EXCLUSIVE: TALKING ‘THE WIZ’ WITH AVERY WILSON

Avery Wilson has eased on down the road to the Marquis Theatre, where he’s making his Broadway debut in the hotly anticipated revival of The Wiz.

Starring as The Scarecrow, Wilson is a sensation. His stand-out performance, full of scene-stealing humor and liquid gold vocals, shows off his theatric versatility. In fact, all of Wilson’s cast members—including entertainment legends Deborah Cox and Wayne Brady—deliver vocal powerhouse performances (soon to be preserved in a cast recording, coming June 14).

I chatted with Wilson about performing on Broadway for the first time, what makes his Scarecrow his own, the deeper layers of the show, his solo music, and more.


Alex Kelleher-Nagorski: Why is now such a great time for a revival of The Wiz? And why is this the perfect show with which to make your Broadway debut?

Avery Wilson: I think it’s the perfect time for a revival of The Wiz! It’s tried to make its way back to Broadway so many times. In moments of persistence, if you really focus in on what it is you’re trying to get done, it’ll always come to pass. The story is beautiful. It’s truly something that is way beyond color, age, sexuality, gender or anything.

You need to believe in yourself. Whether you have a goal that’s big or small, it’s within reach because it’s all inside of you. This is a great role for me, especially for my debut. I watched the movie so many times growing up, but I wasn’t really familiar with the stage version until later on. But then doing research and seeing Hinton Battle, Dee Dee Bridgewater, André De Shields, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross, and all these amazing artists on stage, I was like, wow, there is room for someone like me! So it was exciting!

Speaking of the movie, Scarecrow was famously played by Michael Jackson. How did you approach making this iconic character your own?

I really brought myself to the character. As I watched Michael and Hinton, I studied the things they did—like facial expressions and physicalities, and all the different things that they brought to the role in their own ways. But watching those, I was like, I’m not that. I’m a queer man. I am very confident and I’m outspoken in many ways. I lean into these things that I feel like are me, and not necessarily them. So as far as creativity is concerned, I wasn’t afraid to stand in who I am as an individual. It’s not about even about sexuality, per se. But the person that I am that includes that might have just a little more spice or sass, compared to maybe Michael and Hinton in the way that they portrayed the character.

What kind of preparation/training did you have to take on when accepting the show? What is your pre-show ritual to stay mentally and physically well?

Since I’d previously never done Broadway or touched feet in the theater in this way, I didn’t have specific thoughts on all I had to do to prepare. I was kind of going in cold turkey thinking that I can be molded. I just planned to give all of myself and be present. But after I officially got the role, I knew that it was time to lock in. I started to train lot more in the gym because I know it would be very physically demanding. I haven’t had all of the wonderful opportunities to focus on going to some type of conservatory or working with tons of acting coaches. But now that I’m here, I learned on the job.

I look to my amazing cast, to people like Kyle Ramar Freeman, Phillip Johnson Richardson, Melody A. Betts, and Alan Mingo Jr., who do this on the regular. In the creative process, I think “How can I go further?” and I look to them to see how they approach their characters. I see the work they do for every single line on what that line means to their characters. I see them asking “What am I trying to get out of it?” in their characters’ voices. So I began to do that for myself. That was the most life changing moment for me as an actor and as a creative on stage: to be able to really remove ego, to learn, and to come in a room as open as possible and experience everything as openly as possible.

You mentioned some of your company members. What is it like working on this show with a cast full of icons like Deborah Cox and Wayne Brady?

It’s so amazing. You kind of come in like, they’re who they are. And then you realize, after a while, we’re friends. And then you realize, we’re on stage all the time and they’re literally singing and acting and doing these things in your face. And it’s like, “Oh, I’ve made it in the world and I’ve moved up!” I mean, I’ve always thought highly of myself, but to think that I will be able to stand in a space with people that are also creatives like them, it’s just so special. But I do also think they do a really great job of taking away the air of a celebrity in the room. They really are just what people are, they’re human. We have the greatest times in my entire cast. They’re all incredible and we are really a family. We all love each other. I know that’s probably not always how it goes and Broadway, but we do have that. I’m excited and grateful that I get to share these moments every single night with these people that are so talented.

You can tell how much fun you all have together on stage, which just makes the audience have fun too. What was the first Broadway show that you ever saw?

Well, I remember my first experience on Broadway was The Nutcracker when I was young with my uncles and my brothers. But I feel like as an adult, the first show that I saw, was probably Sweeney Todd. It’s a great show. I’ve always loved creativy in general, whether that’s in the theater or as a singer or a musical artist. But it wasn’t until about maybe two years ago that I was like, “I’m gonna do Broadway.” That was just my thought. I didn’t know what role or how it’d work out, but I set that goal for myself. And two years later, after going through a lot of different processes of hearing a lot of “no”, I started to believe in the power that I had within myself to be able to do it. And now I’m here. So it’s cool!

That’s very inspiring! If someone could only see one Broadway show while in New York, why should it be The Wiz?

If someone’s coming to New York to see a show, I think they should come for all the right reasons. They should go to a show to get an experience and essentially get lost in the world of whatever that is. I think that The Wiz has so much joy. And if I’m being really candid, a lot of times with an all-Black cast, or shows that are more geared towards African Americans, it’s not always about joy. It’s not always about uplifting each other and saying when you feel like you don’t have it, I’ve got you. Or when you think that you’re weird, I feel like I can put myself in a place to see, accept, and hold you, and move you forward and give you something. But also as I said earlier, it’s not just about being Black. Yes, it’s a Black cast, but the story is about joy. It’s so cliché but it’s true: if you believe in yourself, there’s really nothing you can’t attain. Even the things that you think are so big and problematic, they’re something you can digest and break down and get through. You just have to open yourself up to believing that you can. It’s one of the simplest tongue-in-cheek stories, but it has so much depth within.

Do you have a favorite song and/or scene in the show? Which is it and why?

I’m going to be biased and say “You Can’t Win”. But I will say, as a counter, “I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday,” which is my song in the show.

I thought it was really cool that they took a song that was really about me and my struggles and problems, and turned it into a meeting of our strengths, and what we’ve been through thus far to pull us together (spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the show, you need to see the show!). I think we have the most fun in that moment. It feels so honest to us because we literally joke on each other and laugh at each other and hold each other up, even when we don’t feel our best. That moment feels as honest to real life as we can get. So that’s why my songs, “You Can’t Win” and “I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday” after my favorite.

I do feel like this cast album that’s about to drop on June 14th is going to be nuts. It’s going to be insane! I was sitting in the studio listening to everybody, and I was like, “Oh, we came to SING!” I mean, Melody, Kyle, Phillip, Nichelle, Deborah and Wayne—it’s like any corner you turn, each track is probably going to explode. It’s going to be crazy!

What was your favorite city on the pre-Broadway tour and what do you think was the most important lesson or experience that informs your performance?

This is probably an unpopular opinion because it was very early on, but I will say Baltimore, which was the first city that we did our previews in. That was the first moment of all of us as a full cast, and all of us being in the thick of it. We were all in the same hotel at the time, so it felt like family. We learned a lot about each other. I think that that was the nucleus of the bond that we have still to this day. It was created in that moment of being in Baltimore and the Hippodrome Theatre.

I think the biggest lesson that I took away from the tour that helped me for Broadway is that the Scarecrow has a backstory now. Most times, the Scarecrow is portrayed as if he is aloof and behind the beat a little bit as far as the group is concerned.

For me, learning that I have a backstory, that I was a working scientist and a full-fledged, individual person, helped me dig deeper. It showed me that he thinks “I can be confident. I may not have it always right with what I will say. But I can have confidence in the thing that I say because I had another life and I’m trying to get back to that. I’m trying to get past this thing of not being smart or not having a brain. I believe the things I say. The group may not understand it, or I may not make the right moment every time, but I believe the things that I say because I know that that I used to have it.”

That confidence was a new thing that I wanted to add to him. Just being honest, art imitates life. This was a part of me that I can connect to the story so much because I remember being in spaces where I thought, you know, my environment kind of got the best of me, and it didn’t allow me to flourish. It didn’t allow me to physically or mentally believe that I was what I am. I learned that there is more confidence in my character than it is just making a moment about me being lost in a daze.

Is there a question about The Wiz that you haven’t ever been asked yet but want to answer?

I don’t think so – but I want to put out there that I would love to see all the Dorothys we know sing something together live. Stephanie Mills, Diana Ross, Shanice Williams, Nichelle Lewis. Imagine how incredible that would be? I would love that so much.

You recently released your newest single, Kiss the Sky”. What inspired this song and do you have more solo music fans can look forward to in the near future?

I have so much solo music that they can look forward to! I’m in the midst of getting it together for them.

As for what inspired “Kiss the Sky”? I was working with Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, who are a duo that go by Louis York. They played me this song at the piano and I immediately said, “Wow, this feels like me.” If I’m in love with you, or if I’m just spending time with you and it’s a little moment, I want you to feel the best you’ve ever felt. I want to make you kind of forget everything else that just came before you. And that’s a lot to do. But that’s exactly how I feel.

The song also establishes the perfect old school, new school mashup. It has this 90s old-school vibe that I love so much but don’t really hear anymore. I was like, this is the perfect collision of both worlds. It was a song that really represents who I am personally. It’s very confident, very straightforward. It’s all about love. It’s all about me making you feel the best you’ve ever felt and being better than anything that you’ve experienced. Which is my personality in real life sounds like oh, this is the perfect song to put out. But yes, I have new music coming up.

Now that you’ve been bitten by the Broadway bug, what show would you love to do next? Do you have any musical theater bucket list dream roles?

You know what? I wouldn’t mind playing Hercules. I heard that’s coming to Broadway like a year from now. I would love to do that. Because who doesn’t love to go the distance? I would like to do Dream Girls somehow. I also love Purlie. I would love to be a part of that. There’s The Preacher’s Wife, which I think will come to Broadway, and I wouldn’t mind be a part of that. There are so many things that I wouldn’t mind being a part of, but I think it’s about for me doing the right roles that I can, you know, lend myself to and see something of myself in. I’m not going to forget the fact that I am an artist, that I do my own music or that I do other things creatively. I don’t want to just do things to do things. I want to have purpose and I want to have intention behind everything. I don’t want to just do frivolous things. I don’t want to waste time making art that doesn’t have a purpose for people. I feel like The Wiz does have such a big purpose for people. Even though the forefront is it’s an all-Black show and that’s great, the purpose in the story—and even just individually in the storylines and throughlines of what we go through as characters—is a very important thing for people to see. Truly.

Thanks so much, Avery! I’m such a huge fan and loved you in the show. Is there anything you want to add/plug that we didn’t discuss?

Get your tickets to The Wiz and come see me fall and flip all over the place!


GET TICKETS to The Wiz, now playing at the Marquis Theatre (210 W 46th Street, New York, NY).

PHOTOS | JEREMY DANIEL

 

About ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI 170 Articles
Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.