'Mr. Wiz' eases on back to Baltimore for reprise of 1975 musical role

February 21, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Nowadays, when people stop Andre De Shields on the street, they call him "Mr. Wiz."

But the Baltimore-born actor who created the title role in the musical "The Wiz" was almost overlooked for the part initially. And nearly two decades later, he had serious reservations about reprising the role in the revival that opens a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House on Tuesday.

"I wasn't sure there had been enough distance," De Shields said from New Orleans, approximately halfway into the show's 40-week, 20-city tour. "I also had to be convinced that I had left an indelible impression."

Being referred to by the general public as "Mr. Wiz" solved the latter problem. The solution to the former came from current events -- but more on that later.

First, De Shields offers a personal explanation for his decision to ease on down "The Wiz's" yellow brick road one more time. Eight months ago, Chico Kasinoir, a playwright he refers to as his mentor and life partner of 17 years, died of complications from acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"I mention it because it was at that very same time that [director] George Faison was really turning on his seductive wiles to have me make a decision about whether I was going to revisit my role," he says.

"In retrospect, it was perfectly timed because when Chico died in June, I would have had nothing to do in July, when 'The Wiz' started rehearsing, except luxuriate in my misery, instead of using all that energy on a character that ultimately gave me an opportunity to give vent to all of that rage, because the character of the Wiz is about rage and transcending rage."

That brings up the matter of current events. In thinking about the distance between the 1975 Broadway original and the revival, De Shields was also concerned about relevancy.

"In 1975, we were still living, if you will, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the progress of the civil rights movement. In 1992, however, we were experiencing urban insurrection in Los Angeles. That wasn't supposed to happen," he says.

"Somehow, we did misplace the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King had. So it was time to restore hope and optimism on the American horizon, and what better way to do that than 'The Wiz,' an entertainment with, at its center, the message of keeping hope alive?"

Of course, back in 1974 when De Shields first auditioned for the musical, such thematic concerns took a back seat to the more pressing problem of simply getting hired. He tried out for the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion and was turned down each time.

"I was on my way out the door. Now remember, I was new to New York in 1974, so I didn't have any shame. I begged for an audition as the Wiz," he recalls.

The producer told him he was looking for someone more mature, someone more like Frank Morgan, who played the role in the classic 1939 Judy Garland movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

"But I persisted, so they gave me a time to come back," De Shields continues. "I went home to my hole in the wall. I pulled my hair out to Jimi Hendrix length. I put on my high silver platforms, my elephant-sized bell-bottoms, my silver Masai earrings, and I went back there and I sang Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour' with all the power and majesty that I could muster. And I achieved something that every actor at some point in his career wants to do; that is, change the mind of the producer."

"The Wiz" had its world premiere here at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in October 1974. It was a rocky start. By the time it opened on Broadway two and a half months later, the show had a new director and had been almost entirely reworked. Closing ** notices were posted on opening night, but the show went on to become a surprise hit, running for four years on Broadway.

Returning to Baltimore with "The Wiz" -- and with his original co-star, Stephanie Mills -- has special significance for De Shields. He has only performed here twice, but each time marked a milestone in his career. (The other was the 1988 revival of "Ain't Misbehavin'," which reunited him with the original Broadway cast, and which also played the Mechanic prior to Broadway.)

In 1974, his family was host to a party for "The Wiz'" cast and crew, which spilled out onto the sidewalk and back yard of the small Division Street house where he was raised. This time, a similar celebration is planned at his sister Carmen Tisdale's more spacious Randallstown home.

K? The ninth of 11 children, De Shields was born in Dundalk in

1946. His father, a tailor, moved the family to Division Street when Andre was 4. He speaks candidly about his memories of Baltimore.

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