"I needed to see things like 'The Wiz,' " Brady tells PEOPLE, of how the material inspired him to seek out a career in show business at a young age
Wayne Brady is ready to see you now!
Theater-goers can see Brady as the Wiz in the acclaimed musical's pre-Broadway National Tour, which is now playing through Feb. 11 at Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. It'll next come to Los Angeles' Hollywood Pantages Theatre from Feb. 13 to March 3 before beginning previews at the Marquis Theatre in New York City on March 29. Opening is officially set for April 17.
Doing The Wiz is a full-circle moment for Brady, he tells PEOPLE on Thursday in a call made the day after he debuted in the production.
"This show is a benchmark, and not just for me, but for a lot of Black performers," Brady says. "That was the first time we such amazing singing and dancing on a screen from people who looked like us."
Based on L. Frank Baum's beloved children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wiz premiered on Broadway in 1975 and became an instant sensation, audiences praising it for transforming one of the world's most enduring American fantasies into an all-Black musical extravaganza. Charlie Smalls' score blended '70s funk with soul, gospel, and rock, and spurred well-known hits like "Ease on Down the Road" and "Home." It took home seven Tony awards including best musical.
That's how The Wiz came into Brady's life. "I'd grown up loving musicals," he recalls. "I watched them all, from West Side Story to Guys & Dolls, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — you know, these classic shows that we were told, 'These are the greats.' And then, I got to see The Wiz. And it when I saw that, a light bulb turned inside of me and like a lot of other performers I was like, 'Oh. That's what I want to do.' "
When producers beginning planning for a Broadway revival — its first in 40 years — Brady got the call from director Schele Williams to be a part of the workshop. Alan Mingo Jr. has been playing the part since the tour kicked off last fall, in Baltimore.
"What's amazing about the process is that Alan Mingo Jr. has been absolutely stellar in doing this on the road. But now I've got the challenge where you join something and go, 'Okay, how I am going to make this mine?' " Brady says. "And I'm still discovering that, you know? I keep thinking about a conversation I had with Schele. She said, 'Wayne, when I thought of the Wiz, I thought of you. You were the phone call.' So to me that means, I just have to bring my sense of childlike play and my sense of fun to it."
"He is the Wizard, so I want to make him a likable. But I want to make him a little bit dangerous, too, because the first song that he sings is about all these things that he can do to you," Brady adds. "And we know that he's a flim-flam man, so I want him to have that air of, 'One minute he's happy, one minute he's trying to lure you in, the next minute he's down with you and he's your brother and the next minute, he's too good for the room.' If I can do all that and at the end of the day have fun, then that's what I'm going to do."
In addition to Brady, The Wiz stars Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Deborah Cox as Glinda, Melody A. Betts as Aunt Em and Evillene, Kyle Ramar Freeman as the Lion, Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tinman, and Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow.
The ensemble includes Mingo Jr. plus Maya Bowles, Shayla Alayre Caldwell, Jay Copeland, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Judith Franklin, Michael Samarie George, Collin Heyward, Amber Jackson,Olivia Jackson, Christina Jones, Polanco Jones, Kolby Kindle, Mariah Lyttle, Kareem Marsh, Anthony Murphy, Cristina Rae, Matthew Sims Jr, Avilon Trust Tate, Keenan D. Washington and Timothy Wilson.
This will be Brady's fourth time on Broadway. He made his debut as Billy Flynn in the long-running revival of Chicago back in 2004, and went on to play an acclaimed run as Lola in Kinky Boots. Most recently, the Whose Line Is It Anyway? breakout flexed his improv skills as part of the cast of Freestyle Love Supreme.
But no matter how many times he does it, Broadway "never gets old," he says.
"This is the dream," Brady tells PEOPLE. "Believe me when I tell you, I'm excited anytime an opportunity like this comes up. I don't care how much success I've had, 16-year-old Wayne is still giddy over seeing his name on a dressing room door, seeing his picture out front a theater, seeing his name on a marquee, knowing that this is Broadway. It always fells fresh."
And The Wiz, being the musical that inspired his desire to perform in the first place, is icing on the cake. "I'm not just doing a show cause the actor Wayne wants to be in a show. I'm part of something historic," he notes. "I get to be part of this beautiful machine that takes this show back to Broadway after 40 some odd years with Schele Williams making history as the first Black woman to have two musicals on Broadway at the sam time as a director [The Wiz and The Notebook]. With Amber Ruffin as our writer [adding additional material to William F. Brown's book] and JaQuel Knight as our choreographer. It's incredible."
Mostly, Brady is hopeful he can inspire the next generation of performers, in the same way The Wiz inspired him.
"That's how I approach all of my work now," says Brady. "I realize there's some kid — some little boy, some little girl, someone who is sitting there going, 'How do I get from where I am to that stage, because that's all I want?' And I want them to know, 'If he can do it, then I can do it,' because that's what I was missing as a kid."
"That's what The Wiz meant to me," he adds. "I didn't see that elsewhere. I needed to see things like The Wiz. I needed to see Diana Ross and Michael Jackson singing and dancing. And later, I needed to see Ben Vereen saying to me from the screen, 'This is what you can do.' So if I can be that for anyone, then hey, I've then done my job on the planet."
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