‘The Wiz’ Producer Kandi Burruss Assures Broadway Cast Will Pass Black Audiences’ Taste Test: ‘These Roles Are Iconic’

The Tony-nominated producer and former “Real Housewives” star also remembers getting original star Stephanie Mills’ “stamp of love”

Kandi Burruss attends the world premiere of Prime Video's "The Underdoggs" in Culver City
Kandi Burruss attends the world premiere of Prime Video's "The Underdoggs" in Culver City (Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images)

Tony-nominated producer Kandi Burruss knew from the very beginning that casting a revival of the 1975 Broadway show “The Wiz” would face tough criticism from Black audiences, as it stands as a cultural staple. That’s why she and the production team made sure the entire cast came correct with their performances.

“We knew from the jump that we were going to be under a microscope from our community, from the culture, about who did these roles because these roles are iconic,” Burruss told TheWrap, emphasizing that she didn’t “want nobody” questioning who’s up onstage. “We made sure everybody in this show could sing down!”

It’s been 50 years since “The Wiz,” Charles Smalls’ Motown musical reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz,” had its debut run on Broadway, and the weight of bringing back the seven-time Tony-winning musical — which was completely led and performed by a team of Black creatives — was a load not just anyone could carry.

Easin’ on down the yellow brick road as the stars of “The Wiz” revival — which begins its month-long run at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday ahead of a March 29 Broadway premiere — are Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow, Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tin Man, Wayne Brady as The Wiz, Deborah Cox as Glinda and Melody Betts as Aunt Em/Evilene.

"The Wiz the Musical" (Photos courtesy of Creative PR, photo by Jeremy Daniel)
From left to right: Kyle Ramar, Nichelle Lewis, Wayne Brady, Phillip Richardson Johnson and Avery Wilson in “The Wiz” (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)

The show returns with an updated script penned by comedian and writer Amber Ruffin (“The Amber Ruffin Show,” Broadway’s “Some Like It Hot”), direction from Schele Williams (“Motown: The Musical”), choreography by JaQuel Knight (Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”) and set design by Oscar winner Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”).

Burruss, husband Todd Tucker, Brian Anthony Moreland, Kristen Caskey, Mike Isaacson and Ambassador Theater Group are attached as producers.

While Burruss is primarily the financier of the project, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star said she didn’t shy away from giving her creative input and was often asked for it.

“There were some parts where I was like, ‘Why isn’t the beat hitting hard enough? Right here, these drums got to hit harder. Or even with just simple things, ‘What’s going on with the sound system? I need to hear more of this.’ They asked me my opinion on those things,” Burruss said. “We gave our opinion about the costumes … The people who are the leads in hair and makeup, wardrobe, choreography, everything, they obviously have their say, their opinion — but the lead producers, we get to have our say as well.”

Burruss, who was nominated for a Tony Award as producer on the Samuel L. Jackson-starring revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” also had her two cents in on the casting choices for “The Wiz.”

Deborah Cox as Glinda in "The Wiz the Musical" (Photos courtesy of Creative PR, photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Deborah Cox as Glinda in “The Wiz” (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)

“I was getting videotapes of all the castings before, so I already knew before they picked anybody. I did not have any final decisions on everybody, but I definitely got to put in my input of who I like and who I didn’t like,” Burruss said, who boasted of the impressive cast and the opportunity to bring fresh actors to the Broadway stage.

“You got Deborah Cox in there, Wayne Brady, you got Avery… Nichelle, her voice? Angelic,” she said.

Of Lewis’ casting, Burruss emphasized the production’s desire to cast a fresh face to star as Dorothy.

“I don’t think enough young new talent gets that opportunity,” she said. “We keep seeing the same faces being used for everything, so we wanted to have a breakout new person, and she’s amazing.”

Burruss said the entire cast went above and beyond expectations, adding that social media star Wilson’s performance will stun the audience.

“He kills it as Scarecrow! I didn’t even know he could dance like that. Avery’s hitting flips and all kinds of stuff … I did have questions [before he was cast], like ‘What’s his acting like? What’s his dancing like?’ They really, really, worked with him,” Burruss said. “He’s taking it up a notch. I think everybody’s going to be pleasantly surprised and excited. You’re already going to be expecting him to sing down — which he does every night — but to see his performance is, like, wow.”

"The Wiz the Musical" (Photos courtesy of Creative PR, photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Avery Wilson and Nichelle Lewis in “The Wiz” (Credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Burruss said that upon its Broadway opening this spring, she believes “The Wiz” revival has a chance to win her and the production team that Tony Award for best revival of a musical.

The production has already gotten praises from “The Wiz” alum and Grammy winner Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original Broadway show.

“We did get some love from Stephanie Mills, and I’m hoping that she’s going to be at the opening in New York,” Burruss said. “She’s always been a vocalist, one of the vocalists that I used to look up to growing up in the music industry. I’d always be singing her songs when I was a kid. She made ‘The Wiz’ important for me. I’m glad we got that stamp of love.”

Burruss continued: “I just feel like in every area of the show, they brought it. The talent, they bring it every performance — matinee, night show, they bring it every time. I really pray that people recognize the work that they’ve put in. I’m hoping and praying, not just for me, but that we get a lot of Tonys out of this show.”

“The Wiz” is currently on its pre-Broadway national tour and will celebrate its opening night on Broadway April 17.

Burruss added that she wants theatergoers to “buy that tambourine” from “The Wiz” merchandise area before the end of the show “because everybody is on their feet dancing and gospel clapping. You need your tambourine because [Betts] going to make you feel it from the inside.”

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