It might be physically impossible to listen to “The Wiz’s” “Ease on Down the Road” without pulling everyone in your immediate vicinity up off their seats and making them dance with you. In fact, I think it’s impossible not to do that for every song in “The Wiz.” The music teems with funk, is drenched in soul and, most importantly, demands to be played loudly and danced to heartily.
“The Wiz,” originally performed on Broadway in 1975, draws on gospel, R&B and soul music to carry the audience through a gorgeous, upbeat retelling of “The Wizard of Oz” that focuses on the black experience. MUSKET’s production of “The Wiz,” which was scheduled to take place the weekend after classes moved online, took that legacy even further by modernizing the 1975 production in its acting, design and direction.
“For Dorothy, you know, she’s usually played as this demure little girl from Kansas,” said Music, Theatre & Dance senior Lauryn Hobbs, a Musical Theatre major playing Dorothy, over video conference. “But this one, she had bite, she had sass! As she should; every thirteen year old girl I know has some healthy sass!”
This concept of “healthy sass” carried true when speaking with the other designers and artists working on the project. According to Hobbs, the choreography had the characters in Oz whipping and nae nae-ing; the costumes fused Afrocentric fashion with modern streetwear; and the music choices blended together the original production’s funk with some more modern pop trends.
But not only did the production push the envelope artistically, it was going to be a bold statement to the department of Theatre & Drama, as well as the Michigan community at large.
“This would be the first production in MUSKET’s history to feature a cast entirely composed of people of color, and likely the first time a group of students like that has appeared on the Power Center stage,” said choreographer and Music, Theatre & Dance senior Maya Imani over email interview. “There is no better show than ‘The Wiz’ to bring forth such an achievement.”
Hobbs commented on this as well, describing how typically the Power Center shows (the largest venue that T&D performs in) are usually reserved for the “big old, Golden-age white musicals,” while the more diverse shows are typically performed in smaller venues.
“We were so excited to put it on in the Power Center because people haven’t really seen Black folk in a bunch of lead roles on the Power Center stage basically ever!” Hobbs said. “And they never see black people just having fun on stage and, well, easin’ on down the road!”
It’s true: Joy is the best way to convey a community’s power. And the diverse joy presented in this show, an unfortunately rare sight on large stages, is particularly powerful because it says we are here, we are proud and, in the words of Hobbs, “we have hella range beyond minor characters and traumatic plays.”
Indeed, to react to tragedy with joy is the ultimate marker of strength and resilience in a community, and MUSKET’s “The Wiz” has that kind of community. What astonished me throughout all of these interviews is, when asked to comment on the cancellation due to COVID-19, none of the interviewees had much to say as far as sadness or disappointment. Rather, they all commented on how grateful they were that it even happened.
The music director, Julian Goods, said over email that it wasn’t going to be the performance that stuck with him, but that “this show and the people who made this process what it is will always have a special place in my heart.”
Imani spoke of the process’s rewards, saying it “has caused me to grow so much in my craft, as I know it did for my other colleagues on the creative team, and it was great to see the best of each other being brought out during this process… I’m just honored to have taken part in such a moment as this.”
And Hobbs said that we haven’t even seen the last of them.
“I really do believe that, even if it’s 10 years in the future, we’re all gonna reconnect and it’s going to happen. We’ll figure out a way to put on MUSKET’s version of ‘The Wiz’… It’s going to happen, because it has to,” Hobbs said.
The shut-down of live performances both at University of Michigan as well as in the professional world has revealed theater’s dependence on having an audience: without the audience there is no income. But maybe it can also be a reminder that the heart of a performance comes from what you build as a community of artists. That the process should be just as beautiful and meaningful as the product. Though “The Wiz” never got to see the audience that it deserved, it seems that their work is already done. There was a space for people of color to create a joyful, powerful piece of art together, have an incredible time in the rehearsals, grow as artists and form a tight-knit family.
In reflecting on his time on the show, Goods said, “For me this show has helped me rediscover who I am as a Black artist. It allowed me to use my gifts in ways that I have not been able to do before…. It allowed me to find my own confidence in my musical ability and I am forever grateful for this process and what it has given me.”
Yes, loud and proud joy is a solid way to show power, but perhaps it is the quiet joy — the joy that knows it is enough just by existing, the joy of a confidence so assumed that it doesn't need to prove itself, the joy of a production that doesn’t need a performance to know its worth — that is the ultimate marker of power and resilience.
The following are costume renditions by Katherine Shrader: