Michael Jackson's sudden death hit the cast of The Wiz hard.
"We were having rehearsal that night," says Ellie Pyle, who's directing the R&B musical for the City of Savannah's Cultural Arts Theatre. "And it was actually our scarecrow who came in and gave us the news. It was a rough night for everybody."
Jackson, of course, had played the Scarecrow in the garish 1978 film version of Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown's urban fantasy - the movie was universally panned, but nearly everyone singled out his performance as one of the few really good things in it.
In any event, it was the only motion picture he ever did.
In the local production of The Wiz, Christy Clark has the role, and while her dance moves - choreographed by Muriel Miller of Abeni Cultural Arts - incorporate a few trademark Michael-isms, it's not an impersonation.
"There's a subset of people who are going to expect it, but those are people who are fans of the movie," says Anthony Chase, who has the title role. "And the stage show is different from the movie."
In fact, says director Pyle, "They made major changes for the movie. One reason was that Diana Ross decided she was going to play Dorothy, and she was in her 30s, so they had to change the story to accommodate that fact. That was entirely because she found the money to put up for the film. So instead of a Kansas farm girl, she became a 24-year-old Harlem schoolteacher.
"The stage version of The Wiz is actually a lot closer to the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, than the MGM movie, or really anything. Which I really love about it."
Originally published in 1900, L. Frank Baum's story has been adapted for everything from comic books to ballets.
The Wiz debut on Broadway in 1975 and ran for four years. It's the story of sweet young Dorothy Gale, transported (via tornado) to a land populated by jive-talking characters. There's a Tin Man, a lion, Munchkins, witches, a wacky wizard (played in the film by Richard Pryor) and, of course, a physically flexible, loveable scarecrow. The songs include "Ease on Down the Road," "Believe in Yourself," "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard" and "Slide Some Oil to Me," while the dialogue is equal parts The Wizard of Oz and The Jeffersons.
It was one of the first all-black musicals to achieve legendary status on Broadway, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
In Savannah, Pyle's cast - 28 people ranging in age from 7 to 60 - is multi-racial, and they come from all walks of local life. The May auditions attracted 102 people.
"We wanted a large cast show, and we wanted a show that had ample opportunity for dancers," she explains. "Because I already knew that I wanted to work with Muriel Miller. In fact, she has worked on two previous productions of The Wiz.
"And we wanted something that was a big name, something that a lot of people were going to be really excited to both come audition for, and to see. Something that could have a wide range of ages involved, and a diverse cast."
Pyle, the city's Performing Arts coordinator, enjoys coming to rehearsal every day. The cast, she says, "is just amazing.
"This is the first time I've directed a show with a cast of more than six people," she explains, "and it's the first time I've directed a musical. So this has been a big, exciting experience for me."
Of course, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz is part of the national consciousness, which all the actors say they've had to watch out for.
"It's a part everyone's life, so there's a thing in the back of your head where you'll probably subconsciously do something," says Tin Man Ronald King. "So you really do have to put your own heart and soul into what you're doing."
Dorothy is played by 15-year-old Rebecca Frost, who'll soon be a sophomore at Richmond Hill High School. She'd been in one play at school before she auditioned for - and got - the lead role.
"My mom just showed me a newspaper clipping and I said ‘sure!'" she says. "And I figured I'd be in the chorus. This has been awesome."
Although rehearsals were held in the city's black box space on Henry Street, the show is going up at the Lucas Theatre, one of the only venues big enough to hold it.
There will be a full band, playing arrangements of the tunes written by Gary Swindell (whose son, Gary Jr., will be the guy in the lion costume).
"It's written for a large orchestra, so I'm trimming down a good bit, but still keeping the Broadway orchestral feel to it," says Swindell.. "So it takes all of my compositional tricks."
This veteran musician can't stand the idea of simply re-producing what some other veteran musician already did. "If you're going to do something as it's been exactly recorded before," he says. "just put the recording on."
Pyle believes Swindell's music - and the terrific vocalists in her cast - will make the show "different from any production of The Wiz that people have seen before.
"There's a reggae version of ‘Ease on Down the Road' at one point, and he's given some of the ‘70s funk songs more of a jazz feel, and various other things. Trying to update and make it our own."
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. July 17, 18, 24 and 25; 2 p.m. July 18 and 25
Tickets: $17 public, $12 seniors/students
Phone: (912) 525-5050
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