“It’s time to release The Wiz!” »The wild comeback of the super soul musical | Theater


The Wizard of Oz is a cinematic masterpiece that always shines like a ruby ​​slipper. Its onstage prequel, Wicked, has been running continuously since 2003. But there is another lesser-known spin-off of the original L Frank Baum novel. The Wiz, which filters the same story through the prism of African-American culture, won seven Tonys when it first aired on Broadway in 1975. So it’s surprising that this musical by Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) and William F Brown (book) has been revived so rarely over the years, or that critics have at times been the critical equivalent of the Bucket of Water with which Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch of the West.

The reputation of the series was hardly bolstered by the 1978 film version of Sidney Lumet, a notorious flop despite its unique cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor. London-born director Matthew Xia, who is now overseeing a revamped version at the Hope Mill Theater in Manchester, loved him as a teenage Michael Jackson fan. “I even played Scarecrow in school when I was 15,” the bearded and nervous 39-year-old recalls during a break from rehearsal. “Watching the movie recently, I think it’s a bit wacky. Some of the choices are, like, “Why did you decide to do this? Why is Dorothy 34 years old? ‘ Its importance, however, remains intact. “It’s ultimately an experience in black culture that takes up space.”

“I even played Scarecrow at school! »… Matthieu Xia. Photograph: David M Benett / Getty

The affection and esteem in which The Wiz is held, especially by audiences of color, proves he’s bigger than any flawed production. Songs, including Ease on Down the Road and The Nostalgia Home, carry their anthemic nature lightly and there is a research, if not a holistic quality to the show. He’s been a reliable magnet for top talent: singer Ashanti played Dorothy in the Broadway revival in 2009, while a 2015 live-action TV version featured Mary J Blige, Queen Latifah, and a battalion of acrobats. by Cirque du Soleil. Rarer is the staging that has matched the power and potential of the concept. Xia’s reputation for his daring choices – he racially separated audiences for apartheid drama Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, and presented Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse as a hip-hop concert called Da Boyz – indicates that he might be the one to do it. .

At the start of her version, Dorothy (Cherelle Williams) is in a tower in Manchester watching footage of the Black Lives Matter protests on television when an electromagnetic storm catapults her to a fantasy land. Familiar characters are adorned with chic threads: the Lion (Jonathan Andre) is a little Richard-esque dandy in frills and yellow velvet; gender-neutral residents of Emerald City wear lime-colored coats and tinted sunglasses; the winged apes seem to be able to overthrow the warriors.

The Wiz has always brought out the craziest ideas. In the first British production, at the Sheffield Crucible in 1980, the Wiz left by helicopter at the end. Derek Griffiths, who played the scarecrow, remembers the experience as being physically trying. “It was like an army assault course,” he says. “It’s really a team show, energetic and vital. What attracted me was that it was not the usual format of a theatrical musical. The cast was multicultural, which was very wild and daring at the time. It broke tradition. It was not accepted by all, but it entertained the majority.

Ted Ross, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Nipsey Russell flop on the big screen
Weird adaptation… Ted Ross, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Nipsey Russell in the big screen flop. Photograph: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

For the new Wiz, Leah Hill’s choreography and Sean Green’s arrangements update the palette of a show originally subtitled The Super Soul Musical so that it now incorporates post-70s trends and styles, one of which is house music, vogueing and hip-hop. Cultural specificity is already written in its DNA. When ’70s audiences heard Evillene, the Wicked Witch of The Wiz, ask Dorothy, “You make windows, don’t you?” They would have recognized what critic Bryant Rollins described in 1975 as “the question asked of every stereotypical darkroom by every stereotypical white employer.”

The weather is changing. “It’s not going to slide so easily now, as there is a black middle class,” says Xia, who added some contemporary references to him. “When this olive oil spray bomb comes out for the Tin Man, every black audience member will be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the finish in the barbershop! And the workers at Evillene are all dressed as hotel porter with rubber gloves to show that blacks are still doing the menial jobs, the heavy lifting. “

The allegorical core of the show has changed slightly. Xia describes the original context: “The central analogy concerns the great migration of black communities moving north to America, after slavery and after Jim Crow, from the segregated south. Knowing that the Black Lives Matter era demanded an overhaul, he took inspiration from WandaVision, the Marvel TV series about a traumatized superhero taking refuge in a fantasy world inspired by American sitcoms. “I wanted to ask how Dorothy can cushion the trauma of her lived experience. She tries to escape these reminders of how hard it is to be Black today, and suddenly she finds herself in this world of positive black reinforcement.

Ashh Blackwood, center, as Evillenne in The Wiz at the Hope Mill Theater.
Ashh Blackwood, center, as Evillenne in The Wiz at the Hope Mill Theater. Photography: Pamela Raith

This sentence perfectly describes the creative team, which is mostly made up of people of color. “If you’re on a ‘diverse’ show, it usually means the business and the cleaners are diverse,” says Leah Hill. The Wiz, she argues, “shows that there is are Black creatives there. Rather than the old phrase “Oh, we just couldn’t find any,” which I’ve heard a lot. Xia nods in recognition: “My friend has a phrase for these kinds of shows – ‘plantation productions’. We do not do plantation production here.

This resulted in an unusual ease in the rehearsal room. “Some members of the company have spoken of the feeling in the past that they are constantly avoiding racial petty fires,” says Hill. “You don’t have that in this space.” Xia explains, “No one asks them, ‘Can you be a little darker? Can you do something with your hands that is a little … darker? ‘ “

The Scarecrow star of Mary Poppins Returns, Tarik Frimpong, has had his share of those kinds of experiences. “When the people behind the table aren’t people of color, it can sometimes create a dynamic that is… interesting, “he tells me.” It can take the form of micro-aggressions or people from cultures they don’t fully understand, or you have to choose your director because it doesn’t seem fair to guess which accent we should be using. for a character. “

Andre De Shields as The Wiz in the 1975 Broadway production.
Andre De Shields as The Wiz in the 1975 Broadway production. Photograph: Hulton Archives / Getty Images

The stakes are high for Xia. “The show means so much to the black community,” he says. “It’s a cultural artefact, and it was always about black joy. We just need it in a different way now. Maybe that’s why it’s done so rarely. It’s in these really acute moments that we say to ourselves, “OK, we still need to be rescued. Break the window in an emergency – time to take out The Wiz! ‘ “

Racism was so pervasive that the show probably could have been staged at any point in time and still capture a moment or provide a balm for an injury. It made its UK debut the year before the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Handsworth and Toxteth. The year following a 1984 revival at Lyric Hammersmith, London, with Clarke Peters of The Wire as the Scarecrow, several British towns were once again on fire. A recent production, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo in Birmingham, began less than two months before the 2011 London riots, sparked by the police shooting against Mark Duggan. He is now arriving in Manchester following the global outrage over the murder of George Floyd.

Welcome to Emerald City.
Welcome to Emerald City. Photography: Pamela Raith

But as Cherelle Williams points out: “The Wiz shows our love and our passion. The fight is still there but it doesn’t have to be only on the fight.

Back in the rehearsal room, joy is the prevailing excitement as the company frolic in the second act, their various somersaults, lunges and soft shoe shifts astonishing to be seen from so close. After they all wiped their eyebrows, Xia, who dreamed of being a magician, makes an announcement: school production of The Wiz. Sure enough, he’s there on stage with a straw hat and yellow scarf, his mouth wide open, looking impatiently at the audience – and the future.