Judy Garland made her an icon. Diana Ross brought the funk. “Family Guy” took the air out of her. What kind of Dorothy will Ashanti be?
New York audiences will find out this week when the R&B singer, who had a No. 1 hit in 2002 with the song “Foolish,” skips down the yellow brick road as Dorothy in the Encores! Summer Series production of “The Wiz.” Ashanti is making her stage debut with co-stars Orlando Jones (making his New York stage debut) as The Wiz, and LaChanze (a Tony winner for “The Color Purple”) as Glinda.
The 1974 musical, with book by William F. Brown, music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and choreography by George Faison, is an all-black adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wizard of Oz.” This Encores! production, which opens Thursday, is directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, and runs through July 5 at City Center.
During a meet-and-greet session with the press, Ashanti answered a few questions about what it means to be Dorothy.
Evan Agostini/Associated Press Ashanti at a press preview for “The Wiz.”
How much did you know about “The Wiz” before you took on this role? Did you grow up listening to it, or was it new to you?
It was a little bit before my time, but my family members definitely let me in on the big musicals. My cousin used to make us watch the DVD down in the basement of my aunt’s house. I was well aware by the time I was probably about eight years old.
Was being in musical theater something you’d always wanted to do?
I always said I wanted to at least try it. When I was in high school I did “Oklahoma!” I was Gertie. I said this is something I wanted to try if the right opportunity presents itself. I think this was the perfect one.
Why this show?
It’s such a historical, historical piece. It means so much to my family. I actually played Dorothy in “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz,” ironically. I can relate to her character so much, just being innocent and naïve starting out in this business and gradually learning as you move along.
The Encores! rehearsal schedule can be demanding. Do you thrive on a tight rehearsal schedule or do you like to take months to work something out?
In a way it is better because you’re focused and it’s nit-picking and you’re making sure that it’s perfect. It makes you work harder because you know you don’t have that much time. But sometimes it gets a bit much. You’d rather take a power nap but you don’t have time.
How closely do you work with with Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer? Dance is such a big part of the show.
Fortunately enough, this choreographer, he’s amazing. He definitely caters more toward the dancers. Dorothy and Scarecrow and Tin Man, we have our little piece here and there. But it’s more about the ensemble and making the piece come alive. We’re the accents. [Laughs]
Are there any other R&B singers who should come to Broadway? Maybe Mary J. Blige in “Mame”?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I’m not sure. It has to come from within. It’s all about what they feel. It’s about bringing passion to the stage. [Pause] I’d have to think about that.