In Conversation With Writer Amber Ruffin and Costume Designer Sharen Davis
By SHARON EBERSON
I am going to go out on a pretty strong limb by saying that The Wiz is among the most important musicals of not only the stacked 1970s, but in the history of musical theater.
Remember, that’s the decade that began and ended with Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) and had A Chorus Line in the middle – the year after The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Some fifty years after we first eased on down to Emerald City, The Wiz is back with a new look and a new book. The show arrives at the Benedum Center on Halloween night, in a way not often seen these days: as a pre-Broadway tour.
After a short-lived revival in 1984, this is the first return to the Great Bright Way for a musical that jumped to screens big and small and has been a staple of the high school musical theater scene.
As a New York City teen in the mid-Seventies, it was the jubilant commercials for the Broadway show that first captured my attention, followed by hours spent with the original cast album.
With Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle and Andre de Shields in the title role, the original show’s Tonys included firsts for a Black director and costume design of a musical – Trinidad native Geoffrey Holder, an accomplished director, choreographer and dancer who at the time was best known for his infectious laugh in a 7-Up commercial.
Along with other ‘70s musicals, including Purlie (1971) and Raisin (1974), The Wiz was a breakthrough for Broadway – a successful, large-scale, big-budget musical featuring an all-Black cast, led by a mostly Black creative team.
The show that whisked the beloved Wizard of Oz into an ever-evolving urban landscape wasn’t a hit right away. However, it got. a huge boost from an inspired ad campaign, with a commercial spot featuring the cast singing “Ease on Down the Road,” and a delighted white couple and enthralled Black youngster in the audience.
The movie that came later – we can argue about casting Diana Ross, then 33, as Dorothy another time – included the memorable Emerald City sequence at the World Trade Center, featuring 400 dancers.
The movie flopped at the box office, but it was the catalyst for future collaborations with music director Quincy Jones and pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, who played the Scarecrow.
Although the concept of The Wiz was to tell The Wizard of Oz from a Black point of view, the writers of both the script and screenplay were white men, William F. Brown and Joel Schumacher, with direction by Sidney Lumet.
The Wiz of 2023 has a revised book by comedy writer and performer Amber Ruffin, a Tony nominee for co-writing the libretto of Some Like It Hot.
Ruffin rose to public awareness as a writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers – she was the first Black female writer hired on a network late-night talk show. Emmy-nominated for that show and as writer, executive producer and host of The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock, the Nebraska native is currently developing a TV series based on “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories of Racism,” the New York Times bestselling book co-authored with her sister, Lacey Lamar.
Along with Ruffin, The Wiz creative team includes the Oscar-winning production designer of Black Panther, Hannah Beachler, direction by Schele Williams, choreography by two-time MTV VMA winner JaQuel Knight, and, in her first trip to Broadway, Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning costume designer Sharen Davis (Dreamgirls, Watchmen, among many). Davis, who frequently collaborates with Denzel Washington, was in Pittsburgh as the costume designer for Fences.
In a phone interview as The Wiz was in Baltimore, a pre-Pittsburgh stop, Davis said she was sorry to have missed out on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but Oscar-winner “Ann Roth did a great job, as she always does.”
The following are portions of interviews with Davis and Ruffin, as I admittedly fangirled over their talents, and the show they are reshaping for a new audience.
QUESTION: I was in high school in New York when commercials for The Wiz and I first heard Ease on Down the Road, and was enthralled. When you were growing up, was Broadway, or musicals, that ever part of the dream for you?
RUFFIN: No, absolutely not. I certainly never thought that I would be involved in any Broadway anything. I have to say, I wasn’t a very good dreamer as a kid. I really came to the conclusion that I was going to carry the mail and then at night be in community theater, and I truly was like, ‘If only I could achieve such a thing.’ I never thought I’d be a writer up until I got Late Night With Seth Meyers. It felt like something that I liked to do, but I certainly couldn’t get anyone to pay me to do it. That was crazy.
Q: Were you aware of The Wiz when you were growing up? It was such a historic musical, on so many fronts.
RUFFIN: Oh yeah. In our basement, we had the biggest oldest television of all time, and this is back before people had big old TVs. It was humongous. And my parents got it in the Seventies … and sometimes we would hook it up to cable and watch this or that. So I remember we watched The Wiz on that giant basement TV, and I’ll never forget it, it was really scary! I think a lot of people think everybody has those good memories. We all have great memories of The Wiz, that’s true. But that subway scene scared the mess out of me. If you play the music today, I still feel a little scared. [IYKYK].
Q: Was there an awareness of the historical significance of The Wiz on Broadway when you came to the project?
RUFFIN: I didn’t know anything about Broadway when I was young. … I knew The Wiz [from the movie] and I knew that it had been on Broadway, but I only knew five other musicals. So The Wiz was a huge chunk of it. And then to grow up and see it was actually one of the very few shows with any type of minority in it. Yeah, I would say that [awareness] didn’t come until much, much, much later in my life.
Q: So here you are, you’re on late-night TV, you have your own talk show. There are things that are really happening on screen. How did Some Like It Hot happen?
RUFFIN: Some Like It Hot happened after The Wiz. … The Wiz started in 2018 at the Muni, that giant theater in St. Louis. And they had their eyes on Broadway from the very beginning. And I was like, ‘Oh, OK, good luck with that.’ But I rewrote it for the Muni, and then again for Broadway. So that started a million years ago. So I’ve been working on this version of The Wiz for a thousand years, it seems like. … [Some Like It Hot co-writer] Matthew Lopez called me and was like, ‘Do you want to help me write this show?’ And I thought, ‘Sure. Yeah. Absolutely.’ And Matthew Lopez [Tony winner for The Inheritance] is extremely fun and extremely silly. And then it just felt like a very small writer’s room, and we had such a good time together. So it happened because they had, I think, already had a read of the show, and then they realized a lot of these characters are Black and there are no Black creatives on this show. And they called me and were like, ‘Would you like to hop on board?’ And I was thrilled to.
Q: I was prepared to ask things the other way around, because Some Like It Hot came to Broadway first. So at the Muni, did the producers say, ‘We’re going to re-create The Wiz,’ and did they have specifics about what they wanted you to try to do?:
RUFFIN: First of all, I have no clue how these people [at the Muni] found me. That’s where this story should begin.I assume just from my appearances on Late Night, and all the things I had written for Late Night, that’s my guess. But they asked me if I wanted to write The Wiz. I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ So then me and the producers went to visit William Brown before he passed, and we all had lunch together. And then I met with him, and I found out what he loved and what he didn’t love, how he felt about every iteration of this show. So then I felt like I could adequately bridge the gap between how he felt about the show and what it is today. So I felt good about it. When we met with him, we understood what he wanted, and then they were like, aside from those parameters, go nuts. And I did. And the first version of The Wiz, that Muni version, was truly unhinged.
Q: In what way?
RUFFIN: I did exactly whatever I felt like doing. The first version of Evillene’s factory was jeans. And she would be, like, evil Lean Jeans, the only jeans guaranteed to give you a thin flat butt. And I stand by that. … But then when I reopened that script, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But it was very cute. So we rewrote it and put it up on its feet. And I’m so glad it went to the Muni first, because that’s a ginormous outdoor theater. And to make jokes that show up on television is a completely different, infinitely smaller way of writing. And to make jokes that show up on a Broadway stage is a much bigger way of writing. But to make jokes that show up on an outdoor stage is very difficult. So I’m glad that that was my first way into it. … It’s like being a painter vs. drawing. It’s completely different.
Q: So you have this story that everybody knows or thinks they know in one way or the other, and you have free reign to do things. What will we still recognize, minus spoilers? And is there a particular thing that you really enjoyed putting your stamp on?
RUFFIN: One of the things that we still have is the poppies. One thing that’s gone is the police mice. No thanks, in 2023. But one thing that changed quite a bit and that I feel good that I put my stamp on is [the character of] The Wiz is a bit different, and it’s written specifically for Wayne Brady. At one point we were doing bunches of rewrites, and he was like, ‘We’re the same performer. Just write the thing you would want to do.’ And I was like, ‘Oh boy, you did it now.’ So I just wrote whatever I thought would be the funnest thing to do, and it turned out great. And so then I just wrote the rest of the show from that point, and I was like, ‘OK, if I was the Scarecrow, what would I want to be doing? if I was the Tin Man, what would I want to be doing?’ And it made it a lot more fun to write, you know, a juicy role and big splashy jokes. And for some reason when you’re imagining yourself as the part, it’s a lot easier to do.
[In Pittsburgh, The Wiz will be played by Alan Mingo Jr. Deborah Cox plays Glinda, with Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Melody A. Betts as Aunt Em/Evillene, Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman and Avery Wilson as Scarecrow.]
Q: What is it that you and Wayne Brady share as performers that you felt like you could meld your performances together and it would make sense?
RUFFIN: Wayne Brady used to perform on a show, Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, and that’s short-form improv, and I came up in short-form improv at a theater called Boom Chicago. So Wayne Brady and I are one of very few people on Earth who got paid as your full-time job to do short-form improv. They’re literally less than 50 people on Earth who’ve ever have gotten to be like, this is how I eat and pay rent. And they’re improvising songs because someone shouted out the word ‘lemon.’ You know what I mean? It’s such a small number that there is quite a bit of overlap.
Q: You talked just a little bit about people getting to know you through Late Night With Seth Meyers, which is how I got to admire your work. And since then, it seems like life has exploded. When you took that job, did it ever occur to you where it could lead?
RUFFIN: Absolutely not. And everything that happened, because I got Late Night, after working in theater for 10 years, and I just always thought, well, at some point I’ll have to move back home to Omaha because I’ll age out, because you can’t be a 40-year-old Black lady and doing theater – that doesn’t exist. And that just never happened. And I’m getting older every day. I haven’t aged out of anything. So yeah, I certainly was never like everything I got, I thought, ‘This is it. Woo, baby. I made it.’ When I first got my first theater job, I was like, ‘This is it.’ When I first got Second City mainstage, I was like, ‘It’ll never get better than this’ So when I got Late Night With Seth Meyers, I knew that it wasn’t going to get better than that. So here we are just like, I feel like twice a year something crazy happens to me and I go, I cannot believe I get to do this thing. And The Wiz is, I mean, the pinnacle of this. And yes, I say this with every happening, but I mean, how can it get better than this? It’s so cool.
Q: You touched on this before, but what significant changes are there, to make this show more reflective of the Black experience?
RUFFIN: This is a tightrope walk for the ages. And I was really concerned with what we could do and what we couldn’t do, and how could we bring everybody along. When I realized is, The Wiz is a Black show for Black people, so just do the Blackest stuff you feel, and then when Black people love it, white people will come along. It’s like, what’s very important? That a 70-year-old white man understand what’s happening? Or that an 8-year-old Black girl feels seen? So then once you look at it that way, you’re like, it’s very clear what I need to be doing and what I need to be concerned with.
Q: One more thing, please. I am going to talk with Sharen Davis soon. Is there a question I should ask her about her costumes?
RUFFIN: You should ask her to list all of her favorite Easter eggs. There are so many dude, and they are so cool.
SHAREN DAVIS, COSTUME DESIGNER
Q: You are an Oscar-nominated, Emmy winner, but it seems like this is your first stage show? Is that right?
DAVIS: Funny you asked that. I actually majored in theater, but I was an actress and I started my career actually in ‘75, after I saw a commercial of The Wiz.They really promoted it after it won the Tony. So I kept seeing all this, and it was freaking amazing. I thought, ‘You know what? I want to be in the theater.’ I already was in high schoo; I already had done stage productions, but I was more of a vocalist than a dancer. So I went, I decided, I want to do something like this.
I ended up auditioning for a small repertory theater called Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in central California, which is a school and a theater. And they decided the year I got there, serendipitous, that they were going to do Black shows for the first time. So we did Purlie and Show Boat, which was super fun. And I mean, it was incredible. But my journey took me in another direction. I moved to Los Angeles and somehow it morphed into costume design.
Q: Well obviously, it all worked out.
DAVIS: It was kind of like a duck and water. It was like, oh, I can act and really not go on stage. I see. I didn’t like costume design actually in theater when I was younger. I preferred film, and I see now why, now that I’m back. Wow, you’ve got this one shot, and everything has to be ready on day one! In film, you don’t have to have everything ready. You have to have the concept ready, but you don’t have to have all the clothes ready.
Q: So your process is informed by screen work?
DAVIS: I had such a long career in film. Actually, even though it was very challenging, this was refreshing at the same time. It made a different part of my brain work. And definitely, creatively, it was definitely a challenge.
Q: Was the history of The Wiz, like Geoffrey Holder being the first Black person to win a Best Costume Design Tony, on your mind as you approached this?
DAVIS: Oh, definitely. It’s funny. Most people only know the movie, I mean, I’ve read these reviews where I just start laughing like, God, they don’t even know that there was a play! So you really want to stay true to the original. I started and stayed on the idea, what would this show look like if it was with the same energy from 1974 or ‘75, and what would I update? So I really started with, actually started with Evillene. I feel she’s more sci-fi looking, but yet she looks the same as the original – it’s still this giant costume with just lots of color. It’s still that same idea. I feel like I just updated the concept.
Q: How did the updates in Amber Ruffin’s script inform how you went about it?
DAVIS: Her script is magnificent. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I love how she put so much heart into it. So much heart.
Q: When I asked her what question I should ask you, she said, ask about the Easter eggs, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Maybe you can talk a little bit about some things you’ve planted there culturally that we can watch out for …
DAVIS: The Easter eggs? I don’t even know what that means.
Q: Um … cultural references or references to the original without it being very obvious.
DAVIS: OK. Well, I guess I’m going to start with Dorothy then. I really wanted to give a nod to the original Wizard of Oz, so her dress is the same colors, the blue and the white. It’s just not checked. …
Q: I will try to stay spoiler free. Let’s try it as, there’s the urban setting, and that can be interpreted in so many ways. …
DAVIS: I just design creatively. I don’t think that deep. I’m sorry. It’s not how I work.
Q: So tell me about your process then. That’s very cool.
DAVIS: Obviously I’m Black, so it’s in me to do something that’s going to come from my roots. But I’m not targeting to try to make that happen. It’s just part of me that happens. It’s so deep in me. … I’m just being honest. I’m 66 years old and I’m really exhausted from trying to say something that I don’t really understand. I don’t look at things academically. When I was young, we lived in Germany, and then in Japan. … As my father has said about me, ‘You just live in a fantasy world.’
Yeah, and every other sci-fi movie and Westworld and evQ: Which is perfect for Oz.
DAVIS: Everything else I’ve done, I live in that world, but still, I know who I am.
[Davis’ range on screen is astounding. She has designed often for films by Denzel Washington and Will Smith, plus everything from Ray to Dreamgirls to Django Unchained to the alien-invasion TV series Falling Skies.]
Q: Were there other big adjustments going from screen to stage?
DAVIS: The really big adjustment is trying to give a nod to the Emerald City, both with the appreciation of the play and also with a nod to the film, which had an amazing display of Oz. So I wanted to incorporate both the play and the film. … For me, this is Dorothy’s dream. I really wanted it to be a science fiction adventure, because that’s how we dream. It’s not always reality. I really wanted that to happen, and I really wanted it to be just something fresh in the Black experience. I wanted to twist it just enough to make something so amazingly new and fresh, but yet you knew it was from our culture. So for instance, Munchkin Land is something that’s so deeply rooted in our past, but so beautiful.
Q: How many costumes are there, with a big ensemble and quick changes?
DAVIS: [Laughs.] I lived in fear knowing that I have no idea how they get out of these clothes and get into the next one. On a film, we yell, ‘Cut!’ But I had a great team. I was just learning along the way. It really inhibits how much you can design, and some things had to go to the wayside because it was impossible to do the quick change. To me, it’s amazing how the ensemble can change six or seven times into these costumes and perform with this amazing choreography. [JaQuel Knight is] amazing. And Schele’s direction, it’s unbelievable. I’ve watched it, maybe 10 times, and I’m not tired of it yet. And only twice have I watched it to correct my work. It’s like I keep getting thrown into the story and then I remember, ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be looking at what I need to do.’
Q: What did you think when you first heard the was a tour going to Broadway.
DAVIS: Fear. [Laughs.] First of all, I just heard ‘Small Tour.’ I didn’t hear ‘Broadway.’ I was like, ‘Oh, small tour. OK, let me try a small tour first. I’ve never done it.’ I was in the heat of a film at the time, so I just thought, I need a break from film. And then, who knew there was going to be a massive strike? So I really wasn’t paying attention that it was going to Broadway. I didn’t even know it was coming to L.A. I was like, ‘What do you mean it’s coming to the Pantages? It’s a big deal!’ The Wiz was always a big deal to me, so I was always going to give a hundred percent, if it showed in one theater in Madagascar, it wouldn’t matter to me. Just to be able to do the project meant everything. And to work with Schele, and then to add JaQuel and Amber, it was like, ‘Oh my God, these guys are unbelievable.’ So just to be in the presence of them and see what they were bringing to the table creatively was just the best experience, and still is.
Q: You’ve been involved in two touchstone Black musicals, including Dreamgirls.
DAVIS: Oh my God, I love Dreamgirls, and I loved working with the director, Bill Condon – we’re still really good friends. He’s amazing. And that truly was an amazing experience for me, and just the trust he had in me as a Black woman and really trusting my instinct on design. It was really a great experience just telling that story. And then to have Schele approach me with The Wiz, which I really about passed out, when she called me, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? So-and-so wants me to do The Wiz, the show that brought me to my career? I think for a lot of us on the show, this was the starting point.
Q: You have worked often with Denzel Washington – were you in Pittsburgh when you worked on Fences?
DAVIS: Oh yeah, the City of Bridges. I got so lost all the time! I would get so captivated like, ‘Oh, isn’t that really beautiful?’ And then I’d be on the wrong bridge. I’d be late. I was like, I’m sorry, I got lost.
Q: Well, I can’t wait for Pittsburgh to see this production, and the science fiction edge you’ve given it. Is there anything else we should know?
DAVIS: I just want to say I’m sorry. Everyone else is much more of an academic when they talk about what they do. I’m like, I don’t know. It comes out of my head, and there it is.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
The Wiz, a presentation of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series, is at the Benedum Center Oct. 31-Nov. 5. For tickets, visit https://trustarts.org/production/86814/the-wiz or call 412-456-4800.