In its prime, The Wiz couldn't be beat. Throughout its four-year run on Broadway, the hit 1975 musical brought flavor and funk to Oz like never before, introducing theatergoers to a quirky gang of vagabonds with a style and rhythm all their own.
This was not Judy Garland's Emerald City.
On stage, it had a darker hue and a brighter glow with an all-black cast led by the dynamic Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. Since its debut, The Wiz has been revived over and over in many forms; off-Broadway, by touring companies across the U.S. and Europe, and of course, in movie theatres. Now, more than 30 years later, The Wiz is back with a limited run on the New York stage. The big question is whether this new version can match the original, which is a hard act to follow, even 30 years later: It won seven Tony Awards, including those for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Choreography, and its success paved the way for other black Broadway classics such as Dreamgirls and Bubbling Brown Sugar.
But the Yellow Brick Road has been repaved and repurposed since that first appearance. Sometime in 1978, nearing the end of its Broadway run, The Wiz went Hollywood. The movie version immortalized songs such as "Ease on Down the Road" and "Home" sung by legends Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, respectively. The movie also brought The Wiz to mainstream audiences, securing the musical's place in cultural history. But Dorothy and friends have always belonged on the stage.
The original cast returned home briefly in 1984 for a revival on Broadway where Mills reprised her famous role for 13 performances. But as the ‘80s came to a close, The Wiz lost some of its luster like a well-worn pair of silver slippers.
Thankfully, a new band of black stars are ready to dust them off, taking the musical back to its original stomping ground for a three-week run at the New York City Center.
Opening on June 12, the Encores! Summer Stars production will run through July 5, pairing the original script with a fresh group of actors.
The modern-day production brings The Wiz "full circle," says Dawnn Lewis who plays Addaperle, Good Witch of the North. Though she's best known for her part as Jaleesa on The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, Lewis is excited about the chance to breathe new life into an old favorite.
She first saw The Wiz with her grandmother when she was 8 years old. Watching the original Broadway version with Mills, Lewis confesses to getting emotional by the end of the show. "I was in tears looking at my grandmother saying ‘That's what I want to do.'"
Thirty years later, she gets the chance to do it with a cast that includes longtime friend Tichina Arnold (Evillene), of Martin fame; Orlando Jones (The Wiz) from the movie Drumline; and R&B recording artist Ashanti (Dorothy).
Yeah, you read right—Ashanti. It's hard to believe that the mistress of Murder Inc. could do justice to a part once played by Mills and Ross, but Ashanti's no newcomer to the role. She first played Dorothy in the 2005 made-for-TV film The Muppets' Wizard of Oz. Can her acting hold up alongside her real and very experienced co-stars? That remains to be seen. But we know she can sing. In this production, surrounded by a stellar cast, Ashanti will hopefully sound right at "Home."
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer and editorial assistant for The Root.
Saaret Yoseph is a writer and Assistant Editor at TheRoot.com. She manages and blogs for \"Their Eyes Were Watching …\"