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Wiz Bang...Interview with Paul J Medford

Ahead of the big WYP show, we catch up with the choreographer

Written by . Published on June 27th 2011.

Wiz Bang...Interview with Paul J Medford

WHAT can people expect from The Wiz?
Oh wow…what it isn’t is the original version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s a kinda funky retelling of the original in a more contemporary fashion. Our Dorothy doesn’t come from Kansas, she originally comes from Leeds so that’s what is different. But outside of that it’s just a really good night in the theatre.

Reading the reviews of the show in Birmingham it seems it’s just a good old fashioned musical where people can let their hair down a bit.
Yes, but it’s not old fashioned in the Oklahoma style, it’s very contemporary. It’s just like going to a club or a rave in a sense as the music is funky. So it’s only old fashioned in the sense it is a quite a spectacle with lots of life, set changes and costume changes.

"I’ve known Simon Cowell for a million years and Sinitta called me up. She said there’s this girl who’s just been on our show who you should see as she’s really good."

You’ve been described as one of the best choreographers around so what attracted you into the regions to work on this show?
The lighting designer Philip Gladwell and I were having a drink after having just done another show and he said, you know a show I really love? The Wiz.  I said I really loved that show too and we literally just said, 'wouldn’t it be great if we did it.'

But we didn’t want to do in the obvious place in London, so we set it somewhere in the Midlands or West Yorkshire. So that when Dorothy sings the song 'Home' at the end, she's not going back to Kansas or America, but Leeds. 

We made a few phone calls and West Yorkshire Playhouse and Birmingham Rep jumped on it, so we were up and running after that.

DSC_3374CopyTrayc CohenThe cast are coming to us from a run in Birmingham so have they settled into what is a demanding and challenging show?
It’s very challenging as they have to learn two shows. There's a community ensemble in Birmingham, and we have community ensemble in Leeds.  So they need to learn the show with the ensemble down there, and then learn and work with the new personalities here in Leeds 

It’s a big task but they’re all up to the challenge and they’re all enjoying it. In theatre, if you get too relaxed or complacent then it’s no fun, but the good news for us is the Leeds community ensemble are just as good as Birmingham.

I saw the community ensemble at a launch event recently where they did a couple of numbers and I thought they were great.  Do you think they will be able to rise to the challenge when the show arrives here?
They have all surpassed my wildest imagination about how good they could be.  I have never really worked with community ensembles, so I wasn’t sure how good they would be.

I thought I might have to adapt things to help people out but, you know what, they’ve set such high standards I’ve not had to adapt any of the original vision I had for the show. They’re all great and they all attack it. 

They’ve only worked on Fridays and Saturdays so they’ve had far less time than you would normally get on a professional production. But they’ve gone away and done their homework, come back and they’ve nailed it.

DSC_3913CopyThe Wiz is a cult film so how much of that influenced your thinking about how you wanted to choreograph or produce the stage show?
To be honest, not much. I didn’t even look back at the film as we knew that when you go into the theatre there are so many elements you can’t translate. So we went back and listened to the show’s music to see how we could slightly contemporise it, playing around with tempos and intros, things like that. 

We worked mainly with the original music and ignored the film so we didn’t copy anything or try and recreate anything, as we're in a theatre not a cinema. A lot of people don’t know it was originally started in the theatre before Michael Jackson and Diana Ross got hold it.

X Factor finalist Treyc Cohen is playing Dorothy and I suppose the cynics would say it's a big leap from that show to the stage…how do you think she’s coping?
She is amazing. When we started doing this with a young ensemble it was always our dream that when we did the auditions there would be our Dorothy but it didn’t happen that way, although we got some amazing people.

So we were just asking around.  I don’t live in England, so I’m not familiar with the X Factor but one of my best friends works on it. I’ve known Simon Cowell for a million years and Sinitta called me up. She said there’s this girl who’s just been on our show who you should see as she’s really good… I don’t know if she wants to do musical theatre, but you should audition her as she’s a really nice person to work with.

DSC_6098CopyWe called Treyc in and I spoke to her on the phone and asked where she was from. She said Birmingham. At that point I thought, 'this must be a sign and this is the right thing to do'. That’s what we dreamt of - we hoped Dorothy would be somebody local.

She came in and there was no doubt she was an amazing singer and the director had a very quick session, like a fast-track to acting.  But Treyc is so intelligent that she picked it up really quickly.  So we thought, if she’s up for and we’re up then this could really work.  

The rest of the cast are all old hands so have they brought their stagecraft to the show?
The thing is all the cast come in with a clean slate which is how the director Josette Bushell-Mingo and I like to work.  We approach every project brand new without any preconceptions about how it’s going to be or grow. 

So in this case we have very experienced actors who came in with a lot of knowledge, but it was like an even playing field for everybody.   The cast have been extremely generous to Treyc, but at the same time she has been extremely hard working

What would you say to Leeds theatre goers who might see the Wiz as being out of their theatrical comfort zone?
If you want to hear some amazing singing, some great songs in a show that is very contemporary and quite touching then it’s worth coming along.

You’ve been on the West End stage and an Olivier nominee so is The Wiz something you’re proud of?
It’s one of the best jobs I’ve done primarily because of working with the community ensemble who have put so much energy into it and put their hearts into the show. 

I’ve been doing this for 40 years, I’ve been in the West End and sometimes you forget how privileged you are.  Then you get someone in the ensemble who probably works in McDonalds or Nandos who is really, really happy and genuinely excited to be on the stage.  So when you’ve got 17 people with that sort of energy you can’t help but learn something.

The Wiz opens on Friday June 24 and tickets are available from West Yorkshire Playhouse on 0113 2137700.

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