Stephanie Mills on The Wiz
Stephanie Mills on The Wiz

From Dorothy to Aunt Em: Stephanie Mills on The Wiz Live! and 40 Years in Oz

When NBC decided on The Wiz as its 2015 musical special, one actress topped the casting wish list: Stephanie Mills, who created the role of Dorothy on Broadway in 1975 at age 17. Relieved to discover that Mills is still delighting concert audiences with Dorothy’s signature anthem, “Home,” producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan approached the singer to play Aunt Em on television — and discovered that she had the same idea.

“I wanted to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the show, and to celebrate how wonderful my yellow brick road has been,” says Mills, who will kick off the three-hour live telecast on December 3 with Aunt Em’s wistful ballad “The Feeling We Once Had.” Her presence signals the fact that The Wiz Live! is based solely on the Broadway show, which won seven 1975 Tony Awards, and not on the film released three years later, set in New York and starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. “They’re playing homage to the musical, and that’s why I’m so proud of be part of it.”
After Mills got the casting ball rolling, The Wiz Live! quickly attracted A-list talent, including Queen Latifah as a gender-bending Wiz; David Alan Grier, Elijah Kelley, and Ne-Yo as the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man; Mary J. Blige, Uzo Aduba, and Amber Riley as the witches; and recent Oscar winner Common in a new role as Emerald City’s gatekeeper. Four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein signed on to update William F. Brown’s book under the direction of Tony Award winner Kenny Leon. “Everything about this feels right,” says Mills, speaking after her first visit to Grumman Studios in the Bethpage area of Long Island, where the show will be performed and broadcast. “Kenny Leon has created a loving environment, and everyone in this cast is so supportive.”

Stepping into Mills’s silver (not ruby!) slippers will be 18-year-old Shanice Williams, who won the coveted role of Dorothy through an open call that attracted more than 600 hopefuls. Though Williams is a genuine newcomer, her talent has already been recognized with a Rising Star nomination from New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for her work in musicals at nearby Rahway High School. What’s more, her sweet smile and charming manner echo Mills’s portrayal of the character.

“She’s a little chocolate Dorothy, just like me,” Mills says with a laugh. “She reminds me of me at that age. She’s a beautiful, innocent spirit and has all the qualities Dorothy should have. The first time I heard her sing ‘Home,’ I broke down in tears. It was like having an out-of-body experience.” More tears fell when the two Dorothys visited the Majestic Theatre, where The Wiz opened on January 5, 1975. “Honestly, it felt unreal that I was on stage with the original Dorothy, where she played Dorothy,” says Williams. “It felt like a dream.”

To fully appreciate the forthcoming TV spectacular, coproduced by Cirque du Soleil and featuring acrobats as flying monkeys, scarecrows on poles, and even elements in the infamous tornado, it helps to go back in time to New York in the mid-1970s. Times Square had fallen to seed; Broadway was in a slump. A former DJ named Ken Harper hatched the idea for a musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz with a contemporary pop score and an African American cast. But in spite of financial support from 20th Century Fox, the show struggled during out-of-town tryouts and arrived at the Majestic with zero advance sales. A closing notice was posted on opening night.

Recalls Mills, “Nobody wanted The Wiz on Broadway. My mom belonged to a huge church in Brooklyn, and Ken Harper’s mom belonged to a huge church, and they would bring busloads of people in to see the show.” Word of mouth began to build after a snazzy TV commercial spotlighted director Geoffrey Holder’s costumes and choreography and the irresistible hit “Ease on Down the Road.” Soon The Wiz was on its way to a run of almost 1,700 performances.

Somehow the show’s teenage star never felt the pressure of leading a huge Broadway company. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Mills says now. “I was so young, all I was thinking about was how much I wanted to sing. Reality didn’t sink in until I was 25 and did a revival. Shanice asks me how I was able to play Dorothy for four years, and I just tell her that it’s about loving the work and getting enough rest.”

Musical fans will be able to get reacquainted with The Wiz’s tuneful, character-driven score (by the late Charlie Smalls), augmented by two numbers first performed in the movie and one new original song. “The music is so beautiful,” raves Mills. “The songs touch on everyday life, and how we all need a heart and brains and courage. It’s a wholesome family show that everyone can relate to.”

After her breakout performance as Dorothy, Mills became a recording star with the Grammy Award–winning hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and the disco-flavored “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin’,” among many others. She remains an in-demand concert artist who appeared at B.B. King Blues Club in New York and the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., while rehearsing The Wiz Live!

Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical division has confirmed plans to bring The Wiz back to Broadway in the 2016–2017 season. Is Mills interested in returning to the New York stage as Aunt Em? “Absolutely!” she says. “Listen, I just love performing. Whether it’s theater or concerts or voice-over work, I love what I do. And I’m thrilled to be passing the torch to Shanice Williams and helping to breathe new life into this brilliant show. This is the 2015 Wiz, and people need to get ready and tune in on December 3.”