Starting Tuesday, "The Wiz" wraps its 13-city tour with three weeks of performances at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The visually magnificent, dance-driven, Black musical translation of L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" will then play a limited run on Broadway and, later, kick off a second national tour.
Rarely does a musical "ease on down the road" to Broadway in the way this "Wiz" plans to. Productions usually premiere there after no more than a few developmental runs off-Broadway or at regional theaters outside New York, and subsequently launch a tour only after opening, or even completing, a Broadway run. By comparison, it's as if this revival of the Tony-winning funk and soul show is going to Broadway after more than a dozen out-of-town tryouts.
"It's different, but not unprecedented," "Wiz" producer Mike Isaacson tells The Times. "Broadway and the road have gone through different eras and phases, and it will continue to morph, but we may be beginning a chapter of something new. Because this works artistically, it works economically, and so far, it's been very exciting to do it this way."
One reason for employing this underutilized strategy is the precarious nature of opening any Broadway musical — an especially unpredictable endeavor as the industry, in New York and across America, continues to recover from COVID pandemic shutdowns. But unlike the majority of Broadway venues, most touring houses, while also offering single-ticket sales, operate on a subscription model.
"Titles that are loved by so many people across America are almost like their own brands, and that's really powerful for subscription audiences," says Rachel Sussman, a producer and a co-founder of The Business of Broadway, an educational initiative that democratizes Broadway business knowledge. "'The Wiz' is really the first pre-Broadway tour of our post-pandemic times, and the fact that it has broken open the Broadway development model is really interesting. I feel hopeful that more shows will innovate and take this same risk."
And not only a risk for those putting on the show, either: Booking the pre-Broadway tour of "The Wiz" was "a huge leap of faith from presenters around the country to sign on without a lot of information," says Isaacson. "And because so many of the cities we went to are on the subscription model, we've been fairly well sold."
"We're very happy that we'll have a home in New York, but not everybody can get on a plane to see a show," adds director Schele Williams, who grew up watching theater in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. "As we think about expanding our audiences and creating more access, it's great for some people to get the first bite and not just the crumbs. And it's really sweet for people in Des Moines to be like, 'I saw it first.'"
Another reason: this staging of "The Wiz," also the first Broadway production of the beloved Charlie Smalls musical in 40 years, comes with updates to William F. Brown's book by comedian and late-night host Amber Ruffin. For example, this version clarifies why Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) had to move in with her aunt in Kansas, and fills Munchkinland with a traditional New Orleans-style jazz funeral.
"It was important that we were going to Black communities around this country — Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta — and feeling the impact of those changes in an organic way," says Williams. "For so many of us, this is more than just a commercial endeavor because we have such a deep personal connection to the show, and there's so much about it that is so deeply rooted in Black culture. It's been incredible to crystallize certain moments and see things that really matter to us being acknowledged by the audiences that we were building it for."
But "The Wiz's" road to Broadway has not been an easy one, as the usual challenges of mounting a new show are complicated by the realities of travel. Take, for instance, the fantastical set by Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler.
"You don't know what it looks like yet, but you know you only have a certain number of trucks to transport the show, and you have to make it work inside 13 different houses, all with different parameters," explains Williams. "Creatively, you're working outside in, but you're also making something that has to feel like a Broadway show from day one. We ended up with something modular that could morph to each theater's needs; if a piece won't fit in one city, we have an alternate version that will."
The set isn't the only thing that's changed from city to city — and that's a good thing. "Broadway is usually the place where shows get frozen and locked when they open, and we've seen many shows close after being open just two months there. Some shows, you wish they had another week or two to refine it," says choreographer JaQuel Knight. "Whereas touring first has allowed us the luxury to sit with it, think about it, talk about it — how does it feel? Where do the issues live? Are we having troubles here? — and make changes. We're able to really create the best version of this revival before we're faced with the pressure of, 'Oh my God, we're on Broadway, I can't change anything anymore.'"
Since the tour began last September in Baltimore, where "The Wiz" first debuted 50 years ago, Knight has been steadily adjusting the show's "Emerald City Ballet," and says a "facelift" version of the showstopping sequence will be performed at the Pantages (running through March 3) and at Broadway's Marquis Theatre (starting March 29). The creative team has used a combination of individual and group Zoom meetings, strategically scheduled rehearsals and, in Knight's case, recorded tutorials of new choreography to efficiently incorporate changes to the show while abiding by union regulations, accommodating local and national press requests and allowing adequate time for the cast to rest.
"Yes, we're building this new show, but they're also performing five-show weekends and traveling every week," says Williams. "My notes are not more important than the health and welfare of the company. Sometimes it's better for them to have four more hours of care than to put in this change immediately."
While each venue change means working with different local crew and dressing room setups, it has also brought a better sense of the characters the actors are developing.
"Since Baltimore, I've gotten to try different things, and I've figured out the musical ideas and emotional beats and even my pacing," says Deborah Cox, who plays Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. "The things that anchor the character and keep it consistent, that feel sustainable for me to do eight shows a week — those are the things that you often find along the way, when you're doing it night after night."
That couldn't be truer for Wayne Brady, who participated in the tour's early workshops and, after wrapping production on CBS' "Let's Make a Deal" and an upcoming Hulu docuseries, joined the roadshow in its California stops as the titular Wizard of Oz. "He was jumping on a moving train," says Williams, who rehearsed with Brady virtually and in person and tweaked his two songs' arrangements to feel "like a custom-made suit."
So far, Brady considers the pre-Broadway tour experience "a gift," as he discovered his take on the iconic character only after he began performances.
"I decided that the meat in my Wiz is the showmanship and command of the stage of James Brown, but with the theatrical quirkiness and a little bit of the darkness of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka," he explains. "It's a combination that I can really call my own, and it came to me sometime after my first show in San Diego, and I think it's simply because I had time to think about things. I'm really leaning into it.
"Who knows," he adds with a laugh. "By the time that anyone reading this may come to watch the show in L.A. or New York, maybe it'll change."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.