Theatre Arts director of Molly University Chris O'Connor, standing, with students...

Theatre Arts director of Molly University Chris O'Connor, standing, with students Taneka Tucker, left, and Elijah Martinez. Credit: Ed Quinn

Molloy University junior Elijah Martinez’s Broadway dreams feel like they’re within reach.

He draws his inspiration from where the spotlight is currently fixed — Molloy graduate Nichelle Lewis, who will be playing Dorothy in a Broadway production of “The Wiz” that officially opens April 17.

Lewis' limelight illuminates a pathway for Martinez, from his late-night rehearsals to her headlining role.

“When you’re getting an education that is, you know, putting [you] through the same training that she also went through, it kind of validates your experience or training or education,” said Martinez, who lives in Brooklyn.

Martinez and Lewis received training from the Molloy/CAP21 Musical Theatre Conservatory, which is growing in prominence and seeks to support students’ individuality while instilling them with intense music, drama, and dance training.

Graduates of the Rockville Centre school's program have gone on to perform Off-Broadway as well as write and direct. Currently, there are 126 students in the program. Recently, it had 250 prescreened video auditions for ideally 36 slots.

“We want them [students] to be, you know, the sort of artists … that they envision themselves to be and we can create that foundation for them,” said Chris O'Connor, the department’s chair and an associate professor.

And with that foundation, O'Connor is not surprised that Lewis will be Dorothy — a role previously played by Stephanie Mills on stage and Diana Ross on screen.

“The Wiz,” which infuses genres such as R&B and is based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” book by L. Frank Baum, opened on Broadway in 1975 and won seven Tony Awards. There have been several versions of the musical including a 1978 film version that also starred Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.

O'Connor said that Lewis as Dorothy made perfect sense, given the 2021 graduates' talent. But he is quick to point out that in a few years, “We're going to see other students of ours who are going to be working on that level,” he said.

Taneka Tucker, a freshman at Molloy from Island Park, left behind an opera focus to move to the musical theater program because she didn’t believe the former presented her with much career opportunity. Seeing Lewis go to Broadway has been an inspiration

“If I work hard and if, you know, I follow through with the program, that I can attain the same amount of success or something close to the amount of success that she is at right now,” she said.

Before she gets to Broadway, she will likely be among the students working to develop and mold their artistry at the program's site in Manhattan. There, students take studio, acting, and dancing classes.

Their relentless training is propelled by grit and rugged determination, students say.

Martinez said that there are days when he and other students are training throughout the day and evening with a few breaks.

And, he said, many students also work. He has worked backstage building sets and is currently a barista at a cafe.

“It really challenges you to really face, you know, is this seriously” something that “is in your soul?” said Martinez, who entered the musical theater field through a love of singing.

Beyond the challenge is the promise of fostering a greater humanity through artistry, he said. And seeing Lewis reach new heights shows that the distance to center stage is not too far.

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