Acclaimed Theatre Director Kent Gash Explains the Cultural Significance of "The Wiz"
I have been a fan of The Wiz since seeing the original production on tour in Denver, Colorado, at Christmastime in 1976. The original production of The Wiz was one of the first Broadway musicals produced, directed, choreographed and written by African-American artists since Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along in 1921. The Wiz was a Broadway musical that did not present black people suffering nor enslaved nor in extreme poverty and duress. It was a celebration of the love within the African-American family, the strength and bonds within our human community, and the seemingly endless creativity in music, dance and visual arts that has been such a defining element of world culture since the dawn of jazz.
My first introduction to The Wiz was in the theatre reviews of Time, Newsweek and the New Yorker, which I read feverishly in Denver every week.
When I attended the first national tour featuring Renn Woods, Sharon Brown, Peggy Blu, Ken Prymus and the genius Ben Harney, my biggest memory was one of awe and feeling inspired. I saw the tour six times within 10 days or so.
I had seen a lot of theatre by the time I was a teenager, from watching Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and Angela Lansbury in Gypsy, to the national tours of everything from Equus to Applause to Grease, but there was nothing like The Wiz. Nothing before was so infectious, so unapologetically black. And yet everyone in the sold-out audiences was having as great a time as I was. They might’ve been having a great time for very different reasons, but the audiences seemed to levitate. I’ll never forget that feeling. The Wiz is that rare piece of theatre that has so much to offer so many audience members.
If you love the original Wizard of Oz, all that has been beloved in that story is still here. If you love great soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz and other black music, dance and style, it is all here. The Wiz provides wonder and magic, surprise, humor and delight for audiences age 8 to 108.
In The Wiz, black artists, composers, lyricists, director, choreographer, orchestrator and others tell the timeless story of The Wizard of Oz. By doing so in vernacular black speech, rhythms, music and expression, the particularity of the black experience and the authority of the cultural voice in all its specificity transcends to become, universal. The lives of African Americans are explored and uplifted through the familiar story where a young girl with a strong sense of home is transformed by the black community of Oz and, in turn, she transforms them.
Dorothy discovers just how beautiful and rich a gift it is to be black. In the 1970s this had not been seen in quite this way before. Forty years later, it remains a rarity.
Everything about The Wiz is about the power, breadth and depth of extraordinary African-American and Afro-Caribbean creativity. From its rich and varied soul-, rhythm-and-blues-, swing-, jazz- and gospel-influenced score by Charlie Smalls (with an assist from the legendary Luther Vandross), to the dynamic use of color, energy and space that could only come from the international Renaissance man, director/costume designer Geoffrey Holder and renowned choreographer George Faison, L. Frank Baum’s tale becomes a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit.
So, why do we need a production of The Wiz now? I say, Why not?
It seems a particularly good time for the empowering “Black Girl Magic” that is Dorothy’s journey to her best self and best life. We can all be inspired by Dorothy’s resilience, enthusiastic curiosity about life and her ability to meet and appreciate everyone as and where they are. Note how every one of her friends has a problem and her response is to help. If The Wiz will help her, why wouldn’t he help her friends get brains, heart and courage? Isn’t it always a good time to remember that our world and our life can be and in fact should be, “A world full of love, like yours, like mine, like home?” How different might the world be if we remember that?
Washington, D.C., always has the world’s attention and has always had both a rich and diverse black population. Ford’s Theatre is an historic American theatre and a destination for many who visit D.C. and want to see a living piece of American history. What theatre city and theatre could be a better host for this joyful celebration of American culture and black excellence than this theatre where Abraham Lincoln changed the lives of all Americans and African Americans in particular.
The Wiz is a seminal part of my creative development. To see the original was to realize there is no limit to the imagination. I was in a production in Pittsburgh in 1979 as the Lion, and now I have the joy and privilege of telling this story, paying homage to all of our great black ancestors in entertainment by telling the story in the nation’s capital with some of the area’s most extraordinary artists.
If you can dream it, you can put it onstage. This is a production of my dreams. I’d love our audiences to leave the theatre full of warmth, loving their family members or whomever they’ve come to the theatre with and most important, I want audiences to take away Dorothy’s spirit. Learn from Dorothy’s capacity for stepping out on faith, even when she is most afraid, in order to do the right thing and the thing that must be done!
Kent Gash is founding Director of NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio on Broadway, where he has directed The Wild Party (Wolfe/LaChiusa), The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Nine, Sweeny Todd, Assassins and others. With Broadway veteran Walter Marks, Mr. Gash is co-author and director of the new musical, Langston in Harlem, which won four 2010 Audelco Awards including Best Musical in its off-off Broadway production. For more information, click here.