"I don't like to audition," she explains. "I don't like the audition process. It really is almost crippling to me. I'm so super-super-duper sensitive, and I'm painfully shy. I am painfully, painfully shy, so I can't audition. I really can't. I'd rather die… I didn't want to audition for The Wiz the first time. My mom made me go. She took me. It's just so painful for me. I can't handle it."
But Mills made it past the nerves and was cast as Dorothy, a part that launched her career at age 17 and garnered her a Drama Desk Award nomination in 1975.
When she found out that she was cast, "It was wonderful," she says. "I was like, 'Well, I could do the role. All you've got to do is give me the role, and I can do it.' But the audition part — uh! I can't! I heard Lady Gaga speak about that — that's why she didn't do a lot of Broadway [auditions]… I don't like the process. I can't handle it."
She played Dorothy for four-and-a-half years on Broadway, and now at age 58, she returns to the musical as Auntie Em — and with a completely new perspective, as she looks after 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams, both in the live musical and in the rehearsal process.
"I knew about Shanice before they actually cast her because [director] Kenny [Leon] and I had been talking, and he was like, 'There's this girl. I know she's Dorothy. I know she's Dorothy,'" she explains. "When they cast her, I was happy. She's so sweet, and she embodies everything that Dorothy should be — the innocence, the voice, everything. She's wonderful.
"I've given her love. I told her, 'You can't be… I don't want you to try to do what I did.' She's [the] 2015 [version of] Dorothy. It's hers. I did my part 40 years ago, so it's hers. It's hers."
When NBC's Wiz creatives asked the duo to perform "Home" in the rehearsal studio for promotion on the network, Mills says that at first she was hesitant because this incarnation of the musical is Williams' moment to shine.
"It's very emotional," Mills says, "because I see myself in her. I see the innocence — how young I was doing it and how afraid I was at that time being around André De Shields and [director] Geoffrey Holder and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was our Glinda. It brings back all those memories."
As Auntie Em, Mills says that she is "trying to reel Dorothy back in, and it almost works for me because I was Dorothy, so I'm like, 'Girl, I know what you're trying to do.'"
And, much like Mills, Williams walked into her audition and claimed the role of Dorothy from the hundreds that lined up as The Wiz's open call.
"We had this experience once before," says producer Craig Zadan. "We did the movie of Hairspray, and we found Nikki Blonsky. When you go into it, you don't think about the fact that if you don't find that person, you're screwed because you have no show. The thing is that, to be honest, if there was not Nikki Blonsky, there was no one else, and the same thing happened here. We saw hundreds and hundreds of girls, but Shanice was the only one who could sing, dance, act and be the character, and you think, 'Well, what happens if that day she decided not to go in for the open call? Where would we be right now?' So, it's sort of kind of terrifying if you think about it. You can't think about it, you have to just hope for the best and know that somebody is going to come in and claim the role."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)