Ease On Down the Road—The Cast Reflects on The Wiz at Encores!

Special Features   Ease On Down the Road—The Cast Reflects on The Wiz at Encores!
In honor of the decade since Ashanti, LaChanze, Joshua Henry, James Monroe Iglehart, and more starred in the show, they look back on their favorite moments.
Christian Dante White, Ashanti, Joshua Henry
Christian Dante White, Ashanti, Joshua Henry in The Wiz Robert J. Safterstein

The original Broadway production of The Wiz opened on January 5, 1975, and the "super-soul" musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz novels by L. Frank Baum became an immediate touchstone for Black artists. Starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (a part played in the film adaptation by Diana Ross), the musical—directed by Geoffery Holder and choreographed by George Faison, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown—went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

A little over 30 years later, The Wiz returned to New York City for a Summer Stars installment of City Center's Encores! series with a cast of Broadway stars and soon-to-be major Broadway players: Ashanti as Dorothy, Tony winner LaChanze as Glinda, Orlando Jones as The Wiz, Tichina Arnold as Evillene, Dawnn Lewis as Addaperle, Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart as the Lion, three-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry as the Tinman, Christian Dante White (Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady) as the Scarecrow, and Tony and Olivier nominee Colman Domingo (who joined the cast for the final week of performances).

LaChanze and Ashanti
LaChanze and Ashanti Robert J. Safterstein

With direction, choreography and music direction by future Tony winners Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, and Alex Lacamoire, the show also featured an ensemble that included Tony nominee and Ain't Too Proud star Ephraim Sykes and Tony and Olivier nominee Adrienne Warren (who will return to Broadway in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical this fall), as well as Raymond Bennett, Tanya Birl, Darlesia Cearcy, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Angela Grovey, Ebony Haswell, Lauren Lim Jackson, Carl Lation, Maurice Lauchner, Jennifer Locke, Amy McClendon, Kenna Morris, John Eric Parker, Herman Payne, Ryan Rankine, Levensky Smith, Daniel J. Watts, Juson Williams and Will Wingfield.

In honor of the 10-year anniversary, we asked the City Center cast to share their memories of their experience. Below are their responses.

"Being able to play Dorothy in The Wiz was such an amazing experience. Although it was a lot of hard work, it helped to strengthen my artistry. The end of the run was truly bittersweet. Unfortunately, we lost the iconic Michael Jackson while the play was running. I remember having to do several interviews before the show and sharing a cast prayer... I pulled the [music director] and directors into a room and said 'Let’s play a Michael Jackson song at the end of the show tonight to honor him. The orchestra played 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough' and the bridge of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'' The entire building got up and started dancing in their seats and throughout the aisles. People were crying, dancing, and smiling. It was such a surreal feeling. I will never forget that experience." —Ashanti, Dorothy

Ashanti and LaChanze
Ashanti and LaChanze Robert J. Safterstein

"It was all of these incredible people from music, TV, film, and Broadway—the energy in the room was charged up. The music for The Wiz is some of the best out there, so for me, being able to sing 'What Would I Do If I Could Feel'—that song to me is everything. It's a really big song, talking about trying to have emotional openness. But also, being able to tap dance and slide some oil! It was a dream role for me." —Joshua Henry, The Tinman

"In 2009 I was able to live out my childhood dream of playing the Lion in The Wiz for Encores! at City Center. That product was one of the best experiences of my entire life. I’ll never forget our first sing through and looking around the room at the cast and just being in awe. I kept having to pinch myself because I was surrounded by so many folks I looked up to. I made so many lifelong friends from that production. I remember Joshua Henry and Christian Dante White and I always telling each other, 'Y’all, we in The Wiz!' It never got old. Also if you look at that ensemble it’s a who’s who of the latest Broadway stars! That show was everything!" —James Monroe Iglehart, The Lion

"The Wiz has been the jump off ever since I was a little kid, because that was our Wizard of Oz as a black kid watching all of those beautiful stars on the screen, and the music was epic. Being chosen to be a part of such a historical musical as my New York debut (it was how I got my Equity card!) was an incredible moment in my career. My favorite memory was the first time we all sang and read together because it was the best dancers, best singers, best actors—everybody was at the top of their game. To hear these songs in a new, exciting, fresh take with the best creative team, it was just overwhelming. I couldn’t believe I was there and that I was chosen to be the Scarecrow was out of this world. To this day it’s my favorite thing that I’ve done. It was just so much fun performing that musical with what I feel like was The Avengers of Broadway—as you can see, because they’re all superstars now." —Christian Dante White, The Scarecrow

"Some memories we fight to forget while others seep into our very being. The entire cast and crew from this show was special. With only three short weeks of rehearsal time we bonded on and off stage, I feel in love with these amazing artists. So grateful to be a part of this production. Thank you. Love you all. Mean it." —Orlando Jones, The Wiz

Orlando Jones, Joshua Henry, Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart
Orlando Jones, Joshua Henry, Ashanti and James Monroe Iglehart

"I remember when I had my put-in rehearsal as the Wiz that Ashanti opted out for—and this powerhouse voice lept out of her understudy. None other than Adrienne Warren. I said to myself, 'People should know, don’t sleep on an understudy!' She was ready! And now she is the dazzling star that I saw so humbly on that day.

That cast was packed with not so shiny names that through the hard work of showing up and supporting others whether it be in the ensemble or taking over a role (like myself) would eventually break out to lead shows such as the now Tony-nominated Ephraim Sykes, [Tony nominee] Joshua Henry, Barrymore Award winner Daniel J. Watts, Broadway vet Christian Dante White and hell, I’ll say it, me, who has now forged a career where I can support the future Wiz ensembles and spot that talent waiting in the wings. I was so fortunate to be a part of that, and I am grateful for my comrades Thomas Kail and the boys." —Colman Domingo, The Wiz replacement

"My favorite memory from The Wiz was being cast in one of my favorite childhood shows and watching my daughter Alijah KAI, at the age of five, digest and experience so many talented people perform an amazing show every night. It truly inspired her to perform and gave me a great piece of work to add on to my résumé." —Tichina Arnold, Evillene

"My favorite moment was the entire process. This was my first show out of college. I could not have asked for a more talented, loving, and supportive cast and creative team to introduce me to this community. " —Adrienne Warren, ensemble

"The electricity of having that entire cast was unforgettable. From LaChanze to Josh Henry, we had legends and soon to be legends, all together on one stage. For me, being surrounded by others that looked like me was something I had never experienced before. The talent, the community, the family: it was very special." —Lauren Lim Jackson, ensemble

"The Wiz is an experience that all are willing to share. Its roots in African-American culture go deep with this rich, soulful version of the original classic which in turn created a new classic. Our company was exceptional at having a great time on stage as well as backstage/offstage or around town. We were a very talented and peaceful company which made it so much fun that it was unforgettable." —Darlesia Cearcy, ensemble

"What can I say about such a beautiful world that we indulged in called The Wiz?I felt at home, familiar and very blessed to be a part of such history. One of the most sad and beautiful memories was the day Michael Jackson passed away. The cast and crew learned of this information right at 'places' [call]. It was hard to hear and stage management pushed curtain back for five minutes so that we could collect ourselves. The connection that we had with the Song and Dance Man was felt on stage throughout the two acts and I remember everyone holding each other up in a way that I could never ever explain. Wow! I just got a little teary eyed. ’Twas magical and I will never forget it." —Juson Williams, ensemble

"I remember being the youngest cast member and being in awe of the talent on that stage. It was excellence in motion every day. I learned so much from that experience and each member of the cast." —Raymond Bennett, ensemble

"My favorite memory was the performance the night that Michael Jackson died. The dancers were in tears and we were told by Andy Blankenbuler to leave it all on the stage. A bunch of the guys in the cast broke out with their best MJ moves and at the curtain call, Alex Lacamoire surprised the cast by transposing the bows to 'Don’t Stop til you Get Enough.' It was one of my favorite theater moments to date! " —Tanya Birl, ensemble

"This musical will always hold a very special place in my heart. I got my Equity card many years ago when I was cast in a national tour of the show and understudied The Wiz, himself, Mr. André de Shields! Revisiting the show with the City Center production felt like going to a family reunion and meeting extended family who you hadn’t met before. Singing “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” nightly, just like I did all those years ago as an Equity newbie was a thrill because there was and is always something to rejoice about!" —John Eric Parker, ensemble

"The camaraderie we had among the cast is probably the most remarkable memory I have of the show. There was so much respect, support, and encouragement among everyone (and considering the names in the cast, it was quite amazing). Rehearsals were like master classes and workshops—learning and collaborating. We would watch each other during performances, encouraging from the wings; and we would bring out the best in each other on stage, feeding off each others energy."—Kenna Morris, ensemble

"From the dance rehearsals with Andy [Blankenbuehler], to the music sessions, costume fittings, performances and even the farewells, performing The Wiz at City Center was one of the highlights of my career. The cast was impeccable and we were all so willing to work together to create magic. Every single person involved gave 110% of their artistic energy and it quickly became the most fun I have ever had while working. I learned during this production what it meant when people say, 'If you love your job, it’s not work at all.'" —Ebony Frazier, ensemble

"I had genuine, authentic fun as a seasoned dancer-singer among the new generation of talent learning the show. What was most enjoyable as well as memorable was working with Andy Blankenbuehler again—we shared a long history of acquaintance in the performing arts.

My first professional show ever was at Kings Island Amusement Park in Mason, Ohio during the summer of 1990. My dance partner in the show at the time was "Tara Leigh Patrick" who most known professionally as "Carmen Electra"! She and I, along with Andy, were dancers in "It's Magic," the mainstage show playing at The American Heritage Music Hall. Fast forward 14 years to the summer of 2004 Andy choreographed A Little Princess in Palo Alto, California, hosted by TheaterWorks. I was hired as "The Headman" for that show.

Five years later, Andy choreographed The Wiz at City Center, and I was hired yet again. The energy of the show was light and fun while learning and then performing the show. Just being in the rehearsal room again, actively participating and still performing whilst watching Andy continue to rise up as a choreographer was an example of pure inspiration! Now he's a multiple Tony Award-winning choreographer! Bravo! Andy is a true testament that hard work certainly pays off!" —Levensky Smith, ensemble

Dawnn Lewis, Ashanti, and <i>The Wiz</i> Ensemble
Dawnn Lewis, Ashanti, and The Wiz Ensemble Robert J. Safterstein

Check back for more memories from the cast as they come in!

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