‘It's time to bring out The Wiz!' The wild return of the super soul musical

This spin on The Wizard of Oz was a Broadway hit in the 70s and became a film with Diana Ross. Now, the tale of Black joy takes Dorothy from a Manchester tower block and BLM protests to the Emerald City

The Wizard of Oz is a movie masterpiece that still glitters like a ruby slipper. Its stage prequel, Wicked, has been running non-stop since 2003. But there is another, lesser-known spin-off from L Frank Baum’s original novel. The Wiz, which filters the same story through the prism of African American culture, won seven Tonys during its initial Broadway run in 1975. It’s surprising, then, that this musical by Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) and William F Brown (book) has been revived so infrequently over the years, or that reviews have sometimes been the critical equivalent of the bucket of water with which Dorothy vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West.

The show’s reputation was hardly fortified by Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film version, a notorious flop despite its once-in-a-lifetime cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor. The London-born director Matthew Xia, who is now overseeing a retooled version at the Hope Mill theatre in Manchester, adored it as a teenage Michael Jackson fan. “I even played the Scarecrow at school when I was 15,” says the bearded, wiry 39-year-old during a break from rehearsals. “Watching the film recently, I think it’s kind of wacky. Some of the choices are, like: ‘Why have you decided to do that? Why is Dorothy 34 years old?’” Its significance, though, remains undiminished. “It is ultimately an experiment in Black culture taking up space.”

‘I even played the Scarecrow at school!’ … Matthew Xia. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty

The affection and esteem in which The Wiz is held, especially by audiences of colour, proves that it is bigger than any one flawed production. The songs, including Ease on Down the Road and the yearning Home, wear their anthemic nature lightly and there is a searching, even holistic quality to the show. It has been a reliable magnet for top-drawer talent: the singer Ashanti played Dorothy in the 2009 Broadway revival, while a 2015 live television version featured Mary J Blige, Queen Latifah and a battalion of Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Rarer is the staging that has matched the concept’s potency and potential. Xia’s reputation for bold choices – he segregated audiences along racial lines for the 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 could be the one to crack it.

As his version begins, Dorothy (Cherelle Williams) is in a Manchester tower block watching footage of the Black Lives Matter protests on television when an electro-magnetic storm catapults her into a fantastical land. Familiar characters are decked out in spiffy threads: the Lion (Jonathan Andre) is a Little Richard-esque dandy in frills and yellow velvet; the gender-neutral denizens of Emerald City wear lime-coloured coats and tinted-lens wrap shades; the Winged Monkeys look like they could duff up The Warriors.

The Wiz has always brought out the wildest ideas. In the first UK production, at the Sheffield Crucible in 1980, the Wiz departed in a helicopter at the end. Derek Griffiths, who played the Scarecrow, remembers the experience as a physically taxing one. “It was like an army assault course,” he says. “It’s very much a team show, energetic and vital. What attracted me was that it wasn’t the usual format for a theatre musical. The casting was multicultural, which was very wild and daring then. It broke tradition. It wasn’t accepted by all but it entertained the majority.”

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, among them house music, vogueing and hip-hop. Cultural specificity is already woven into its DNA. When 70s audiences heard Evillene, the Wiz’s Wicked Witch, ask Dorothy: “You do do windows, don’t you?”, they would have recognised what the critic Bryant Rollins described in 1975 as “the question asked of every stereotyped Black maid by every stereotyped white employer”.

Times change. “That isn’t going to slide as easily now because there is a Black middle class,” says Xia, who has added some contemporary references of his own. “When that can of olive oil spray comes out for the Tin Man, every Black audience member will go: ‘Oh yeah – that’s the finish in the barber’s shop!’ And Evillene’s workers are all in hotel porter outfits with rubber gloves to show that Black people are still doing the menial jobs, the heavy lifting.”

The allegorical core of the show has shifted slightly. Xia outlines the original context: “The central analogy relates to the big migration of Black communities moving north in America, post-slavery and post-Jim Crow, from the segregated south.” Knowing that the Black Lives Matter era demanded a rethink, he found inspiration in WandaVision, the Marvel television series about a traumatised superhero taking refuge in a fantasy world modelled on 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.”

That phrase neatly describes the creative team, which is comprised predominantly of people of colour. “If you’re in a ‘diverse’ show, that usually only means the company and the cleaners are diverse,” says Leah Hill. The Wiz, she argues, “shows that there are Black creatives out there. Rather than the old ‘Oh, we just couldn’t find any’ line, which I’ve heard a lot.” Xia nods in recognition: “My friend has a phrase for those sorts of shows – ‘plantation productions’. We aren’t doing no plantation production here.”

This has resulted in an uncommon ease in the rehearsal room. “Some of the company have spoken about feeling in the past that they were constantly avoiding little racial fires,” says Hill. “You don’t have that in this space.” Xia explains: “No one’s asking them, ‘Can you be a bit more Black? Can you do something with your hands that’s a bit … Blacker?’”

Tarik Frimpong, the Mary Poppins Returns star who plays the Scarecrow, has had his share of those sorts of experiences. “When the people behind the table are not people of colour, it can sometimes make for a dynamic that’s … interesting,” he tells me. “It can take the form of micro-aggressions or people pulling from cultures they don’t fully understand, or else you have to pick up your director because it doesn’t feel right to just be guessing which accent we should use for a character.”

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

The stakes feel high for Xia. “The show means so much to the Black community,” he says. “It’s a cultural artefact, and it’s always been about Black joy. We just need it in a different way now. Maybe that’s why it’s done so rarely. It’s in those really acute moments that we go: ‘OK, we need rescuing again. Break glass in case of emergency – it’s time to bring out The Wiz!’”

Racism has been so ubiquitous that the show could probably have been staged at any point and still captured a moment or provided balm for a wound. It debuted in the UK the year before the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, Handsworth and Toxteth. The year after a 1984 revival at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, starring Clarke Peters of The Wire as Scarecrow, several UK cities were once again in flames. One recent production, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo in Birmingham, opened less than two months before the 2011 London riots, which were sparked by the police shooting of Mark Duggan. It arrives in Manchester now in the wake of global outrage over the murder of George Floyd.

As Cherelle Williams insists, though: “The Wiz shows our love and passion. The struggle is always there but it doesn’t have to be just about the struggle.”

Back in the rehearsal room, joy is the prevailing emotion as the company romps through the second act, their various somersaults, splits and soft-shoe shuffles astonishing to witness at such close quarters. Once they are all wiping their brows, Xia, who used to dream of being a magician, makes an announcement: “Remember, the illusionist is coming tomorrow at 2.30 …” As I leave, he pulls me aside and produces a photograph taken during his school production of The Wiz. Sure enough, there he is on stage in straw hat and yellow scarf, his mouth agape, gazing expectantly at the audience – and the future.

  • The Wiz is at Hope Mill theatre, Manchester, until 16 January

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