How the Broadway musical ‘The Wiz’ evolved in 50 years

Writer Amber Ruffin, director Schele Williams, and choreographer JaQuel Knight share how they reimagined the story, steps, and stakes of this modern classic.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Everybody rejoice! The latest arrival of The Wiz on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre carries a stirring reminder that this exuberant musical has eased on down the road for 50 years.

An all-Black retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the show by Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) and William F. Brown (book) blew onto Broadway in December 1974. As in the novel, the story follows Dorothy’s twisty odyssey of self-discovery that’s set in motion by a tornado.

The Wiz delivers a gale-force rush of soulful and funky pop-rock, click-your-heels magic, and flat-out joy. The family-friendly musical also has a deep message that may go over young heads: Weathering life’s storms inevitably changes you.

“It’s an extremely 1970s show. It’s super of that time,” said Amber Ruffin, who updated the script for this revival to make it more contemporary. Ruffin, a 2023 Tony nominee for co-writing the musical Some Like It Hot, can easily imagine a revival of the show where “Dorothy has an iPad,” she said. But not in this version.

Weaving The Wiz into the 2020s wasn’t her goal. Rather, being “timeless” was. Director Schele Williams and choreographer JaQuel Knight made similar changes while honoring the show’s glorious past.

Besides making Stephanie Mills a star, The Wiz won seven Tonys in 1975, including Best Musical. Three years later, it became a 1978 film starring Diana Ross as Dorothy. The 2024 revival stars newcomer Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, an orphaned Kansas teenager looking for a sense of home and belonging even before she’s gone with the wind.

Her three traveling companions — Scarecrow (Avery Wilson), Tinman (Phillip Johnson Richardson), and Lion (Kyle Ramar Freeman) — are all around her age and on similar searches. It’s a switch from the older figures in The Wizard of Oz and original Wiz. Director Schele Williams knew she wanted to make this change the minute she signed on in 2020.

“It was done to level the playing field,” Williams said. “I wanted all of them – we call them ‘the heroes’ – to all be peers. They’re all navigating the world with the same amount of skills. So there’s not one person that can save them.”


Williams’s history with The Wiz runs deep. She caught a national tour performance when she was 7 in Dayton, Ohio, and it was a game-changer. “I saw myself, a Black girl, inside a story that I never thought was about me.”

One character not inside her revival is Dorothy’s beloved Toto. A dog was in the budget for this production that toured the U.S. before arriving on Broadway, but a pooch wasn’t in Williams’s vision.

“I wanted to make sure that Dorothy wouldn’t have anything to hold, anything that could bring her comfort,” said Williams. “From a dramatic perspective that meant no puppy. I wanted to raise the stakes for Dorothy.”

De-aging Dorothy’s sidekicks and nixing Toto are just two alterations for this revival, which also features Wayne Brady in the title role and Deborah Cox as Glinda. The book has gone through “a pretty thorough rewrite,” said Ruffin, who’s credited for “additional material” but said she did a top-to-bottom redo. “Once you pull the thread, the whole sweater unravels.”

Ruffin’s previous encounters with The Wiz include the film and a student production her Omaha, Nebraska, high school presented a year after she graduated in 1996.

“Before The Wiz, I had never seen myself on television,” she said. The show’s significance can’t be overstated, but Ruffin also acknowledged a need for updates.

Since a couple generations of theatregoers weren’t around in the ’70s, she’s traded the era’s slang for modern language. “People won’t have to Google what ‘jive turkey’ means,” she said. (If you're curious anyway, it's African American slang for an unreliable person.)

Other revisions and updates “were really easy,” said Ruffin. “That includes seeing Black people in monkey suits and getting arrested.” Those elements are not in The Wiz anymore.

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For Knight, who's known for choreographing Beyoncé's “Single Ladies” and “Formation” music videos among others, inspiration for his work in The Wiz began, he said, with a deep dive into “a bootleg copy of the show on YouTube.”

“I really wanted to make sure that I pay homage to those that came before myself,” he said. He name-checked the choreographers of the musical (George Faison) and movie (Louis Johnson).

At the same time, Knight leaned into letting himself “be bold and fearless” by putting his own stamp on The Wiz. An elaborate dance number at the beginning of Act 2 is something he “is really proud of.”

At this point Dorothy and her friends – “the cool castaways,” as Knight calls them – have landed at Oz. The dancing blends everything from ballet to street moves. “It takes on its own journey within this story of a journey,” he said.

Whatever time frame the staging and language reflect, The Wiz’s takeaways are evergreen. One is not to believe someone who says they can solve your problems, according to the writer. Another is to advocate for yourself.

“I love a message musical,” Ruffin said. “I want to give something that audiences can hold onto and come back to throughout their lives. That will inspire them.”

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Photo credit: The Wiz. (Photos by Jeremy Daniel)

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