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Some of the Wizardry Behind 'The Wiz'

by Jerome Weeks 11 Jul 2011 9:20 PM

‘The Wiz’ is the first collaboration between the Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. It’s also the only production of ‘The Wiz’ to take some theatergoers on a trip to Oz, courtesy of director Kevin Moriarty’s movable audience sections. OK, so how does a choreographer deal with a stage that won’t stand still?


Sydney James Harcourt, Trisha Jeffrey and David Ryan Smith as you-know-who in the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s The Wiz

The musical, The Wiz, opens this Friday at the Wyly Theatre. The show is the first collaboration, ever, between the Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s also unlike any other collaboration.

  • Star-Telegram story about the staging of The Wiz
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[rehearsal sounds]

The Wiz is the African-American, Motown-lite re-working of The Wizard of Oz that became a big hit on Broadway in 1975 (with a best musical Tony Award) and then a 1978 film — an infamous flop with Diana Ross as a rather mature Dorothy, Richard Pryor as the Wiz and Michael Jackson in his first adult role as the Scarecrow (he was 20).

Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty has long wanted to stage The Wiz — the original Broadway musical, not the movie version. Recently, he’s instigated several cooperative projects among area arts groups – like the Horton Foote Festival. This is his latest — and easiest, so far, especially because both companies were free in the summer, both open to programming family-fun material for the seasion. Moriarty says, Anne Williams, artistic director of Dallas Black Dance, eagerly signed on to The Wiz, and the collaboration has moved very smoothly.

Moriarty: “Many times when you’re working on getting disparate groups to collaborate, it takes years and years, even just at the very practical level of schedules, much less at the level of artistry. But this has been one of the easiest I could imagine.”

The Wiz was easy to schedule, but it’s been a major challenge for Christopher Huggins. Huggins is one reason Moriarty wanted to work with Dallas Black Dance. Huggins has choreographed several ballets for the company. He’s danced for Debbie Allen and choreographed for Alvin Ailey and other dance groups.

But he’s never choreographed a musical comedy before.

Huggins: “I was saying to Kevin, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘I believe you’re totally capable.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you believe it, then it must be true!’ [laughs]”

Moriarty had seen Huggins’ work and had been impressed by its humor, athleticism and clarity — and actually, by Huggins’ lack of experience with musical comedies.

Moriarty: “It was important to me for the collaboration to really be a collaboration and not just twelve dancers joining a theater production.“

Huggins: “ — Then he sprung the moving pods on me! And I was like, ‘Wow! Okkkayyy.‘

The pods are twelve separate, seating sections. Each holds 15 audience members and the sections are built on rolling casters. Beginning with the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, these sections, the pods, will be pushed around the set by stage hands for different scenes.

Huggins: “As we move along the play, the audience becomes more and more a part of the show. And believe it or not, they will end in the same place that they started.”

Weeks: “They go back home.”

Huggins: “They go back home, right – [laughs] – as Dorothy goes back home. They’re on this journey with us.”

It’s a technical feat that probably no other American company of the Theater Center’s size can do — because no one else has a theater as adaptable as the Wyly.  As elaborate, inventive or unique as this whole approach may seem, the idea — of moving theatergoers around to give them an evolving perspective on the show as it goes along — is almost a tradition at the Theater Center.

There are two precedents. In 1993, then-artistic director Richard Hamburger employed the adaptable nature of the original Arts District Theater to reconfigure A Doll’s House three times — one for each act of the play. It was meant to embody the boundary-breaking nature of Henrik Ibsen’s drama by presenting it on a proscenium stage for the first act, a thrust stage for the second and in-the-round seating for the third. It struck me then as a concept borrowed from theater history imposed on the play — it didn’t really add much that was integral, nor did it truly transform A Doll’s House. The drama’s power derives from Ibsen’s story of a strong, hard woman defying her society and escaping a stifling marriage — and how well the actors convey all of that.

More than five decades before, Paul Baker experimented with a related staging notion while he was at Baylor, before he became the DTC’s founding artistic director. Baker designed the theater there, Studio One, with swivel chairs in the middle of the auditorium. This permitted instant set changes or simultaneous, overlapping scenes: Audience members could watch the action on six different stages around them by simply spinning their seats.

An audience pod visits the Munchkins in Oz

Moriarty says he’s made a list of different theatrical possibilities the Wyly can offer — with the right project — and the mobile pods were on the list. The DTC Wiz more or less combines the two earlier approaches: moving the theatergoers physically but also re-shaping the seating and the stage, but it does this live on stage, as it were. In real time. It’s a kind of performance-art/environmental theater/fun-ride approach — but on a scale that no experimental theater could normally offer.

Needless to say, Moriarty’s rolling, flexible format has complicated Huggins’ job tremendously. The pods are like a dozen giant dancers added to the regular ensemble: Each weighs more than a ton and a half and is not the most nimble performer. What’s more, when they move, they change the entire shape of the dance floor. Choreography becomes a matter of hitting a moving target — and the pods move 17 times in 90 intermissionless minutes.

In this rehearsal, some of the thumps are from pods acting a little like bumper cars. At the moment, they’re not collaborating well. It’s a rehearsal; the stage hands are working out the bugs.

[‘Ease on Down the Road’ rehearsal]

Typically, a Broadway choreographer knows where his dancers should start and finish even before rehearsals begin because the director has already outlined each scene’s dramatic action to help him map out the choreography. But the pods hadn’t been built yet, so Moriarty and Huggins had to work out the dance moves during rehearsals – even as technicians continued to experiment with what the pods could do.

Huggins: “They were changing all the way up until, like, maybe last week, week and a half – when Kevin said, This is how it will work.

“And it’s working, amazingly. It really is working.”

[‘Ease on Down the Road’ comes back for its ending]

  • Karin Michele Anderson

    The WIZ is really fabulous. We have seats down front so we were among those that got to be moved around on the pods and it was a bit like a slow motion tornado. The costumes are very inventive, the addition of Dallas Black Dance was perfect. The flying monkeys were particularly exciting and the Wicked Witch was a show stealer.