She Auditioned for 'The Wiz' on Broadway More Than 30 Times. It Paid Off.

She Auditioned for 'The Wiz' on Broadway More Than 30 Times; It Paid Off Schele Williams had already made it to the Broadway audition finals when the show's producers told her she was too short to be their Dorothy. So, she started over. And over. And over again.

She estimated that she auditioned more than 30 times for the revival of the beloved musical `` The Wiz '' over three years. But producers and directors said they could not forget her, either. On Broadway, the show's creative team had a directive: Create a production that celebrated Black excellence, in a cast, crew, and design team that was predominantly Black.

Ms. Williams, who had seen the original Broadway production when it came to her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, was cast as Dorothy. And though the production would be sidelined by the pandemic, the show was a hit with audiences and critics alike before theaters went dark.

"I feel like the stars aligned, and the timing was right," Ms. Williams said in a video call from her apartment in Manhattan. "I was just so happy to be a part of a piece of art that I knew was going to be beautiful.''

And, of course, there was a tornado: An elaborate set piece swung across the stage, carrying Ms. Williams and her pooch, Toto, into a fantasy land of munchkins, witches, and a yellow brick road that led all the way to Oz.

"When I was younger, I loved that,'' she said of the musical's imaginative sets and costumes. But then when you get older, you start to see how much more it is than that.


Ms. Williams in the national tour of "Aida" in 2019 as the title character. (Photo: Charles Mucha/The New York Times)

In that, ``The Wiz'' was more than just a beloved musical; it was a touchstone for a generation of Black Americans. A rendition of L. Frank Baum's tale of a Kansas girl in a faraway land, the show was first produced on Broadway in 1975, with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown.

With a cast of mostly African American characters, and a message of unity and self-identity, it became an enduring hit, running more than 1,600 performances. It spawned a feature film, with an all-star cast including Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor.

This year, a new production of The Wiz'' has returned to Broadway, with performances through January, and Ms. Williams has landed another role that she describes as a dream job. She is playing Aida, the titular character in the musical Aida,'' opposite stars such as Taraji P. Henson and Howard McGillan.

Ms. Williams, who turned 30 on the day of our interview, said she had long considered herself a big dreamer, and admitted that her persistence in pursuing roles, and her willingness to audition time and again for a part, was driven in part by her childhood ambitions.

"I guess I was always a little dramatic,'' she said with a laugh, recalling her early performances for family and friends. "I would always direct my cousins, and I would make them learn lines.

"I was very particular about the details, even at a young age. I would get the costumes, and the sets, and everyone would have a role, even if it was just fruit.``

And, she said, it was never really a question that she might do anything else. I knew I was going to be a performer in some way, and I think my family knew that, too,'' she said. They were very supportive.``

She spent her adolescence in Dayton, a town overlaid with a rich cultural history that dates to the Harlem Renaissance and fueled the careers of many performers, including the playwright Ed Bullins, the photographer Bob Curry, and the dancer Allegra Fuller.

Ms. Williams danced and acted at the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, and attended the Miami Valley School, which she said provided a rigorous curriculum and close access to the arts. She described herself as a shy but curious child who discovered a different side of herself when she took center stage.

"I was so scared of everything, and really shy,'' she said. "But when I started getting into performing, I was like, 'This is something that I feel like I can do and I want to keep doing because it's helping me become more extroverted."``

Schele Williams at a performance of "The Wiz" in October 2019. (Photo: Jesse Costa/The New York Times)

Ms. Williams attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she trained as an opera singer and musical theater performer, and then moved to New York City. She landed small roles in ``The Wiz'' productions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before making it off-Broadway.

"I just knew that I was going to get it,'' she said of her determination to land a role in the Broadway production. ``It was a goal of mine, but it was almost like I didn't have a choice. It was just something that was going to happen.''

When it did, it was a moment that echoed through her life, and had been years in the making.

"I had seen the show when it came through Dayton,'' she said, "and I just remember thinking, 'That's me.' I just feel like that's a reflection of me, and I never really knew that I had a place in the theater community like that.''

And now, she says, she wants to ensure that there is a place for others like her, and for those who will come after.

"Especially as a Black woman, I think it's important for us to be visible,'' she said. "I feel like art is a reflection of the world, and if we want to see change, we have to make that change ourselves.``

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