WASHINGTON — Long before Diana Ross and Michael Jackson starred in the 1978 movie, “The Wiz” opened in Baltimore in 1974 and won seven Tonys on Broadway, including Best Musical.
This weekend, “The Wiz” makes its triumphant return to our area as the beloved remix of “The Wizard of Oz” eases on down the road to historic Ford’s Theatre from March 9 to May 12.
“It just goes to show that if you do something right and you do something in a classy way, everybody can have access to it,” director Kent Gash told WTOP. “Witness the success of ‘Black Panther’ all these years later. Yes, it means something very special to African-American audiences, but because it is just an excellent piece of storytelling, everybody can enter into it.”
The same goes for L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel and 1939 movie classic. We all know the story of Dorothy (Ines Nassara), a restless girl from Kansas who enters a cyclone and is dropped into the magical land of Oz. Traveling the Yellow Brick Road, she meets The Scarecrow (Hasani Allen), Tinman (Kevin McAllister) and Lion (Christopher Michael Richardson), who join her to visit The Wiz (Jobari Parker-Namdar) and melt the Wicked Witch (Monique Midgette).
“Our cast is unbelievable and they’re all from the D.C. area,” Gash said. “Ines Nassara is our Dorothy and she is beyond brilliant. She’s familiar to D.C. audiences in many smaller roles, but, boy, she is a powerhouse. When she sings, we do a lot of crying in rehearsal because it gets very moving. This story you think you know, but this cast is bringing such great heart.”
Gash will never forget seeing the show for the first time growing up in Denver in the 1970s.
“I was in high school,” Gash said. “It was the first national tour of the production, which was a copy of the Broadway production and had been created by the Broadway team. It was a huge factor in my performing life and my life as an artist. … ‘The Wiz’ was a great inspiration. I’d never seen that kind of black talent and black creativity all in one gorgeous, loving package.”
Such a black-centric production paved the way for “Hamilton” and other diverse productions.
“It was a watershed moment,” Gash said. “It’s not that there weren’t other African-American productions on Broadway, but ‘The Wiz’ was the first musical since ‘Shuffle Along’ in the ’20s that was written by an African-American creative team [and] designed by black designers.”
He finds the story’s uplifting spirit refreshing compared to other heavier plays.
“It’s not a piece with suffering,” Gash said. “There’s a lot of suffering in the black experience in this country, but this was a piece that celebrated only great cultural achievements, great style, great humor, fantastic music. One of the key songs, ‘Everybody Rejoice,’ is a real celebration of the freedom and the resilience of the human spirit and what we can really accomplish.”
That particular song was written by Grammy winner Luther Vandross in collaboration with Tony winner Charlie Smalls, who wrote the music and lyrics for a majority of the musical.
“‘Ease on Down the Road’ is one of the big hits [and] this musical’s equivalent of ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ [with] this great ’70s funk,” Gash said. “‘Everybody Rejoice’ was written by the one and only Luther Vandross. It’s full of soul, heart, warmth and power. … And of course, the signature song, Dorothy’s 11-o’clock-number ‘Home,’ that’s when everybody starts to tear up. … Everything we personally love about our families, where we’re from, [is] evoked.”
The music is married with the groundbreaking visuals of cultural lore.
“Geoffrey Holder’s vision is so extraordinary for the costumes that those costumes are on display in the Smithsonian African American Museum — people can go see them; they were that historic,” Gash said. “He’s the only director and costume designer in theater history to win both the Tony for directing the play and designing the costumes. Nobody’s ever done that.”
It’s Gash’s job to weave these beloved elements with modern technologies.
“Anyone who remembers the tornado from the original production, we certainly are paying homage to George Faison’s brilliant choreography,” Gash said. “But we’re also taking advantage of the great movement forward in technology, projections, visual elements and contemporary design. Here in 2018, we’re able to do things that are even more magical.”
While the technology has changed, the same universal themes remain.
“Everything you need you already have within you,” Gash said. “If you trust your instincts, your impulses, your innate intelligence, if you honor those people who loved and supported you … that’s what you’ll be able to take forward and give to the rest of the world. … Sometimes you have to go away from home to understand just how valuable home is.”
The same goes for a beloved musical like “The Wiz.”
“The great thing about ‘The Wiz’ is that you go in thinking you’re going to see a familiar story, but part of the power … is that those things that are familiar to us give us comfort, and the surprises of what we’re doing will make it a rich theatrical experience whether you’re 5 or 95.”