Nicholas Leichter Dance performs The Whiz: Obamaland at Abrons Arts Center this week, from June 16-19. Choreographer Leichter collaborated with Monstah Black, who wrote the commissioned score (plus added musical selections); they perform alongside NLD’s seven dancers, plus special guests. Leichter answered some questions about The Whiz.
Why The Whiz, now?
If you look at the history of the major productions of The Wizard of Oz/The Wiz, from the initial book to the Judy Garland movie, to the all African American production, there stems a pattern of examining these ideas of hope, fantasy and dreams during times of major political, economic and cultural change-from the great depression to post civil rights, etc. The idea that this “wizard” is some sort of God who will make all our dreams come true and bring wealth and prosperity to those desperately in need is really just a “fantasy.” In truth, if the wizard did really exist, according to the 1900 L. Frank Baum novel, he was really just a man who governed the land of Oz—he was really Oz’s president. The same holds true for the 1975 musical. It’s the “idea” that one day there would/could be this black president who shines light and hope on our fears. And at the end of the day it was just a dream. And yet now, someof that dream is a reality… Since the Encores version at City Center couldn’t take off I thought the timing was right to experiment with these ideas and really invert and juxtapose as much of the traditions as possible.
Can you describe what the audience will be experiencing at Abrons?
A lot! It’s dance but it’s clearly not a dance concert. Nor is it a play or musical theater but rather a spectacle of song, dance, theater, cabaret and performance that has something of a theatrical through-line. It’s essentially Monstah’s journey. It’s his dream sequence where he’s experiencing/creating this world, some of which has actual characters from the tradition and some that expand the ideas of the tradition. It’s extremely visual, physical, colorful, funny, silly, scary, emotional.
How does the work relate to the musical The Wiz from 1975, or the film from 1978, as the score by Monstah Black is newly commissioned?
The score is some of Broadway’s finest! Charlie Smalls crafted some of the best music of the late 20th Century and created some of the most iconic songs in Broadway and popular music history! I think Quincy Jones, as well as his slew of collaborators, did an excellent job at expanding Charlie’s ideas. Quincy was at the top of his game at the time and when you listen to the film score it’s his contributions that really shine!
Monstah loved the score so much that what got him most excited was expanding those ideas even further—or rather, in some cases, stripping a lot of those ideas away. Monstah was interested in the darker elements of the score, the innuendo of some of the lyrics, the emotional intent of much of the compositions. Much of Monstah’s version is contemporary and there might be times where people won’t even recognize the interpretations but he’s done an excellent job using samples and incorporating elements of the score on his Pro Tools so people can have some reference point. Some of it is also a real stretch and that’s the point.
There were lots of things influencing both of us during the process and we tried to channel some of that energy. One of my favorite songs is his interpretation of “He’s The Wiz!”He made that right around Merce’s [Cunningham] death and decided to use chance procedures when deciding on when beats would enter and exit the song. And I tried to use some of Merce’s back exercises when crafting the duet—mainly the curve and tilt of the spine. Clearly it looks like me but the influence is intact!
After working with Monstah on a few projects now, what do you appreciate most about your collaboration?
Everything! Monstah is the most inspiring artist I’ve ever encountered. Everything he touches he turns to gold—IMO. But he also makes it his own. I’ve always been inspired and influenced by all these other elements from music to fashion to theater but have often felt confined to keep it within this “dance” box so people will know what it is. I’ve always wanted to play instruments, act, sing, direct, whatever, in a show but have never really had the confidence. Monstah has changed all of that has and taught me that dance is theater, theater is music, music is fashion, fashion is drag, drag is performance, performance is movement. Basically, it all comes back to itself.
You’ve moved between concert dance, to a more operatic scale with classical music, to full-length works like this. What would you like to do more of?
The work is never done. Although I AM interested in things like directing, staging, working more on musical productions, etc., my job is to make sure that, at the end of the day, DANCE is in the forefront of the culture at large. I want to make sure that if I continue to work more on “productions” such as this that I maintain my commitment to the form and respect its history and future!
Pictured (from left to right) Lauren Basco, Dawn Robinson, Aaron Draper. Photo by Steven Schreiber.