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Ever Forever a Wiz There Is

Filichia eases on down the road of memories with the City Lights Youth Theatre production of The Wiz. logo
So here I am, sitting in the main theater at 314 West 54th Street (where Urinetown played just before it moved to Broadway), ready to see a production of The Wiz -- and finding Gilbert Moses's words creeping back into my head.

It happened at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore on October 20, 1974. My then-wife Lilli has been born in Baltimore so we'd often drive down from Boston, where we were living, to visit her parents -- which was fine with me when a new musical was trying out in the neighborhood. The only problem was that by now, in the fifth year of our marriage, I knew full well that Lilli was rabidly intolerant of bad musicals. And The Wiz, with no names or pedigree, threatened to be one.

We'd arrived at the theater just before showtime but had no problem securing seats in Orchestra Row P on the aisle. When we entered the house, we found that we would be the only two people in that row -- and there were a sea of empty seats behind us, too. Plus quite a few in front of us. Lilli flashed me a "here we go again" look.

Suddenly, a man bounded onto the Mechanic stage and introduced himself as Gilbert Moses, the show's director. He said that things had been a little rough during rehearsals; they'd lost a lot of time because some cast members had been ill and the scenery had been late in arriving, so the actors weren't quite used to it yet. That brought another baleful look from Lilli, which didn't disappear even when Moses vowed: "But, some day, you'll be bragging that you were here for the very first performance."

Actually, the show turned out to be far worse than Moses had predicted. There were lots of corny jokes. A song called "Which Where, Which What, Which Why?" was awful. As the Scarecrow, TV personality Stu Gilliam merely went through the motions. Butterfly McQueen of Gone with the Wind fame played the Queen of the Field Mice and seemed somewhere between intoxicated and hung over. I could feel my wife's surging wrath at this humiliation and knew she wanted to walk out -- just as she wanted to leave Ari (the musical version of Exodus) in Washington and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (the musical version of The Teahouse of the August Moon) in Philadelphia. She'd prevailed on both of those occasions; so upon returning home, I only had first-act reports for my musical theater enthusiast friends, who wailed in agony and fury. This time, I was determined to have a full, two-act report for them, for I knew that The Wiz would never get out of Baltimore.

The minute the first act ended, I quickly turned to Lilli and said, "Gottagotothemensroom." I bolted out of my seat before she could say anything and high-tailed it to the one and only place where she couldn't come in and drag me out. I locked myself in a stall and stayed there for the full 15 minutes, returning just as the house lights were dimming. Now I'd be able to see the whole show and report on all of it!

The second act began with an interminable scene and I sat there in a sweat, hoping it would end and the next scene would be bearable. But when Scene One showed no signs of ending, Lilli suddenly bolted from her seat, sat on the floor, then stretched out and began taking a nap. People in Row O, who'd felt a woman standing behind them and then immediately disappearing, turned around to see what happened. "Let's go," I conceded.

Stephanie Castro, Shakia Griffith, Jaiah Smith, and
Zina Rogers in the City Lights Youth Theatre production
of The Wiz
(Photo © Val Summervill)
Imagine my surprise when The Wiz wound up becoming a Broadway smash and winning six Tonys, including Best Musical. Obviously, work had been done. But more to the point, there was no more Gilliam (who quit), McQueen, or Moses (both of whom were fired.) Something even more shocking happened the following fall, when Stephen Sondheim, in a New York Times interview about his new musical Pacific Overtures, was quoted as loving The Wiz. What?! With all its false rhymes and stupid jokes?! I was sure he'd been misquoted. But, a couple of years later, he was on a panel and mentioned how much he liked The Wiz -- "because," he said, "it makes you feel better when you come out of it than you did when you walked in."

A dozen years later, I was driving back from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown when I spotted a poster in Albany advertising a free outdoor production of The Wiz. "Well," I thought, "it is close to showtime and the price is right." But finding the theater in a park was tougher than I'd anticipated, so I arrived just a minute or two before 8pm and rushed to the one seat in the first row that wasn't occupied. To my left was an older albino woman who had a number of elderly people seated to her left; I assumed that they had all been transported from a senior citizen facility. To my right was a twentysomething black man who looked terribly surly, and to his right was a twentysomething black woman who looked surlier still. I guessed that she'd brought him here under duress and I imagined their conversation at home: "Come on!" she said, "It doesn't cost anything! We are going and that's that!" But she'd already found that there was indeed a price to be paid, because he was going to display his anger all night long to pay her back for dragging him out of the house.

Then Aunt Em began singing about the feeling she once had, and then the tornado began, with Christopher Catt's dancers -- both black and white -- spreading over the stage. When the number concluded, the elderly woman applauded but not as enthusiastically as the black man. "Hey!" he said in astonishment. "This is all right!"

A bunch of jokes that I found feeble poured forth, but the elderly albino thought they were funny. She was the type of theatergoer who liked to turn to the person next to her and share the laugh, but the woman to her left was asleep, so she turned to me -- and I wasn't laughing. But the black guy was and she caught his eye. From that moment on, every time a joke was delivered, these two people from different eras and races turned toward each other and shared the laugh. I found myself feeling much better than I had when I walked in.

Now, in 2004, here I was in front of City Lights, a theater troupe for kids that isn't necessarily interested in training the youngsters for professional careers. "Of course, we don't mind if that happens," says managing director Elizabeth Motley. "But, since 1991, what we've focused on is a child's personal growth. We want to give kids a sense of confidence as well as a sense of responsibility, both of which happens when they do a show. They also learn a lot from each other because they come from such diverse backgrounds."

Billy Peña in The Wiz
(Photo © Val Summervill)
From September through March, the kids meet each Tuesday and Thursday from 4pm to 7pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm. Kids are accepted as young as age three to study in classes, and when they're nine they're eligible to perform in four shows that are performed in rep. But kids 14-19 can audition for the February play (this year's was The Good Times Are Killing Me) and the March musical -- which, this year, was The Wiz. (Interested parties should check out

Because the shows are double-cast, I'm not going to give the names of the marvelous kids who played the leads, supporting roles, and chorus parts; for I'd then be slighting the other cast members who, as luck would have it, I didn't happen to see. But I will name and applaud director Paula Meyer for a job superbly done and musical director John Bronston, who really made his orchestra swing.

Afterwards, I hung around to meet these two talents and tell them how much I admired the show. "You know," I added, "I have a big history with this show." And, just as Gilbert Moses predicted almost 30 years ago, here I was bragging that I was there for the very first performance.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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