Before it makes a welcome return to Broadway in the spring of 2024, the celebrated musical, “The Wiz,” is embarking on a national tour, with a stop in Atlanta beginning November 14, courtesy of Broadway in Atlanta. Many of the central players in the return are Atlantans and a few are out.
Brian A. Moreland, one of the producers, first saw “The Wiz” growing up in California as an 8-year-old, taken by his mother to see the show. Afterward he started a performing career and then moved into producing.
“As a producer, this is one of those properties I’d check on every single year,” he said. “I’d call the estate and ask if it was available and the answer would always be ‘no.’ Finally about four years ago I called and I was told it was. I started the journey then [to bring it back] with Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker.”
A huge challenge in reviving the musical is pleasing all those who remember the stage version almost 50 years ago and the 1978 film with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
“That is one we wrestled with — how do we make this thing that has so much history, that means so much to so many people, and make it relevant for today?” Moreland said. “We kept elements of the original 1975 production and kept it and infused it with new elements. There is new choreography and dance arrangements, but still all the dancing you know.”
Moreland promises a new version of the musical, based on the original choreography by George Faison, and the return of the Stephanie Mills song, “Wonder Wonder Why” that was added to the 1984 revival.
“There is really something for everyone here,” he said. “If you are big fan, you’ll be very satisfied.”
He is aware that the show has a strong LGBTQ appeal.
“I think the reason is, it is about what the show stands for,” he said. “It is home and I think, as a gay man, people are always searching for their individual drive, their place where they can feel safe and loved. I’m of the age where I think about ’Cheers.’ You want to go where someone knows your name and that place is surrounded by love and friends and community. That is what is in ‘The Wiz,’ and that is in the original version of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s the community and safe space where you feel accepted, feel a part of and people accept all of us.”
At a media day in early October, Moreland joined Burruss, Tucker, out choreographer JaQuel Knight, and performer Melody Betts, who plays Aunt Em/Evillene in this new version and performed a number from the new production. The new production stars Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Deborah Cox as Glinda, while Amber Ruffin is updating the book.
“The Wiz” has always been a constant for Betts and her family and friends. It’s why she, too, is an actress and singer.
“It has stayed in my life up until the present,” Betts said. “It was something that was important to my family. We had a copy of the movie. We listened to the music all the time. It’s been in my life 40 years. It’s also been a part of my culture since its inception. Even when I am away from my family, we all know the lines, and we all had conversations about it. It was intricately spread throughout my entire existence.”
She also understands its broad appeal.
“It is a classic — and iconic,” she said. “Everyone is represented. Everyone can come in no matter where you are from, what your origin is, and relate.”
For Knight, who worked on Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” it was the only thing he knew as musical theater growing up. He remembers it all vividly, especially the dancing.
“I hope we all do them proud,” he said. “I am so honored to be a part of this production because I think we have done a great job for everyone, which is the hardest part of a revival. We have to make everyone proud, from Black Twitter to your grandmothers.”
Like Moreland, he feels it’s a comfort piece.
“Sometimes you have to create a home with your tribe,” he said, “and we can all relate to that.”
‘The Wiz’ runs November 14–19 at the Fox Theatre
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