here are five takeaways after seeing the new Broadway revival which stars Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy in the part that made Stephanie Mills a star. Lewis herself is a talent to watch. The other main cast members include Avery Wilson (Scarecow), Phillip Johnson Richardson (Tin Man), Kyle Ramar Freeman (Cowardly Lion), Deborah Cox (Glinda), Melody Betts (Evillene), Allyson Kaye Daniel (Addaperle), and Wayne Brady who revels in his role as the Wiz.

If You Only Know the Movie Version, This Is the Original Story

While The Wiz had a four-year run on Broadway starting in 1975, many people today may just know the movie version directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Joel Schumacher. The film turned Emerald City and Oz into New York City, and there were some surrealistic moments and even a horror scene added in. Dorothy was aged older so Diana Ross could play her as a schoolteacher, and Michael Jackson portrayed the Scarecrow. Some people love it, some people don’t, but it was an interesting take. However, this new staging is the classic story of The Wiz modernized for current audiences. Just don’t expect to see Toto or Munchkins on stage. Or those creepy subway puppets from the movie.

One of the Movie Songs Is Now in the Musical

The original first song for the Scarecrow, “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” was replaced in the movie by “You Can’t Win,” performed by Michael Jackson. This new staging, which began with last year’s tour, includes the latter song performed buoyantly by Avery Wilson. So if you’re a longtime fan expecting the original song, this comes up instead. Additionally, the “Emerald City” fanfare by Timothy Graphenreed at the top of Act II comes from the film as well, and Dorothy’s second-act song “Wonder, Wonder Why” was added to the 1984 Broadway revival.

Some of the Musical Elements Have Been Modernized

Given the original musical debuted on Broadway five decades ago, there have been a lot of changes in popular music and culture since that time. Notably in the first act, the Tin Man’s number “Slide Some Oil to Me” has a more hip-hop flavor, while another scene features a New Orleans dance line. The opening medley at the top of the second act, “Meet the Wizard,” includes a trap-dance sequence after the Wiz insists on seeing his citizens do something new. The merger of modern music and choreography with its original elements helps freshen up the show while respecting its original vibe.

The Show Has a Lot of Razzle-Dazzle to It

Some media have criticized the new production for going full-on with very colorful visuals and a big sound. But the audience that American Songwriter watched it with appreciated the spectacle, which included some impressive video environments from Daniel Brodie, dynamic choreography courtesy of JaQuel Knight, and striking set pieces from Hannah Beachler. This is definitely an amped-up version of the show with plenty of impressive high notes being hit by the cast as well, including Lewis, Deborah Cox as Glinda, and Melody Betts as Evillene.

One Can Never Tire of “Ease on Down the Road”

The peppy signature song of The Wiz is fun to see performed onstage. Even though it emerges three times in Act I and at least one more time in Act II, it always clicks. In the first act there is a New Orleans version of “Ease on Down,” and the second act features a slower variant. It’s funny how a song about easing along is so insistently danceable.

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Photo by Jeremy Daniel

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