Wayne Brady and Nichelle Lewis on Striving for Excellence in ‘The Wiz’

The veteran and the newcomer each had their own fears as they joined the Broadway revival of the beloved all-Black musical.

A portrait of a man and a woman who are sitting behind a green screen, which is seen at left.
Nichelle Lewis and Wayne Brady in his dressing room at the Marquis Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

By Salamishah Tillet for the New York Times May 27, 2024

“That show was so Black,” my 8-year-old whispered after we saw “The Wiz” on Broadway. He hadn’t made this observation last fall after seeing a performance of the show in Baltimore, during the national tour that preceded this revival. So I was curious: What had changed, and why was this iteration more culturally resonant for him than even the 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson or NBC’s 2015 “The Wiz Live!” special that I’d screened for him.

I suspected my son was drawn to this version’s colloquial expressions (“All I got to do is stay Black and die,” Evillene tells Dorothy), choreography (ranging from Atlanta street dancing to South African amapiano) and its casting of Wayne Brady as the Wiz, who greets the Scarecrow and the Tinman with a dap. (Brady will depart the production on June 12.)

A caped man in a top hat stands atop stairs with his arms raised. Four women are standing or lunging around him, with their arms raised.
Wayne Brady as the Wiz in the show’s Broadway revival.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times
A young woman in a short blue dress is standing onstage with three men, who are costumed to look like a lion, a scarecrow and a tin man.
Lewis, who is making her Broadway debut, with Kyle Ramar Freeman as a glammed up Lion and, in the background, Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow and Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman.Credit…Richard Termine for The New York Times

“The Wiz,” an all-Black incarnation of “The Wizard of Oz,” premiered on Broadway in 1975 with Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. The revival’s creative team — including the director Schele Williams and the comedian Amber Ruffin, who updated the book — have said that they wanted this version to reflect the richness of Black American history and contemporary culture.

The show features a cast of newcomers, including Nichelle Lewis, whose TikTok performance of “Home” helped land her an audition for the role of Dorothy. Brady, who made his Broadway debut 20 years ago in “Chicago,” offers up a charismatic Wiz who will do (almost) anything to leave Oz and, in Wayne’s back story, return to his loved ones.

During a recent interview, Lewis and Brady shared their history with the show, how they overcame their fears of joining this production, and the beauty of staging an all-Black musical on Broadway today. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Wayne, you joined the cast after a national tour, and, Nichelle, this is your Broadway debut. How did you prepare?

NICHELLE LEWIS I’m very nervous all the time. But I think it’s a good thing. Wayne said the other day, “If you weren’t nervous, it’d probably be bad.” For me, having those nerves is humbling. I wouldn’t say that I have all of this confidence, but I feel at peace and at home.

WAYNE BRADY Jumping into a show like this was jumping into a game of double Dutch. My default Wayne will always be the 10-year-old Wayne, who is a loner, plays by himself, listens to musical theater and writes because he doesn’t fit in. So I tell myself, “Oh, I don’t know all these people, and they already like each other.” But these things are always all in our head. Then you go, “Come on now. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t supposed to be here, and this is your thing.” Now, this is my fourth Broadway show, so my job is to be here to support my cast.

“The Wiz” is known for its iconic performances, on the stage and screen. How did your predecessors influence your performance?

LEWIS When I got the call, the first thing I did was watch this YouTube recording of Stephanie Mills doing the show. Every time she sang, it was so soulful that I could feel it through the screen. Then I watched a few clips of Diana Ross. If you watch the video of her singing “Home,” it’s as if she’s talking directly to you. So I wanted to take the genuineness and make sure I put that into this Dorothy.

BRADY As a kid, I didn’t only focus on Richard Pryor [as The Wiz], I just loved the whole thing. Later, once I started performing, I said, “Well, if it ever comes around, I want to be the Tinman or the Scarecrow.” And one time, I was even hired to be the Tinman for Des McAnuff’s [2006] production at La Jolla Playhouse, but I ended up doing another TV show instead.

Given that it is a beloved classic, how did you ensure the uniqueness of this adaptation?

LEWIS My Dorothy is 15, and even though she does have her Aunt Em, she still doesn’t feel like she has someone there for her. It’s kind of a teenager thing. It is important for Dorothy to find all of these different people on her journey who are going through similar things and trying to be comfortable in their skin. My goal was to create this person who is growing, and be able to see that those changes are in her voice, within her body, and just her being.

BRADY When Schele called me to do it, we had long talks about the Wiz. I knew this version would be different because of her and Amber’s approach to Dorothy, and the heroes, and their journey. Dorothy does not meet three older people who guide her. Instead, these characters are all similar in age, so by extension, the Wiz had to be different. Is he scamming them right off the top? Is he being genuine with how effusive he is? We had those talks because I wanted to shape this guy so he wasn’t unrepentant.

A portrait of a woman, who is wearing gold hoop earrings and a jean jacket, and a man, who is sitting below her and wearing a blue shirt.
“A big message of this production was just to spread love for yourself, no matter who you are or where you come from,” Lewis said of the production’s inclusivity.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

After seeing it on Broadway, my 8-year-old commented how culturally Black he thought your show was.

BRADY Mission accomplished! It’s beautiful that he felt that because it’s unapologetically Black. It’s funny to me that there are times when we say unapologetically Black or Black excellence, it’s triggering for some people. Some people ask, “Why can’t it just be excellent?” I dare say we’ve been more than excellent.

LEWIS I wish I had seen a show where I thought that as a kid. I never remember seeing a show and being like, “That was so Black,” and saying it in a positive way before, unfortunately. I grew up in a small town in Virginia and was often asked, “Why does your hair look like that?” That’s a very different tone from: “That’s so Black. I want to be up there, too. Look at them.” I wish that somebody would have made me feel that way.

Critics have also applauded it for how inclusive and queer this version is.

LEWIS That was a big part of Schele’s vision. In “Brand New Day,” she wanted to have all the colors for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. A big message of this production was just to spread love for yourself, no matter who you are or where you come from.

BRADY It’s definitely a vibe. This is a “Wiz” for this time, and it is so open to everybody and everything — that in and of itself makes it beautifully that queer.

What do you think the legacy of your show will be, particularly for African American musicals on Broadway?

BRADY The original “Wiz” was a definitive product of the 1970s in its glam and excess. André De Shields, who played the Wiz, said something to me on opening night. He said, “When we did the original ‘Wiz,’ it was the first time that these people had come to see all these Black faces on the stage, they tried to put us under all of this stuff. So you are lucky because you can just come onstage and be beautiful.” In André De Shields’s version, they worked with furs, leather and lights to claim a place in the world. Ours is of this time: We have this place and can just be. From the queerness onstage to the costumes, the musicality, light and bricks. I think instead of fighting to be seen, this “Wiz” is, “Oh, you see us.”

LEWIS I hope the little Black girls in the audience feel beautiful. I hope they feel they can be whoever they want and be proud of that. If I had seen this show where I see braids, I see Afros, I see all kinds of different hairstyles — I hope she will be proud of her hair and curl texture and will do whatever she wants to do. I just hope that she feels she can do whatever she wants in this world.