Nearly 50 years ago, The Wiz took Broadway by storm. Subtitled “The Super Soul Musical,” the show was a modern re-telling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. More importantly, it was a celebration of Black artistry and excellence. MGM’s The Wizard of Oz had “Over the Rainbow” and “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” while The Wiz had R&B break-out hits “Home” and “Ease on Down the Road.”
And leading both of those iconic numbers as The Wiz's Dorothy was a then-total newcomer, Stephanie Mills. Not even 18 years old when she was first cast, Mills danced and sang her way into the hearts of millions, becoming a beloved R&B artist in her own right after she’d hung up her silver slippers. (Yes, the slippers in The Wiz were not ruby, but silver, as they were originally in Baum's book.) There’s not much that’s more exciting than watching a performance from an unknown knowing that you’re likely witnessing the birth of a star.
Now in 2023, The Wiz is poised to make a triumphant return with a brand-new production that’s touring the U.S. before bowing on Broadway, the show’s first major staging in decades. And producers are looking to rekindle that special magic with another fresh face as its leading lady: Nichelle Lewis. You might not know that name yet, but after you hear her sing, you’re not likely to ever forget it.
Lewis came to the production in an unconventional way, which is to say it didn’t start with an audition. This young star-to-be was found on social media, a TikTok video of her singing to be exact.
“It's kind of wild, because I used to not really like social media. I used to try and stay away from it,” Lewis told us over the phone during the show’s rehearsals. “I wanted to do something so that I could continue singing when I wasn't able to do it for work a little while ago, and so that's why I started [posting videos]."
And those social media posts have really worked out for her. Before it put her on the path to becoming Dorothy in The Wiz, it also got her noticed by the producers of American Idol. Lewis was invited to be a contestant on the singing competition's 2023 season. “Just knowing that people have seen it and they've seen my passion and my love for it—it’s wild, that that's what got me to this point,” she says with the wide-eyed happiness of an incredibly talented 24 year-old.
That passion and love is very purposeful for Lewis. She started singing because of a tragedy, the death of her father. What started as a tribute to her dad in church soon became a way of bringing happiness back to her life when that seemed nearly impossible. It also showed her she could give that happiness to other people. “There’s something very soulful about [singing],” she shares. “It heals me and makes me happy. It keeps me grounded and reminds me of why I’m doing this.”
And that backstory might just be why Lewis was a perfect fit for The Wiz. Every moment of the show was crafted to create an explosion of joy, whether it’s the joke-heavy book (featuring new material from comedian Amber Ruffin in this iteration) or Charlie Smalls’ soulful, energetic score. The Wiz is the type of show that is tailor-made to plaster a big smile on the face of everyone in the audience.
“Dorothy leads with joy—all the characters do,” says Lewis. “We want to be hopeful and remain hopeful. I think everyone in life feels that way—they just want a little bit of hope. Being able to be in a show that celebrates that joy—that Black joy, Black excellence—I just think it’s really beautiful.”
But that joy is about more than simply being happy, according to Lewis. It’s about being at peace and feeling free, which Lewis says is the real heart of The Wiz. Having sung the show’s iconic finale song “Home” several times while studying musical theatre at Molloy College, she went into this production thinking that song would be her favorite. But she says she’s actually been connecting more with one of Dorothy’s other songs, “Be a Lion.” That song, which doesn’t have a counterpart in the MGM movie musical, is sung by Dorothy to the Cowardly Lion after they’ve come up against a terrifying foe. Dorothy sings the powerful anthem to help the Lion find his inner strength, a concept The Wiz doesn’t wait to introduce until its final moments like the MGM Wizard of Oz.
“Dorothy is getting a little bit of confidence and she’s seeing that she can give that to someone else,” shares Lewis about the song. “That’s something a lot of Black individuals in this world need today, to be told ‘it’s okay to be who you are and to love who you are.’”
Lucky for us, the powers that be saw—and heard—who Nichelle Lewis is on TikTok. And now she gets to share that with all of us from the stage.
For a full itinerary of The Wiz’s pre-Broadway tour, visit WizMusical.com.