Whitney Drake was working on the Oasis of the Seas last summer, singing the part of Little Inez in the ship's production of Hairspray as well-fed tourists cruised to Mexico and Jamaica. • By coincidence, Karla Hartley was also on board. She had just been hired to direct American Stage's production of The Wiz for the theater's annual outdoor musical that draws thousands every spring. The show required the perfect Dorothy. • Drake's picture came up on a screen. Hartley paused. Was that Whitney? They had worked together on a play years before when Drake was 19, and she remembered the young woman's raw talent. • Hartley knew the allure cruise ships held for a performer. You work often, make good money and go places. But cruise ship life can also hook you, and before you know it, years have passed on the water. • She pulled Drake aside. You've got to get off the ship, she said. Drake had never had a star's role in a big production, but Hartley thought she should still audition for The Wiz. • If she believed, maybe she could be Dorothy.
• • •
L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz more than 100 years ago, and to this day it keeps getting retold. Despite the flash of the flying monkeys and the peculiarity of the Munchkins, the story is about self-belief. It's about family, coming home, being a good friend.
The themes transcend race, size, shape, socioeconomic status. They can be dropped into nearly any milieu.
"It's a classic story told through a different lexicon of experience, which is exciting," said Hartley. "And that's what it should be. You can tell the same story over and over again and it's how you package it and how you couch it."
Everyone knows the 1939 Wizard of Oz, the one with Judy Garland, the ruby slippers, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Most people know the 1978 film The Wiz starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Richard Pryor.
But in 1974, Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown created The Wiz first on the stage, telling the story from the perspective of African-American culture. Stephanie Mills, a young performer with a larger-than-life voice, played the first black Dorothy.
The show introduced fans to memorable songs that lent new sensibilities to the standards — Follow the Yellow Brick Road became Ease on Down the Road, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow became Mills' signature ballad, Home. After a shaky start, The Wiz became a major hit and helped open the door for more plays and musicals with all-black casts.
Sharon Scott, who plays Aunt Em, Evillene and Glinda in American Stage's Wiz, which opens Friday in Demens Landing Park, remembered the Wiz excitement that radiated through New York, where she lived. Mills was the talk of the town.
"She was an around the way girl," said Scott. "Everyone knew Stephanie from when she was little at the Apollo and all the clubs. When she was Dorothy, she was just phenomenal. And it always just kind of resonated with me."
When Whitney Drake was 7, she watched a video of Mills as Dorothy on Broadway. It was the first time she believed she might be able to be a star.
"Stephanie Mills, oh, God, her voice is so big," said Drake, 27. "Just like my voice. My mouth is just huge. I was the little girl with this big, adult voice. I was never soft-spoken as a singer or speaker, so it just made me feel like this was a role that I could do. ... To see black singers and actors on a Broadway stage, it was amazing. I had always seen Les Misérables and Sunset Boulevard and I was always the chorus."
The original show had an all-black cast, not something American Stage is re-creating. The cast for the park show is predominantly African-American but also features other ethnicities.
"I think that it speaks to the times," Hartley said. "I think if we can look at this set of people and say, they can have this mutual cooperation and they can work together to build something, I think that speaks to what we're looking toward, at least those of us who are looking toward that, to make a society."
Hartley revisited the movie version of The Wiz before shaping her show with set designer Scott Cooper. The plot is different from the stage play — Dorothy is older in the movie, for one. But Hartley also found the urban aesthetic more dreary than she remembered. The atmosphere was dilapidated and sad, not what she envisioned for her show, which is meant to feel like a beautiful fantasy.
"It felt a little insulting looking at it from an adult perspective," she said of the film. "So we wanted to make sure that this didn't feel like that. We wanted it to feel magical. We wanted it to feel playful. We wanted it to feel truthful."
• • •
Drake got offers to go back on cruise ships, but there was a problem. She got the part of Dorothy.
"I said, nope. I have to do The Wiz. I have to. There was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. Forget the money. I can go back to ships whenever."
Drake is breathing Dorothy into every second of the day, repeating her lines, imagining how her vocals will sound sailing into the night air at Demens Landing, especially on her favorite song, Be a Lion.
She has been thinking about the witches in the play lately, how they serve as the motivations Dorothy needs. There's one who inspires grace, one who teaches kindness and one who gives her hope.
"When I finally meet Glinda at the end and she gives me this secret, it's like, all along, duh, all I had to do was believe in myself."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @StephHayes on Twitter.