A Black woman hasn't directed a Broadway musical in nearly 50 years; now Schele Williams is opening two

Williams directed "The Wiz" revival and co-directed "The Notebook" with Michael Greif

Schele Williams is making Broadway history two times over.

With The Wiz revival and The Notebook, she's making her Broadway directorial debut two times over (she helmed The Wiz solo and co-directed The Notebook with Michael Greif). And she's the first Black woman to direct a musical on the Great White Way in nearly 50 years.

"It means a lot to me," Williams says of finally breaking that streak. "It is shocking to me. I am very deeply connected to legacy. It's something that's really important to me. And when I went to go see who had done this before me, it was Vinnette Carroll — and she's the only Black woman who's ever directed a musical on Broadway."

<p>Unique Nicole/Getty</p> Schele Williams

Unique Nicole/Getty

Schele Williams

Continues Williams: "I couldn't believe it because I have known extraordinary black women who should have directed musicals, Debbie Allen being one of them. How in the world have we gone this long? And we've told how many stories about Black women and we haven't had a Black woman actually direct shows about Black women? Are you kidding? It was shocking to me. I'm like, that's got to change. It has been my mission to ensure that although I am second, that the door stays open and that there are Black women coming behind me and alongside me. We must continue to tell our stories, and we have capacity to tell many stories. They just don't have to be stories about Black women."

Williams' one-two punch of a debut embodies both sides of that coin. The Wiz, its first time on Broadway since 1984, is entirely an ode to Black women and culture as it features an all-Black cast and transforms the storytelling of The Wizard of Oz. In contrast, The Notebook is a "color-conscious" show about the decades-long romance between Noah and Allie.

Ahead of The Notebook's March 14 opening and The Wiz's April 17 premiere, we caught up with Williams to talk about her lifelong relationship with The Wiz, what it was like co-directing with her longtime collaborator Michael Greif, and what she hopes to do next.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How wild is it that both of your first Broadway directorial efforts ended up being in the same season? Did you plan it that way?

SCHELE WILLIAMS: I never expected it in a million years, and it's thrilling. It's unbelievable. It's really exciting in moments; it's overwhelming, but I couldn't be happier.

I understand you played Dorothy in The Wiz in high school. Has it been a dream of yours to bring it back to Broadway since?

It was not. I never thought about reviving The Wiz because there was always a version of it floating, like, "Oh this person's bringing back The Wiz." It was never in my purview to think about that because in my mind it was always in the works somewhere. I was absolutely shocked and excited when I got the call to direct it.

<p>Jeremy Daniel</p> Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Doroth, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow

Jeremy Daniel

Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Doroth, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman, Avery Wilson as Scarecrow

Can you tell me your memories of the first time you encountered it?

I saw the show when I was seven years old in Dayton, Ohio when the touring company came through. I had seen a number of shows. My mom loved to go to theater, and she would take me to the theater, but this is the first show that I remember with an all Black cast, and it made me imagine a world in which I existed. It became something that was real in 1978. I never saw myself in any fairytale. I never saw myself in the books that were read to me or in any of the princess stories that I saw. I was always on the outside looking in. I knew the story of The Wizard of Oz, but I never once imagined myself or anyone like me inside that story, and suddenly I was a part of the narrative and it changed my life. It gave me a sense of belonging in a space that I had never seen myself.

Amber Ruffin has revised the book a bit. How did you two decide what you wanted to update or change?

Amber is a genius. She's the most fun human you could ever want to work with, and she was down for anything. When I first got the job, I wanted to get my hands on every version of The Wizard of Oz I could get. There's a couple questions that I had from the very beginning of thinking about this story in a new way — what happened to Dorothy's family? Why is she living with her aunt and uncle? Specifically in The Wiz, I wanted to meet Dorothy first. The Wiz was constructed in an interesting way that Aunt Em was the first person that you heard from musically, and you never see her again. It was important to me that Dorothy was the first musical voice that we heard and that we were seeing the show from her perspective.

Then, we wanted each character to have a little bit of a backstory. We know where they come from, who they belong to, that they're loved and entrenched in community in some way. That was really important for me as a Black woman —thinking about the Black men that are going to be on the stage and what responsibility we have in theater to dispel these ideas that the people just exist for our entertainment. It was important to me that we were creating a narrative in which each one of these characters had a legacy that they were connected to, and that if something happened to them, they would be missed.

<p>Jeremy Daniel</p> Wayne Brady as The Wiz

Jeremy Daniel

Wayne Brady as The Wiz

There's definitely some more modern callouts or turns of phrase. How did you and Amber negotiate that? Because obviously The Wiz can feel timeless, but also you're making it connect with a modern audience. 

The original script was deeply entrenched in the '70s. I wanted The Wiz to be for this generation, and I also wanted to create a piece that could really be timeless. So we still do have some of the '70s references in the show, but we've also tried to incorporate many styles of Black humor, music, and dance, nodding to Blackness' influence on culture, and for us to continue to show the kind of graduation of that throughout the piece. We are really trying to create something that does feel modern and timeless at the same time.

The cast is largely newcomers, but why was Wayne Brady the guy to play The Wiz?

When I thought about The Wiz for this generation, I thought about what are the things that are the scariest for young people? I think it's someone who's charming. Kids right now, the moment that you appear remotely scary, they're like, "I see you." But the person who is really a wolf in sheep's clothing is the one that we need to be talking about more. The person who makes promises, the person who seduces you into doing something that you really don't want to do. If we were going to talk to this generation, we needed the language of who do you fear and how do we create a world in which someone who does not immediately appear scary can actually reveal themselves to be the most dangerous?

Switching to The Notebook, you and Michael Greif first met on Rent. How did you end up being co-directors?

Michael and I, we have been friends for a really long time. Michael was working on The Notebook, and he called me and said, "I'm working on this really remarkable piece and I would love for you to consider co-directing it with me." I thought that was the craziest thing I've ever heard because why would Michael want me to co-direct it? He's more than capable. He's like, "I know it sounds crazy, but this piece is really special and I think it needs both of us." And I read it and I went, "Oh my gosh, the piece is magnificent. I'm in." Michael talked to me about how they were conceiving casting this piece and what it meant. I got really excited about that and then really saw, "Oh, I do have something to contribute to this piece that is unique." For both of us, there's no ego in this.

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> 'The Notebook' on Broadway

Julieta Cervantes

'The Notebook' on Broadway

I understand your mother has Alzheimer's. How has that shaped your involvement and directorial choices?

It's made a big difference. I'm currently living this every day, so I am seeing it firsthand. But I am aware that every person's journey is individual. Any kind of offering in terms of Here's something to consider is being very mindful that we all know very different versions of Alzheimer's. It's been a healing experience for me in a lot of ways. It has opened the door to so many people who have said, "Hey, my mom too." I have received some of the most beautiful emails from friends that I had no idea, and they were like, "I've been sitting in silence with this, not knowing if I could talk about it."

So it's been really beautiful to begin to engage and have conversations with people who get it. It's tough. It's a really tough thing to live through as a child. And certainly for my dad as a spouse. Our show shows that, but also shows that there is the person that is living. There is still a world that is happening for them. And it is our job to get inside their world and allow their world to be true.

You've called the casting "color conscious," with two Black and one white actress playing Allie and two white and one Black actor playing Noah. Is that something that is now inherent to the storytelling that will inform casting going forward?

I don't want to be predictive about what the future will mean for every company. Every time we approach this piece, we're going to do it with great care and consideration. We thought long and hard to ensure that every time anyone presents themselves on stage, they're always presenting their authentic selves. That will always be the same. This is not a story about race, but we are not ignoring anyone's race when they walk onto that stage.

<p>Julieta Cervantes</p> 'The Notebook' the Musical

Julieta Cervantes

'The Notebook' the Musical

How does sharing the story through three different aged couples with their work overlapping shape your work in terms of staging and directing?

it was really fun to imagine where they overlapped. Even throughout the preview period, it was like, "Oh, here's a moment where these two ages are at the same precipice that's appropriate for their own individual timelines, but here's a moment where they overlap, so let's have them do a moment of duet here."

Do you have a bucket list of other shows you would like to bring to the stage?

I don't have a bucket list of shows. I'm really excited to get Aida to New York. It's in Holland right now, but bringing back Disney's Aida is a big priority for me. I'm in the very nascent stages of Hidden Figures, and I'm excited to bring that to the stage when we're further along. But no, I don't have anything sitting in my mind of a dream project that I can't wait to bring to the stage. I'll know it when I see it. I never saw The Notebook or The Wiz coming. So we'll see what surprises are next for me.

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Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.