In 1975, George Faison became the first African American to win a Tony Award for Best Choreography, taking the award for his work on The Wiz. This week, SummerStage honors the 40th anniversary of The Wiz by mounting a three-night reunion concert event that will, in addition to featuring vocal performances from members of the original cast, present Faison's dynamic original dances for the first time in over 20 years.
For Faison, it's all about passing on a legacy, especially because many of his new company of dancers were not alive when The Wiz opened on Broadway in 1974. He told Playbill.com, "That's what made me realize that I had some work to do!"
"Forty years is a long time. And do they remember us? We have to keep infusing our youth with our past, our legacy, and what we're going to do in the future. I'm talking about all dances — about people they haven't even heard of. You could say Jack Cole, Robert Joffrey, Alvin Ailey or George Faison, and they say, 'Who is that?' That's what we're going towards, passing on all this valuable information onto the youth. There's a dance history — everybody's dance history — and Broadway history in that."
Faison has been able to amass a full new company of dancers from a variety of backgrounds, including Creative Outlet Dance Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He said he has been working hard at teaching the new company his language of movement, which often encompasses techniques that are no longer widely taught to younger dancers. "The first thing I think when I look at them is, 'They're so young,' but then I realize that's how young we were! They're young, but they're still learning and they're wonderful."
Faison also discussed working on the original production. The Wiz was the brainchild of producer Ken Harper, who came up with the idea of telling the story of "The Wizard of Oz" in an updated way. Though it became a huge hit, running for four years and winning seven 1975 Tony Awards, it had a tumultuous beginning that included most of the principal cast and even the original director being replaced out of town.
"That's Broadway, honey! The only thing you have to worry about is surviving. That is it. We were gypsies! That's the theatre! Why would we be any different?"
Faison said many of the legendary stories about The Wiz's development are indeed true, but he survived and was able to create Tony Award-winning work through it all thanks in part to some excellent backstage advice.
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"A stage manager told me, 'Mind your business and do your work,' and that's what I did."
Faison also had some valuable advice to pass along to Kenny Leon and Fatima Robinson, the director and choreographer of NBC's upcoming "The Wiz Live!" telecast: "Watch out for the potholes. The yellow brick road has plenty of potholes."
"The Wiz: A Celebration in Dance and Music" will presented Aug, 12 in Central Park (at Rumsey Playfield) and on both Aug. 13-14 evening in Marcus Garvey Park. Admission to the concerts is free. Doors open Aug. 12 at 7 PM for an 8 PM performance, while the Aug. 13-14 events begin at 6:45 PM with a 45-minute master class led by Darrin Henson before the performance.
In addition to all of Faison's major dances, the concert will feature Charlie Smalls' score sung by members of the original Broadway cast, and often featuring Faison's musical staging as well. Dee Dee Bridgewater will be recreating her Tony Award-winning performance as Glinda, and André De Shields will be on hand to recreate his performance in the title role. Phylicia Rashad, a munchkin and swing in the original company, will host the evening. The concert will also feature Ebony Jo Ann and Wallace Gary as Addaperle and the Scarecrow respectively.
Timothy Graphenreed, The Wiz's original music director/arranger and, along with Faison, co-composer of the Tornado and Emerald City dance sequences, will serve as musical supervisor for the concert. Celebrated conductor, musical director and pianist Damien Sneed will music direct and conduct a full orchestra.
For more information about these and many other SummerStage concerts currently scheduled, visit the SummerStage homepage.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)