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Nichelle Lewis’ Incredible Journey From TikTok to Starring in ‘The Wiz’

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Kyle Ramar Freeman as Lion, Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy, Phillip Johnson Richardson as Tinman and Avery Wilson as Scarecrow in 'The Wiz.' (Jeremy Daniel)

Half a century after its debut, The Wiz is easing on down the road again. The touring Broadway musical is currently in San Francisco, its second-to-last stop before parking in New York.

When it opened in 1975, The Wiz shook up musical theater to the tune of seven Tony Award nominations with its uniquely Afro-diasporic approach to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Under Geoffrey Holder’s direction and costume design, the original Wiz’s blend of homegrown American fantasy, Caribbean-inspired costumes and ’70s soul music revolutionized Broadway. It boasted an all-Black cast, with R&B legend Stephanie Mills in the role of Dorothy.

Hinton Battle in costume as the scarecrow, Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, Ted Ross as the lion and Tiger Haynes as the tin man in the original Broadway show of The Wiz in 1975.
Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross and Tiger Haynes in ‘The Wiz’ in 1975. (Martha Swope/ New York Public Library)

The latest staging of The Wiz, directed by Schele Williams, continues at Golden Gate Theatre through Feb. 11, and features Deborah Cox as Glinda and Wayne Brady in its titular role. And among these veteran performers, newcomer Nichelle Lewis shines as Dorothy.

The 24-year-old Virginia native began singing at the age of 10, and was invited to audition for the starring role after producers saw a TikTok of her performing the show’s 11 o’clock number, with a caption that detailed some of the loss she’s endured in her life. In mere months, Lewis went from making ends meet at Crate & Barrel to appearing on television and earning a Helen Hayes Award nomination.

Lewis spoke to KQED about her roots in the church, the pressure of stepping into the silver slippers and turning rejection into opportunity.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Corey Antonio Rose: I hear that you grew up in the church. What did you love to listen to as a child? And when did you realize that singing was going to be a part of your life in a major way?

Nichelle Lewis: When I was a kid, I really loved listening to soul music, those things that really pull at your heartstrings. And I think probably it did come from growing up in the church. A lot of the gospel music was music where you heard these amazing, huge voices telling a story. But it always started off soft and beautiful, and then it would get big and you could feel all their emotions. It really made me feel like I really want to be able to do something like that.

I started to do it when I was asked to sing for my father. I remember afterwards people were crying, and I was like, “Oh, I can do this. I can make people feel the way I felt listening to so many other amazing singers.” So I decided at that moment, maybe this could be something I will do for the rest of my life.

A scene from 'The Wiz' where Glinda sings to Dorothy.
Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Deborah Cox as Glinda in ‘The Wiz.’ (Jeremy Daniel )

In 2022, American Idol producers invited you to audition for the show, and you received a golden ticket after impressing the judges with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Unfortunately, your Idol journey ended at the Hollywood stage. How did you make sense of or cope with that experience?

I felt really defeated in that moment when they told me no, especially because I have to try and keep it together because I don’t want to be sobbing through my montage. I remember going home and trying to cope with it all. It really did take me a good minute to realize that was a wonderful experience, but right now what we’re going to focus on is just putting yourself out there because you know that this dream is meant for you. And that’s what I did for a good year.

In February of last year, you posted a TikTok of yourself singing “Home.” You’re singing that song over a testimony — [in the caption,] you detailed losing seven different loved ones in your life, including your father, your aunt and your grandmother. And you said that singing kept you alive and keeps you alive. What was going on that made you want to share that message and pick that song?

I know that there’s so many pages on Instagram and TikTok that only show the surface. They make you feel like people don’t really go through things. I hear a lot of people say stuff like that in the comments like, “Oh, she probably has such a perfect life.”

I don’t want people to think that my life is happy-go-lucky all the time. I always said that I wanted to be as honest and raw as I could be. So for me, sharing “Home” and sharing my story was me trying to be honest with the small audience that I had, and show them that I am growing, I’m learning.

You’ve been touring the country as Dorothy. What are you learning about the people of this country as you are going from stop to stop?

People just want to relate to someone. They want to connect, and they want to have someone that’s going to fight for them and show that honesty. I talk to these amazing people that I get to meet all over the country, [and I’m] always met with people saying, “Wow, I needed that and … I’m so glad I got to see that.”

It just makes me realize how much people want to connect with people who are in a position to advocate and inspire others. Especially in this time.

A scene from 'The Wiz' where Dorothy and her aunt sit on the porch and her aunt looks at her with a reassuring gaze.
Dorothy (Nichelle Lewis) and Aunt Em (Melody Betts) perform ‘The Feeling We Once Had’ in ‘The Wiz.’ (Jeremy Daniel )

How are Bay Area audiences reacting to The Wiz?

I think that they’re taking it really well. They’re laughing at a lot of the things that we talk about, especially the housing crisis that we’re experiencing all over the country. And I think that they have been happy to see a show that they can connect with and a show that is current.

They laugh really hard at that joke — mostly because most people are having such a struggle just getting a cheap or decent-priced place to live. Everything is so expensive, and it almost feels like your country is trying to push you out. So having someone talk about it, especially in a show, makes you feel like [you’re] not alone in that, you know?

How has doing this role on this tour at this time, knowing that you’re headed for Broadway, changed your own definition of home?

It has made me realize that I’ve kind of been going on the same journey as Dorothy, trying to understand that even though my world has changed, it is still just as beautiful and just as meaningful as it was before. I think for a long time I couldn’t really grasp that my world was different. Thinking about all those people who have passed. I do pay tribute to them a lot at the end of the show, but I also think about my mom and how amazing she is. I talk to her every day. To know that I get to bring her with me on this journey, and I get to bring her with me to Broadway? That, for me, is home. It feels like where I’m supposed to be.

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‘The Wiz’ continues at Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through Feb. 11. Tickets and details here

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