Arts & Culture

Nearly 50 Years After Its World Premiere in Baltimore, ‘The Wiz’ Heads to the Hippodrome

"We're very conscious of whose shoulders we're standing on," says UMD alum Alan Mingo Jr., who plays The Wiz in the revival that kicks off in Baltimore Sept. 22.

One day before The Wizproducer Ken Harper’s theatric, Afro-futurist retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—was set to make its world premiere at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on October 21, 1974, things were not going well. 

According to a 1975 Playbill Magazine story, a disastrous tech rehearsal prompted Harper’s managing company to advise him to abandon ship. 

“I began to perspire…and then I went out into the lobby of the theatre and I fainted,” Harper told Playbill of the experience.

Despite the setbacks, the show went on, and the cast and crew received four curtain calls and a standing ovation on opening night. A few months later, on January 5, 1975, The Wiz opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater with Baltimore native André De Shields playing the titular role. Despite mixed reviews in the beginning, the production—a soul, gospel, and funk-filled tale of Dorothy’s journey to “find her place in the contemporary world”—became a national phenomenon that was made even more popular with a film adaptation starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson in 1978. 

Now, nearly 50 years later, a 21st-century revival of the Tony Award-winning show will kick off a national tour in Baltimore yet again, taking over The Hippodrome from Sept. 22-30, before heading back to Broadway in the spring.

“It’s one of those things for Black artists. It’s a staple. It’s a classic. It’s a legacy piece,” says Alan Mingo Jr., the University of Maryland, College Park alum who will play The Wiz in the revival. “[When I was first introduced to the story via the movie] there was something about seeing people who looked like me, sounded like me, and moved like me. I mean, they were stars.”

Ahead of the The Wiz‘s big return to its home city, we caught up Mingo Jr. about his portrayal of The Wiz, his local acting background, and the significance of the show’s return to Baltimore.

First and foremost, how does it feel to be welcoming The Wiz back to Baltimore, where it was first performed?
It’s just surreal. The Hippodrome is a wonderful space. I’ve been here on three national tours, and every time I’m in Baltimore, I remember that stage. I kind of wish that The Mechanic was still open to solidify the legacy of it all, but just being in the city, you can feel the electricity. The minute we came into town, we were all singing on the buses. It’s exciting to start the tour where it began.

Tell us a bit about your connections to Maryland. I know you went to MaGruder High School in Rockville and then studied at the University of Maryland, College Park.
I lived in New Jersey when I was younger and moved to Maryland when I was ready to go to high school. It was there that I discovered that I wanted to become a performer, and if not for Maryland, I don’t know if I would have. Maryland, with places like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. [close by], had so much art around it. And by the luck of the draw, MaGruder had a nationally known theater program led by a man named Michael D’ Anna. I remember doing productions like The Foreigner, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Camelot.

[When preparing for college auditions, one of my teachers] introduced me to the Maryland Distinguished Scholars Program that UMD offers for those who demonstrate dramatic or vocal excellence. I tried out and wound up being a Maryland Distinguished Scholar for vocal excellence and classical music. I went on to win several other scholarships—one was a creative and performing arts scholarship for acting—but the Distinguished Scholar program pretty much paid my way through college. I don’t know where I would have been without it.

Along with various on-and-off Broadway productions, you’ve appeared in television series such as Frasier, Doom Patrol, and Jessica Jones. What’s so special to you about the role of The Wiz?
I was introduced to The Wiz via the movie first. There was something about seeing people who looked like me, sounded like me, and moved like me. I mean, they were stars. You had Diana Ross and Richard Pryor, a major comedian. But I knew I wanted to do this. And the funny thing was, in my first year in college, we wound up doing a production of The Wiz. Since then, I’ve done three other versions throughout my career. It’s one of those things for Black artists. It’s a staple. It’s a classic. It’s a legacy piece. So when I learned [the new production] was auditioning, something in my spirit said, “I’m going to be in that show.” 

How do you perceive the title character?
To me, The Wiz is desperate. Sure, he’s kind of a con man. But he’s desperate because he was dropped here, too—kind of like Dorothy was—except he’s a grown adult. He now has to convince people he’s magical to make his life more comfortable. And when he’s caught with his pants down, for lack of a better term, he tries to escape. Every individual knows what that’s like, to realize  “I messed up.” A great human being will say, “I’m so sorry. How can I make this up to you?” This character is like, “Okay, peace out. I’m gone. I’m running away.” We see adults functioning [like this] every day of their lives, where one speeding ticket turns into 10, and you still haven’t paid them. That’s a grown adult running away. The ironic thing is, he didn’t do quite the adult thing by saying “I’m sorry. My bad,” yet the young heroes, including Dorothy, own up to growing up and realizing their talents and responsibilities.

Watching Dorothy’s journey, you literally watch a small adult come into her own while the actual adults around her are acting like children. Dorothy shows loyalty with friends she’s just met, [demonstrating] all the values that we want our children to grow up with: “Stick by your friends.” “Stay loyal.” And the adult she thinks is going to help her is not that at all. 

At the same time, we want our kids to have a sense that there are grownups they can turn to.
But you have to prepare them for being disappointed in that one teacher you thought was your favorite. Or, when you grow up, that one supervisor who you thought was on your side, and then you realize they were talking behind your back. Sometimes we need to learn that we may be disappointed, and that it’s okay to be disappointed. You have everything you need to continue to move on. You just put your hopes in the wrong person, and that’s okay. All the renditions of the original production of The Wiz lay that out in a nice way. Dorothy had everything she needed all along. She just didn’t quite know that.

In terms of this particular production and this cast, what are you most looking forward to?
This cast? They are some singing fools. The performers are stellar. The first time I heard everyone singing, I walked up to the director and said “Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m here.” Not that I think I don’t deserve to be here, but I actually want to be in the audience. I was so stimulated by what I was hearing. And because we all have a connection to the musical, it’s interesting to see everyone’s take and what their personal journey is. That manifests on stage. For instance, I’ve done things like Rent and The Little Mermaid. They don’t quite have the energy and spark [you get from] working on a musical like this. People sing with their souls. You feel it.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to is getting The Wiz in front of a Baltimore audience, who also knows the legacy, and watching that electricity meet what the cast is doing with their hearts and souls—just pouring it on the stage. It’s going to be a magical night. And it will probably be emotional for a lot of the cast. During a normal Broadway show, we’re not all in our feelings. We’re just getting the work done. Here, it’s something about the heart and the individuals who are putting this piece together. And we’re very conscious of whose shoulders we’re standing on.