‘The Wiz’ is back on Broadway with Wayne Brady in the title role

The Wiz” is back on Broadway.

It’s in the midst of a revival at the Marquis Theater, with an updated book by Amber Ruffin — who is also a writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers” — and choreography from JaQuel Knight, who worked with Beyoncé on “Formation” and “Single Ladies.”

The show stars Wayne Brady as the Wiz, and Nichelle Williams makes her Broadway debut as Dorothy after being discovered on TikTok.

“It just feels like one big party with the audience,” said actor Kyle Ramar Freeman, who plays Lion. “They’re on this journey with us and they are friends with us, and that’s beautiful that the show can give that to them.”

“The Wiz” is a musical spinoff of “The Wizard of Oz,” and first opened on Broadway in 1975. It won seven Tonys that year, including Best Musical. A few years later, it was adapted into a movie starring Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. The movie quickly became a staple for families around the country, especially Black families.

Director Schele Williams and actor Kyle Ramar Freeman talked to Kousha Navidar on a recent episode of “All of It.” Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Kousha Navidar: Kyle, what do you notice about the audience when “Ease on Down the Road” kicks in when you’re on stage?

Kyle Ramar Freeman: They start to clap. I’m like, “okay, everybody’s in, everybody knows this.” It’s just fun to watch the audience instantly recognize something, and then enjoy it along with this. Sometimes they sing with us. I love the song because yes, it’s a catchy beat, but it’s words that I can live by: don’t you carry nothing that might be a load, and sometimes life can be a load. [Laughter.]

How many times per week do you think you sing that song, Kyle?

Freeman: 500, 2,500 times. [Laughter.] I don’t know. It’s been a lot. We went on the road first, so that was a 13-city tour. That was over 100 shows, close to 200, on the road. We’ve been on Broadway for the past two months, so a lot. A lot.

You know that bassline by heart.

Freeman: It doesn’t get old.

You play the Lion. The audience just loves you. How the heck do you manage to perform in that costume every night? Are you just sweating through the whole thing?

Freeman: Yes. [Laughter.] It would have been a hotter experience, but I expressed to Schele that it was going to be hot. She was like, “Well, we’re going to change that. It won’t be as unbearable.” Thank God, she stepped in. It’s still hot, but that’s what I signed up for. I have a beard. I have a wig. It’s kind of heavy. I’ve also lost some weight during this role. [Chuckles.] That’s interesting, too, but it’s fun. Like when am I ever going to be a lion who gets to wear what I’m wearing every night?

Schele, I’m going to ask you to talk about Kyle like he’s not in the room for a second. He talks about that sense of play being so important to what he brings to the character of the Lion. What else does he do that you really appreciate about his work?

Schele Williams: I remember Kyle came back for the audition, and I was like, “I just want you to play.” The first time everybody came in, they wanted to be perfect, and I didn’t want people to be perfect. Perfect is not human. This show needs to have expansive imagination, and an embodiment of something that makes you remember your childhood and long for it and fight for them.

I was like, “Just have fun. Just play. Imagine that we’re not here.” He opened up and just showed a side of himself that was so unbelievably brave, that made him perfect for the Lion. It’s interesting that a person who is supposed to exhibit no courage, needs to be the bravest of all.

Were you a child when you were first introduced toThe Wiz”? Do you remember?

Williams: Yes, I was 7 years old. I was in Dayton, Ohio, and my mom took me to see the national tour. I remember seeing lots of shows, but I remember “The Wiz” being the first show that made every molecule in my body change. It was the first time that I saw a show with an all-Black cast, that I saw a girl who looked like me, that I saw a story that I knew, but had never been included in.

As a child in the ’70s, having seen all the Disney movies and all the fairy tales, there was never anyone Black in any of those. For once, I was the little girl on that stage, trying to get home, meeting friends. I realized that theater could be a place for me, that I had belonging in that space. “The Wiz” changed everything for me.

Years later, they offer you the chance to direct it. What was your first reaction when you got that call?

Williams: When I got the call, it was a straight-ahead offer. I said, “OK, well, I definitely want to do it.” Then I hung up the phone, and I felt this pain in my stomach, where I was like, “I’m terrified,” which is such a good feeling because you want to do work that scares you. You want to do something that really challenges you.

I said, “Give me a little time to really think about the show, think about the approach.” The original production was really entrenched in the ’70s, and so I was thinking about how to make “The Wiz” feel right for this generation. I have two daughters who are 12 and 13, and I wanted this to be their Wiz, but I also still wanted it to be my Wiz, and I still wanted it to be my mom’s Wiz. I wanted every generation to feel belonging in this piece.

Amber and I had a lot of discussions about how to create a Wiz that felt timeless, that honored every version.

Can you talk a little bit about how you bridge that generational gap?

Williams: The core value of the show is about belonging. That’s universal and timeless. I was introduced to this show, they came to me in 2020. It was two months after George Floyd’s murder. I was thinking a lot about what the future of my theater-making was going to be as a director and things that I knew that needed to be fundamentally important.

One of the things that I knew was that I never wanted to have a Black man on stage without them being entrenched in community. I didn’t want to have a Black man on stage just singing and dancing, and being in any way, shape or form disposable. It was really important that each one of them had a backstory that showed that they had purpose, that there were people that loved them, missed them, that they had things that they wanted to accomplish in their lives. Like the Scarecrow, that they had family, that they were a part of something.

That’s very small, but also incredibly impactful because what we do on our stages impact what happens on our streets. It’s important to me that as we’re weaving in something that is new, we are always thinking about the impact that it has beyond the curtain coming down.

The audience is in it with you. There’s a lot of clapping, laughing, responses from the crowd at certain moments, people are singing along. Kyle, what’s that like for you as an actor?

Freeman: It gives me energy, because when you do two-show days, it can be exhausting. Also, Black people express joy with volume. That always feels good. As a performer, you can’t beg for people to laugh, but it always feels great when they do. I love an audible response. I love the clapping. I love the “Mmm-hmm, all right, Dorothy, come on.”

We’ve had many of those performances because Black people, they love seeing us being on stage and being celebrated. With the show, when people watch it, I think they’re our friends. They’re a part of the troupe, too. When we make it to Emerald City, there is applause when those gates open because they are rooting for us to get to “The Wiz.”

Dorothy’s journey leads all the way up to Emerald City, meeting The Wiz. Wayne Brady’s entrance gets some of the most enthusiastic applause of the night. Schele, as a director, what did you know you had to get right about our introduction to Emerald City and The Wiz?

Williams: You spend the whole show talking about it, so there has to be some grandeur to it, and it has to feel a little bit magical, but it also has to feel like a little bit off, so that the audience’s buildup has overhyped it in their brain. If you really thought about it, it is not as amazing as you think it should be. It really is 90% you and 10% us, and that’s what we realize he is. He is 90% what you want him to be and 10% truth. There was just a little bit of how are we creating something that gives you a false sense of grandeur, but also is always telling you two stories at one time?

Kyle, what message do you hope people walk away with?

Freeman: Don’t carry anything that might be a load. Also, there is beauty in being strange. It’s okay to feel lost. As long as you are able hopefully to find people who are like you, who may not always fit in, who have their own set of challenges, who are awkward like you, find the people who support you and love you and will uplift you and will get you to the place that you desire to be that holds you accountable, that just keep you grounded.

Dorothy encourages the Lion to keep going: “I know this was scary, but we are here with you, and we can do this thing together.” Hopefully, that’s what people can take away from this show – find the people who support you, and do the thing scared anyway.

Sometimes you just need an adventure to show you what you’re made of, which was one of my favorite lines from that show.

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