Maria Broom fondly remembers the first time she watched “The Wiz” performed on stage.
It was nearly 50 years ago at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on South Charles Street, where the musical launched before eventually heading to Broadway, winning seven Tony Awards and making stars of Stephanie Mills, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Baltimore’s own André De Shields. Broom, an aspiring dancer and actress at the time, was enthralled by the choreography, singing, acting and overall display of Black excellence.
“When you saw it here, it was stunning. I remembered I wanted to be up there. It pulled on the dancer and actor in me,” recalled Broom, who has since appeared in “The Wire,” “The West Wing” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” as well as dozens of other movies, television shows and theater productions. “I remember the color, the vastness of it. I remember feeling like I wanted to run away and join the circus. It was fantastic. You know when they talk about things being spectacular, it was spectacular. This show was worthy of awe.”
Broom, 74, loved the production so much she saw it multiple times before it left Baltimore for the Great White Way.
“In all honesty, seeing it, I didn’t think it was as much of a Black phenomenon as it was a fabulous show that happened to have Black people in it. When I look back now, it was one of the first all-Black theatrical Broadway performances and was the forerunner for others that came,” the Windsor Mills resident said. “‘The Wiz’ was the first. It made Broadway producers realize that Black people will come and spend money.”
For five decades, “The Wiz” continued to do just that, captivating audiences and inspiring countless others with iconic songs, flashy choreography and melanated moments.
Now the groundbreaking musical is returning home: Its revival launches this week at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center with performances from Sept. 23 through Sept. 30, before it again returns to Broadway.
The production, which features unforgettable classic songs such as “Ease on Down the Road” and “Home,” will add contemporary touches with choreographer JaQuel Knight (Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”), scenic design by Academy Award-winning Hannah Beachler (”Black Panther,” Beyoncé’s “Black is King” and “Lemonade”), and costume design by Emmy Award-winning and two-time Oscar-nominated Sharen Davis (”Ray” and “Dreamgirls”).
Nichelle Lewis, who was discovered via a TikTok video, will play Dorothy, R&B singer Deborah Cox will play Glinda, and Melody A. Betts will portray the dual roles of Aunt Em and Evillene. Alan Mingo Jr. will play the title role for the touring production (Wayne Brady will take over when it hits Broadway), while Kyle Ramar Freeman (”A Strange Loop”) will play the Lion.
Even behind the scenes is star-studded: Celebrities such as “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member Kandi Burruss, as well as rappers Common and MC Lyte, are co-producing.
“We need to show people again how important it is to have live shows,” Burruss said last month at the Hippodrome. “It is important to bring opportunity to the city. … I didn’t get to see this show when it was out way back then. But I loved it — every song and everything about it.”
Seeing the show as a child was transformative for Schele Williams, the Baltimore production’s director.
“I saw a little Black girl on stage. It taught me that my dream was possible,” said Williams, who first saw “The Wiz” in 1978 and went on to play Dorothy in her high school’s staging of the show.
Audiences “deserve to love it in their bones like I did,” she said. “It is for all of us. It is a show that creates community and belonging.”
De Shields, who originated the title role, said “The Wiz” was a “dream come true” and “changed the culture of Broadway.”
“Prior to that, Broadway was not hospitable to Black people,” the 77-year-old said. “Not only were we adjusting the lens of culture, but we were creating employment for those who were underemployed and unemployed.”
For De Shields, who now lives in New York City, “‘The Wiz’ wasn’t the test. It was the examination,” he said of the 1974 local production. “As I was growing up in Baltimore, I would say to people, ‘I’m going to be a Broadway star.’ I didn’t know how I was going to do it. And I didn’t know that a Black production of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ was going to be that parcel.”
When asked if he planned to attend one of the upcoming performances in Baltimore, De Shields was less enthusiastic. “My calendar is full,” he said.
The Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner said no one from the revival reached out to him, “but that’s OK. They’ve got their own journey to complete,” he said. “If I am the source, then they don’t have to reach out to me. You have to reach out to me artistically and economically.”
In the meantime, De Shields still remains loyal to Baltimore: He is currently in town for a street-naming ceremony at the southwest corner of the 1800 block of Division Street (his childhood street), which has been renamed André De Shields Way, and has been traveling back and forth from the city since March to work on a house track version of his famous 2019 Tony Awards acceptance speech for “Hadestown,” in which he shouts out his hometown. But he still has that strong connection to “The Wiz.”
“It feels right,” he said of his full-circle moment. “It feels like a suit that has been made for me, and adjusted, fitted and is perfect. Because, regardless of the different interpretations, ‘The Wiz’ and that title role that I created will always make my brand safe.”
This revival will also be an opportunity for a new generation to be introduced to the production, which is an Afrocentric take on the original 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” (itself based on a 1900 children’s book by L. Frank Baum). Nine-hundred students will get to attend a dress rehearsal of the performance during its Charm City run.
Eighth graders Nathaly Mateo and Sukyrrah Wallace say the hit Broadway musical has already changed their lives: The Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School students starred in their school’s rendition of the musical last year.
Both were encouraged to audition by theater teacher Aaron Schaffer, who heard Wallace singing a song from the production in the hallway between classes last year and cast her as Evillene.
“‘The Wiz’ is my favorite show. I’ve watched the play and the movie so many times,” Wallace gushed. “I love me some ‘Wiz.’”
Having Mateo play Dorothy perhaps wasn’t as obvious. “I’ve always wanted to act,” said Mateo, who admitted to being shy. “My parents were really proud of me. They didn’t even know I could sing. My mom was crying.”
But Schaffer said Mateo “bloomed” by the time of the show. “They know they can grasp that dream if they believe in it,” the teacher said.
The diversity of the musical played a large role in their attachment to the material. “It’s important so you can see different types of people,” Wallace said. Mateo, who is Latina, said she was appreciative to have the opportunity to be cast in the leading role and “that someone gave me the encouragement to do what I want to do.”
Schaffer, who never had the opportunity to perform “The Wiz” growing up as a student at predominately white schools, calls the upcoming dress rehearsal a monumental moment for him and his students.
“They will be able to see the connections,” he said. “It feels like home. No pun intended. Even though we are in Baltimore, it shows that those opportunities are still available.”
Kaya Vision, a teacher at Baltimore School for the Arts, said although the school has not performed “The Wiz” because of its extremely diverse student body, many of their students have acted in regional and local productions of the musical.
“Not a lot of great musicals get their start in Baltimore. You don’t always get to see a full Black cast,” Vision said. “For BSA, it is a beacon of hope: Good things happen here and can be seen on an international stage.”
Vision had their own brush with “The Wiz” in 2017 when meeting De Shields during Morgan State University’s 150th anniversary celebration, for which they had choreographed a routine.
“It’s really cool to see someone from Baltimore and stay in state and move onto Broadway and continue to work,” Vision said in reference to De Shield’s success. “It’s amazing to see Baltimore artists getting their dues and still coming back supporting the community.”
The Hippodrome production aims to be a part of that pipeline: It will be the first to benefit from a state tax credit program authorized by the Maryland General Assembly in 2022 that encourages theatrical production companies to launch national tours in Maryland, according to Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, who touted the impact the tour will have on Baltimore’s economy with the production’s staff and crew living and working temporarily in the city.
Broom, who teaches storytelling and theater at Baltimore School for the Arts, said a number of her students will attend the dress rehearsal Friday.
“They are glad to be going to the theater,” she said. “Once they see it, it will blow them away.”
Broom, who has a scheduling conflict, laments that she will not be able to go with them.
“I don’t know how or when, but I will get in there,” Broom said with a laugh.