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We're Off to Talk 'The Wiz' - with Elle Borders and Brandon Green!

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 15, 2018
Elle Borders and Brandon G. Green star in 'The Wiz'
Elle Borders and Brandon G. Green star in 'The Wiz'  

What a treat it is to see established partners - whether professional (think Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, or Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) or personal (as in the days of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) share the stage or screen. The Lyric Stage production of "The Wiz," running May 18 - June 24, brings such a partnership to us in the form of married couple Elle Borders (playing Scarecrow) and Brandon G. Green (in the role of the Cowardly Lion).

"The Wiz" is the perennial favorite riff on Frank L. Baum's classic fable "The Wizard of Oz." Premiering in 1974, "The Wiz" quickly established itself as a fresh contemporary classic, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Made into a film in 1978 by Sidney Lumet, the screen version starred the likes of Fiana Ross, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

The Broadway musical hewed close to the source material, with a tornado transporting Dorothy from her family's farm to the magical land of Oz. The film updated Dorothy's circumstances, locating her in New York City, with a blizzard being the weather-related means by which she's taken to Oz. In the Dawn M. Simmons-directed version being staged at the Lyric, Dorothy is transported from Boston to another magical land - namely, New Orleans!

EDGE had a chance to chat with Elle Borders and Brandon G. Green about the play, their sharing of the stage, and bringing classic characters to new life.


EDGE: It's always fun to see married couples share the stage. This isn't the first time for you, is it? Weren't you both in "An Octoroon?" a couple of years ago?

Elle Borders: We were in 'An Octoroon' together, yes. Interestingly enough, our characters only had one interaction in that show. I had one line directed toward Brandon, and that was it for the entire five-act show. This will be the first time since we've been married that we're really working working together, aside from readings.

Brandon Green: We actually were in a show called "We Are Proud to Present," with Company One and ArtsEmerson.

Elle Borders: That was done in 2014. That's when we met. We've definitely had a chance to work together, and I think what works in our relationship is that we established ourselves in the room as actors, as friends before anything else happened. I've had fears that I might be overly affectionate, or too much in Brandon's face - but I think because we've worked together in the room before, that's how we started, it's not as cumbersome as I thought it might be.

EDGE: You're going to have more than one line to say to each other this time. Brandon, you are playing The Lion, and Elle, you're the Scarecrow, but I don't recall just how much the two characters interact. I don't think you have a duet or any scenes with just the two of you, do you?

Elle Borders: No, not at all. They actually have some initial animosity, I think.

Brandon Green: Mm-hmm.

EDGE: But will you find ways to slip in a little extra sparkle between your characters? Or do you really not want to bring that into your professional life?

[Laughter]

Brandon Green: I think there might be a moment where I'm, like, backstage and listening to her sing... well, I'll stay on stage.

Elle Borders: It's funny. Dawn actually brought that up the other day. We were kind of blocking the scene, and she said, "You two don't want to stand anywhere near each other, do you?" I think it's... I don't want to say force of habit, but I'm trying to find how these characters might interact, It doesn't seem like they are drawn together too much, but I think in the moments that we do have - I'll speak for myself; the moments when the Scarecrow is particularly snarky to the Lion, because that does come up once or twice, those are our sparkle moments, so to speak.

Brandon Green: Yeah.

EDGE: I understand that special permission was needed for you to play Scarecrow, Elle. How does having a female Scarecrow change or inform the role, and how does it affect he play overall?

Elle Borders: You know how in the film version "The Wizard of Oz" with Judy Garland, Dorothy, and the Lion seem particularly close? And then you have the film version of "The Wiz" with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, where the Scarecrow and Dorothy seem particularly close. I feel like it's really leaning more that, where there's a sisterhood - this kind of unspoken sisterhood that we're establishing really early on in the play. So the Scarecrow is, I think, very protective of Dorothy as they're moving along in the journey because this is the friend she's never had before. I think that will change some of the jokes and will change some of the dynamics on stage.

EDGE: It looks like there are many connections between this production and the new theatre company The Front Porch Arts Collective, and I understand that the Lyric Stage Company has plans to collaborate with Front Porch next season. Are there other connections as well?

Elle Borders: Dawn Simmons is one of the founders of the Front Porch Arts Collective, so I think any time she's in the room that Front Porch presence is there. But practically speaking, there is no direct connection in terms of this production.

EDGE: How did you both come to be involved with this production? Did you come as a package deal or was it a matter of coincidence that you both got cast?

Elle Borders: Essentially, yes!

Brandon Green: Yeah.

Elle Borders: I don't think anyone had the idea that the two of us would be in the show together. In my opinion, Brandon, with that sultry baritone, was heavily favored there -

[Laughter]

Elle Borders: [Addressing Brandon] There's something kind of Lion-like in your [vocal] quality.

Brandon Green: [Sounding rather like a Lion, actually] Hmmm!!

Elle Borders: I actually did not go in for the role of the Scarecrow, but throughout the course of the audition Dawn and Alyssa Jones and Jean Appolon, the choreographer, came up with this bright idea. I had no idea they were even on that page until they sent out cast lists, and I was, "Oh, okay!"

EDGE: What did you think when you saw how you'd been cast?

Elle Borders: I was terrified! I thought, "This is such a beloved role, and I don't want to screw it up!"

EDGE: What about you, Brandon? What did you think about the Lion? Was that part what you were going after?

Brandon Green: It was a thought. When Dawn reached out about it, about a year ago now, I was like, "Yeah! Of course!" I've been kind of chasing things that challenge me and that kind of scares me in a way, and this does. I haven't done a musical like this. "The Scottsboro Boys" was a little bit subversive in a way, but this is joy. All the characters go through their own struggles, but joy - like, do I still have the muscle to play that? To be that on stage? Then, listening to the music got me a little bit scared because I was playing myself for the first few days of rehearsal. I was definitely cowardly! It's like Elle said, it's a very iconic part; it's been done, and it's been done. I think the biggest thing for me is wrapping my mind around what we're doing with the play and the music.

I had no idea when I first got the call that we [would be] working together, but when I found out I jumped for joy. We're on the same sleep schedule!

Elle Borders: It's finally true!

Brandon Green: Every other year we get to work together in Boston on the main stage, which is nice.

EDGE: I don't know if it's true or a myth, but what I heard about "The Wizard of Oz," the novel, is that Frank L. Baum was critiquing the heartlessness of industry, the timidity of the federal government to step up and help ordinary people, and what he saw as the gullibility of rural agricultural Americans in what we might today call voting against their own self-interest. Do you see "The Wiz" as being a similar critique of social, governmental, and economic institutions?

Elle Borders: I want to be really deliberate about this... I think that something that came about with the production of "The Wiz" in the '70s was putting so much of the African American experience into the story. So, in my opinion, while I don't necessarily think it's still government and agriculture I think that there are commentaries that one can take away from the African American community. We were joking the other day about how the Cowardly Lion has so many mother issues. He's always screaming, "My mama! My mama! My mama!" It seems like his cowardice comes from his not having been able to express certain things. One of those things that's out there in there is that the African American communities don't really believe in psychiatry, psychology, or mental health support. So, is there a commentary about that being made in the show? Potentially.

Brandon Green: [It was striking to us] how revolutionary it was to have this Cowardly Lion seeking help and going to an owl for therapy. It doesn't often get talked about.

EDGE: Brandon, you are a theater educator working at various colleges and universities - what is it you try to impart to your students about acting and the theatrical arts? That is, what's the key to acting - mindfulness, intuition, education, research, experience?

Brandon Green: A little it of all of that. Definitely a mixed bag, at the different schools. I think the most important part that I tell all of them is to be present; to have presence and mindfulness. At any given time on stage anything can happen - also with the audience, anything can happen. But being where you are, and when you are, when you are there, if that makes sense. I tell them, "Don't text and drive in my class," which basically means you're focusing straight ahead. If you're looking at me, you're not focusing. Be in the moment.

EDGE: In your own acting experience have you ever had it be the case that you had that kind of unexpected challenge arise during a performance? Have you had to go off book a bit or respond to somebody in some way while keeping in character?

Brandon Green: Yes, to a point, and also no to a point, I can speak specifically to "An Octoroon," we'd be on stage for that penultimate moment and the lights would come up and there's someone sitting in the third row, knitting. I've since learned that knitting is a way to keep focus. Or, somebody would be on their phone, or a phone would go off... that is a bit of a challenge. [You'd have to say] "Okay, let's keep it going. Let's push through."

When we were doing "Mr. Burns" at the Lyric, for the opening [scenes] we were given the direction that if a phone goes off, we could address it in a way of, these are people in this dystopia and their lives are on the line. So, if a phone goes off, we could treat it as a threat.

[Laughter]

Brandon Green: That happened a few times, and it was kind of liberating. We could mess with the audience when the audience was messing with us.

EDGE: When it comes to musicals versus straight plays, do you take different approaches? Do you have fundamentally different experiences doing a musical versus a straight play?

Elle Borders: I think when it comes to musicals you have to do the same work that you would to prepare a character in a straight play.

Brandon Green: Mm-hmm.

Elle Borders: Except that your textual clues about who this person is aren't going to be in a monologue or a soliloquy. They're going to be in a song. Which is essentially the same thing, so you approach it the same way. Like, how can you perform the song with clear intentions? How can you make sure that the depth and the soul of a character pervades through the music? Which, I have to say, is proving to be a little challenging for me, but I think we're starting to find our footing with it. We're only in week two of rehearsal. It's changing, it's growing, it's evolving, but I think the work is the same.

Brandon Greene: Indeed, indeed. Finding motivations and all the little tics and the nuances - this is set in a larger scale and a broader style this time. Making sure that reciprocity is in play there. For me, that helps move me in the character a bit better. Hopefully, it takes off for the audience.

EDGE: You may not even be thinking about this yet, but - in case you are - what's next for each, and both, of you?

Brandon Green: Some of those movies and TV shows that are being shot in Boston that we want [to be part of], but also the next [theater] season coming up. I think that Actors' Shakespeare Project looks pretty exciting, as does the Front Porch Arts Collective. They are putting up "Breath and Imagination" which will be a co-production with Lyric Stage Company. Also, "Black Odyssey" is on my radar for sure!

Elle Borders: Yes, definitely I think whatever we do, it will be a nod back to that first thing Brandon was talking about. I feel like as artists individually and collectively in this marriage thing, we've figured out that we want to do work and make work that is saying something about right now. I think most people want to do that, and it's easy to fall back from that or to rest on one's laurels. If the world is not engaging in some sort of dialogue, I'm personally not interested.

EDGE: Aren't you working on some sort of web series or podcast, also?

Elle Borders: We're hoping to do a web series. It's about that whole creating a dialogue thing - taking some of our experiences working in education and talking about what that looks like in the U.S. right now, talking specifically about how teachers are affected, how students are affected, what's working in the university system, what's not working in the university system.

EDGE: So another passion for you is education.

Elle Borders: Absolutely. I think we were both raised in households that were really education focused. It's important to us to ensure that education always remains a priority in our family.

One last thing I do want to say while I'm thinking about it, this whole engaging in dialogue with something that's current and now. I think that part of the reason that Dawn worked so hard to get this thing Creole infused, so to speak, is so we could put a different lens on the currentness of a story like "The Wiz." Because it's a fairy tale, it's kind of easy to take the fairy tale nature of the story for granted. I think we're working really hard in the room to keep that grounded in the real world that we're really living in right now.

EDGE: That's right, this production takes Dorothy not from Kansas but from Boston, and transports her to New Orleans! Which is, of course, kind of a mythical land in the popular imagination.

Elle Borders: Choosing to relocate it to the city where we're performing it, and then moving [the story] someplace that's so connected with the roots and the creation of so many American things, specifically with an African American influence, will be important to this conversation.

Brandon Green: I love New Orleans! The brass band sound, I'll play it in the car - even before I got cast in this. It reminds me of high school and going to Mardi Gras.

Elle Borders: It's home! And home is the theme of the show, so I think for many of us who sometimes feel displaced, the idea of home that comes through this music is really tangible. I hope it will be for the people who see the show, as well.


"The Wiz" plays at the Lyric Stage from May 18 - June 24. https://lyricstage.com/productions/production.cfm?ID=128

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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