Catching Up with: The Wiz

Photo by Lia Chang

Over the years, the story of “The Wiz” has held a special place in the hearts of Black America, and it is set to dazzle again with a much buzzed-about live production on NBC premiering on Dec. 3.

Before we eagerly tune in to see the latest televised version of the timeless re-imagining of “The Wizard of Oz,” JET talked to a man who helped bring the original version and title character to life during its Broadway beginnings.

At 69, André De Shields is still gracing the stage with his talents. He’s currently rehearsing for his upcoming show “Gotta Dance” in New York City in the heart of Time Square at Duke Studios. Here’s a snippet of our conversation with the man behind the curtain.

JET: How many people are rehearsing with you for “Gotta Dance”?
André: “Gotta Dance” has a large cast. Half of which we refer to as juniors, half as seniors, so all together we are about 20. The juniors are young people who are used to Hip Hop who teach us seniors how to drop it like it’s hot if you will.

JET: How are rehearsals going?
André: Rehearsals are hard, but they’re going very well. Each morning I get up and I have to negotiate with my bones. Because they ask me, ‘what do you think you’re doing Mr. De Shields?’

JET: I saw a video for the 40th anniversary of “The Wiz,” and it looks like you’re moving just fine! 
André: Well, that’s what they say. But it all depends on what the inspiration is. For the 40th anniversary of “The Wiz,”  it put me back in my original costume, back in my original five-inch platforms. So what it did was call back that original energy and spirit from 40 years ago. Oh, I’m not saying that I can’t still do it it’s just, here’s the way it goes people say ‘how you doin’ André, I say ‘I’m still kicking, just not as high.’

Photo Credit: Photo by Martha Swope.

André De Shields as the Wiz, Photo by Martha Swope.

JET: What do you think of the upcoming live production of “The Wiz” from NBC?
André: Well, first of all, those of us who did the original Broadway production back in 1975, we knew then that we were serving a particular generation and then, of course, the film came out and that took a different road in terms of telling the story of this young girl. Now this is 40 years later so “The Wiz” is owned by a totally different generation influenced by a Hip Hop revolution so on one hand it proves the longevity, it proves the legacy of “The Wiz,” and it also proves you can’t own it. You have to let it go. Different people have different stories to tell about the same inspiration.

JET: What do you think Queen Latifah will bring to your original title character?
André: I can’t second guess it because I’ve only seen the trailers but part of today’s politics, part of today’s social revolution is the ascendancy of woman power. So I think that’s indicative or part of the reason for casting Queen Latifah because there’s a suggestion of equality when the great Oz is now played by a woman. Of course, Queen Latifah has her own special juice that she will bring to the role too. But here’s what I feel in my heart, by creating the role of the Wiz on broadway in 1975, I created work for Richard Pryor when he did the role in the film and now I’m creating work for Queen Latifah for the live performance. Anytime you do your research about the Wiz, André De Shields will be the source for the character. So I’m supporting it, I’m in their corner, I’m saying run with the ball and make me proud because I did it first.

JET: Do you have any sentiments or advice you can give to the cast of “The Wiz”?
André: In the arts, storytelling is our most powerful weapon. Storytelling can change the world. Speak truth to the power that’s in that story and as I said before it’s the most universal story ever told. When a young girl discovers this cardinal truth: there’s no place like home. She initially is unhappy at home then when she’s taken away to Oz she realizes the value of her home and family and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is the power of storytelling, it gives you lessons abut life. So stay true to telling that story, is my advice to the not only the people in the current cast but anyone who wants sustainability and longevity in a career. Be true to your story and tell it truthfully.

Credit for Featured Image: Lia Chang