André De Shields Looks Back on 50 Years of The Wiz, Haarlem Nocturne, and Looking Fabulous | Playbill

Special Features André De Shields Looks Back on 50 Years of The Wiz, Haarlem Nocturne, and Looking Fabulous

The Hadestown star and Tony winner is performing at 54 Below through February 24.

André De Shields Richard Wheeler / Lia Chang / Martha Swope

Anyone who’s ever seen André De Shields on stage or off knows the Tony winner is a singular performer. The Hadestown star is at 54 Below through February 24 re-creating his 1984 Broadway revue Haarlem Nocturne, but his first major role was the title character of the landmark 1975 musical The Wiz, a modern re-telling of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that showcased the music, dancing, and general fabulousness of Black artists. Almost 50 years later, The Wiz is coming back too, with the first major new staging of the musical set to begin performances at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre March 29.

De Shields says that in 1975, producer Ken Harper had been thinking of The Wiz’s wizard more in line with the 1939 MGM screen version of L. Frank Baum’s tale, in which Frank Morgan plays a wizard who’s somewhat of a grandfatherly old coot. De Shields, who had already been eliminated from auditions for the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, suspected that what Harper wanted was not going to work.

“I knew that Harper was wrong,” remembers De Shields. “He wasn’t being evil, but he wasn’t understanding what [The Wiz songwriter] Charlie Smalls had written. Frank Morgan can’t sing soul music.” At that point in the musical’s development, the character’s two signature songs—“So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” and “Y’all Got It”—were already written, both up-tempo, energetic, cool songs in what was to be billed as “The Super Soul Musical.”

And then there was De Shields, who had burst onto the scene just two years earlier in Warp, a sci-fi play that took him from Chicago to Broadway to play “the unconquerable ruler of the sixth dimension,” in De Shields’ words. His costume—what little of one he wore—featured a flowing and beaded net one-piece with a g-string leaving De Shield’s cheeks (yes, those cheeks) on full display. The play was not a critical darling, lasting just seven previews and eight performances. But De Shields’ performance had made an indelible mark on the New York theatre world’s hearts—and eyes.

De Shields says that singular sense of style crossed over into his real life, too. “The way I looked in my daily life, people would cross the street to get away from me,” he remembers.

After wearing Harper down and finally getting that audition for The Wiz’s title role, De Shields arrived at the Majestic Theatre (auditions were held where the show was to eventually perform in those days) wearing quite the outfit. “I’m in my five-inch silver platforms. I’m in my blue hot pants with stars embroidered over them. I’m in my red halter with the word ‘love’ embroidered across it. I’ve got my Maasai earrings in, and I picked my hair out to the Jimi Hendrix height.” Frank Morgan it was decidedly not, but De Shields knew it matched Smalls’ songs.

“I sang Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour,’” he remembers. “When I was done—and people can corroborate this—Charlie Smalls, sitting out in the audience, stands up and says, ‘That’s my Wiz.’” De Shields’ Wiz would ultimately appear on stage in an iconic white polyester one-piece (more fabric than his Warp get-up, sadly) with a long and fabulous red-lined cape. They kept the platform boots from the audition, too.

He hadn’t just brought the team a performance. De Shields had brought them a character. The rest, as De Shields says, is history.

The Wiz would become an iconic moment in Broadway history, and in the history of Black culture. Thanks in part to a 1978 movie adaptation and countless revivals around the world, the musical has never been too far outside of our imaginations. For many Black Broadway performers, it became a touchstone, one of the earliest displays that they, too, could have a place in musical theatre.

“It was a game changer because it brought Black audiences to Broadway,” De Shields remembers. The show struggled somewhat on its journey to Broadway and even after opening on the Main Stem. The problem, it turned out, was Broadway’s inability to market to non-white audiences, a problem the industry still seems to struggle with today.

Many people will tell you it was the show’s then-novel television commercial that changed its fortunes, but De Shields says that’s only part of the story. “It was the power of word of mouth of Black audiences who said, ‘Hey, there’s something about us on Broadway. Let’s go shine with it,’” he remembers. “That turned the ship around.”

But cultural touchstones are not made on musicals that are simply entertaining. In many ways, De Shields says, The Wiz was a hit because it’s what the country needed. “The show came in the mid-’70s with the first indications that this country was going to be multicultural whether you liked it or not,” he remembers. “The driving concept is there’s no place like home. In the mouth of Judy Garland, that’s one kind of radiance, for white people. Put it in the mouth of [The Wiz’s original Dorothy] Stephanie Mills, a young 15-year-old Black girl, it’s universal.”

By 1975, things had cooled somewhat following a tumultuous decade fighting for Civil Rights, and audiences, Black and otherwise, were looking for something different from the traditional Broadway fare. Suddenly the new hit musicals went from titles like Oklahoma! and Carousel to Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Wiz was the child of culture and history,” De Shields says proudly. “It wasn’t just that someone had an idea to do a Black version of The Wizard of Oz. The growth of the country demanded it. The ‘70s was the decade of permissiveness, free love. The politics of taboo were being experimented with. You don’t disparage someone because of the color of their skin. You want to experience someone because of the color of their skin, or the texture of their hair, or the country that they’ve come from. You want to break every taboo.”

Andre De Shields and the Cast of The Wiz Martha Swope

That’s not to say it was always easy going. De Shields’ performance ensconced him as a Broadway legend—his Wiz became one of The Iconic Performances from Broadway history. His fabulousness—and his relish for sharing it with audiences—made him a crowd favorite and iconic figure on the stage. Cut to 1984 as De Shields is performing Haarlem Nocturne on Broadway, and suddenly New York Times theatre critic Mel Gussow is describing that exact energy as “the definition of narcissism.” Yikes.

“Too often critics are playing the role of Sigmund Freud,” says De Shields. “The mistake we make is accusing people of being narcissists because they fall in love with themselves. That is not the myth [the origin of the term]. Narcissus falls in love with his self.” The differentiation De Shields makes is an important one, that the story isn't about someone with a giant ego, but rather about someone that discovers he is another of the world's wonderful creations with gifts worth celebrating—and sharing. Gussow found ego in a musical revue that starred and was co-written and directed by De Shields specifically to showcase his special talents. To De Shields, he was just sharing his gifts—which include a flair for performance and a beautiful bod. And, says the Tony winner, we could all learn a thing or two from that worldview.

“If more of us fell in love with our self, the world would be a much nicer place to live in,” he says. “There would be no such thing as hate, as revenge, envy—anything like that. You learn to love others by learning to love yourself.”

The cruel irony of getting that review for Haarlem Nocturne is that love is the exact impetus that led to the revue’s original creation. The show, De Shields says, essentially came out of a desire to spend time with fellow artists Debra Byrd, Ellia English, Freida Ann Williams, and Marc Shaiman, all who would star in the eventual show. The Broadway transfer was nice, but mostly they enjoyed making music together and thought they ought to share that with audiences, too.

It's something that De Shields says he thinks is missing from the world at large these days, which is part of why he wanted to bring Haarlem Nocturne back via his 54 Below performances. “Our collective imagination has atrophied,” he says. “We have such puny ideas of what we are and what we can be.” De Shields thinks the pandemic neutered our ability to be comfortable with and truly love ourselves. “Stop these fool complaints about our life is so short,” De Shields suggests. “This life is so long. We need to take advance of its gifts.”

See De Shields, joined by original company members Marc Shaiman and Freida Williams, along with Kimberly Marable and Crystal Monee Hall, sing "Bad Boy" from Haarlem Nocturne at 54 Below:

And so maybe, too, it’s appropriate that The Wiz is coming back also. Even a casual glance at news headlines these days, and you might think you’ve travelled back to the pre-Wiz era, with books being banned, drag performances cancelled—any number of rights once thought of as innate are now being challenged yet again.

But according to De Shields, there’s hope. He says it’s all part of the cycle, and what happened in 1975 will happen again. “The children of these biased monsters are going to find out that they don’t know anything, they haven’t experienced anything, because so many walls have been built. They’re going to go where they can have that experience, and it’ll be another decade of permissiveness.”

No matter what the energy of the decade is, De Shields has never stopped celebrating himself. Haarlem Nocturne featured some notable costume moments, too, by the way, including a pirate costume that De Shields tore off onstage to reveal hot-red briefs. He says you won’t see that particular look in the 54 Below recreation, but not due to any modesty. “The performance rule at 54 Below is the show can’t be longer than 70 minutes,” he says flirtatiously. “If I break out my red silk g-string, we may never get past the first number.”

He has certainly been known to break out that body-hugging Wiz costume for various performances, over the years, though. Even at 78 years old, he frankly looks as fantastic in it as he ever did. And does that mean we can expect that to return along with The Wiz’s Broadway come back?

That magical title role is being played by Wayne Brady this time around, but don’t count De Shields out just yet. After all, The Wiz’s final lesson, to “Believe in Yourself,” is not a concept De Shields struggles with. “It’s not over ‘til it’s over,” he says with a wink.

Your move, Broadway.

André De Shields Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Haarlem Nocturne continues at 54 Below through February 24. The final performance will stream live. For tickets, visit

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