Nichelle Lewis will become the first alum from Molloy University musical theater conservatory to make it to Broadway when she stars as  Dorothy in 'The Wiz' opening April 17 at the Marquis Theatre. Credit: Ed Quinn

About a month ago, actress Nichelle Lewis was eagerly counting the days until her Broadway debut as Dorothy in a new production of “The Wiz.”

“I’m so excited about it all,” she said. “I cannot wait.” No wonder. Everything spins around her character’s journey of self-discovery in the musical.

The role made Stephanie Mills a star in 1975, when the soulful adaptation of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by William F. Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) won seven Tony Awards, including best musical. Diana Ross played the part in the 1978 movie.

What’s it like to retrace such famous footsteps? “It’s just a dream come true,” Lewis said.

The 24-year-old rising stage star’s opening night on April 17 at the Marquis Theatre will also mark a milestone for Molloy University in Rockville Centre. Lewis earned her bachelor’s degree there in 2021 and is the first alum to ease on down the road from the school’s 10-year-old musical theater conservatory to Broadway.

“Nichelle is the first,” said Molloy’s theater arts chair Chris O’Connor, adding that there’s “no surprise” she’s come so far, so fast. He’s part of a group from Molloy that will attend the musical on April 21.

O’Connor directed Lewis in a composer project and was immediately struck by her rendition of Cole Porter’s song “So In Love.” “She has an amazing vocal instrument,” said O'Connor. “I was so moved by her voice and the depth of her acting.”

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Deborah Cox as Glinda in...

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Deborah Cox as Glinda in “The Wiz.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Great pipes and strong dramatic chops are building blocks for success. The Collaborative Arts Project 21 at Molloy University is all about fine-tuning skills for a career as a performer. Commonly referred to as CAP21, the professional musical theater training conservatory joined forces with Molloy University in 2014. Before that, CAP21 was partnered with New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Showbiz, like all careers, are about networking. For Lewis, who grew up in Virginia, a trip to New York City with her high school show choir played a key role in connecting the dots to her future. During that trip, veteran Broadway actor and CAP21 instructor David Hibbard presented a master class for the visiting students.

“It’s basically an audition technique class,” said Hibbard, who’s currently touring in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “They all performed audition pieces and I got to work with them for probably 10 or 15 minutes apiece.”

Lewis made an impression. “I remember working with her,” he said. “I recall saying, ‘You’re going to be a star. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ ” Lewis learned about Molloy University through him.


Nichelle Lewis in the Molloy University/CAP21 workshop of “Ripped.”

Nichelle Lewis in the Molloy University/CAP21 workshop of “Ripped.” Credit: Molloy University

Lewis’ first couple of semesters revolved around classes at the Rockville Centre campus. After that she “kind of floated back and forth between” Long Island and the school’s hub in downtown Manhattan, she said.

Like the storm that throws Dorothy for a loop, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. After March 2020 her college experience became a virtual one.

Lewis made the best of the situation. “One thing I can say for sure about college is that it helped me prepare for the amount of work that it takes to be an actor,” she said. “We were constantly in classes and constantly learning and constantly doing work.

“My work ethic was so strong after college,” Lewis added. “The experience really helped me to stay on my toes and be ready for anything and to be excited for the journey. As soon as I got out into the real world, I was like, ‘Go, go, go!’ ”

Lewis has gone, gone, gone on an upward trend. She played a supporting role in a national tour of the musical “Hairspray.” In 2022, she competed on “American Idol,” where she sang the Aretha Franklin hit “Respect” and earned a Golden Ticket before being eliminated after the Hollywood round.

When it comes to music in her life, “Home,” Dorothy’s heart-stirring 11 o’clock number in “The Wiz,” has come to have deep significance. Lewis caught the eye and ear of casting whizzes at the show when she belted out “Home” and posted her efforts on social media.

“I did not think that my random TikTok would do that — or that it would lead to anything,” Lewis said. “But I’ve always been very determined. So I was like, ‘I want somebody to notice me.’ ”

Somebody did.

But sliding into Dorothy's silver slippers — ankle-high boots, actually, in this revival with additional story material by Amber Ruffin and direction by Schele Williams — wasn’t as simple as a single TikTok. Or, for that matter, clicking her heels together three times.

The women of "The Wiz": Amber Ruffin, left, who wrote...

The women of "The Wiz": Amber Ruffin, left, who wrote additonal material for the book; Nichelle Lewis, who stars as Dorothy; Deborah Cox, who plays Glinda, and director Schele Williams, who lives in Lloyd Harbor. Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Lewis was invited to send a taped audition of herself. A series of additional tryouts followed in order to gauge Lewis’ consistency, her ability to take direction and even the wattage of vibrancy and joy she delivered in Dorothy’s “Be a Lion” duet.

Face to face she is a “beautiful light. When she smiles, the whole room lights up,” said Williams, who lives in Lloyd Harbor with her husband and their two daughters.

“When you’re casting a role this big, you need to be sure,” Williams added. She told Newsday she saw “hundreds of young women” before finding her “dream Dorothy” in Lewis. One make-or-break measure was “Home.”

“A lot of times what weeded people out was the ability to consistently sing that song,” said the director. Lewis made the cut. Her castmates include Wayne Brady, who plays the title role, and singer-songwriter Deborah Cox, who portrays Glinda.


Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Melody A. Betts as Aunt...

Nichelle Lewis as Dorothy and Melody A. Betts as Aunt Em in “The Wiz.” Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Lewis’ bond with “Home” became apparent during her final year at Molloy, according to adjunct professor Jillian Carucci.

“The senior year experience is all about bridging the gap between school and their professional careers,” she told Newsday. “Students meet casting directors and other working theater professionals. We work on their resumes and all the things that they need to know going into the field.”

Students cap their conservatory experience with a senior showcase. “The song that Nichelle ended up choosing was ‘Home.’ That was her idea. It was incredibly special.” Even on Zoom, the power was palpable.

Lewis reflected on why this show tune means so much to her. “I lost my father when I was young. I had just turned 10 years old,” said Lewis. “Songs like ‘Home’ kind of heal you in a way. They help you remember why you're here and what people have given you. It also reminds you of what you’ve always had.

“That’s why that song speaks to me and really began speaking to me even more clearly when I went to college,” she added. Since performing the show in a few cities en route to Broadway, the song resonates now more than ever.

In “The Wiz,” Dorothy, alongside three sidekicks — Lion, Scarecrow, and Tinman — gets a wake-up call. She realizes that everything she needed to get what she wanted was always there inside her.

Lewis understands the importance of believing in oneself. “Everyone has their own path, and everyone is going to end up doing what they ended up doing,” she said. “Don’t judge yourself or your work based on others. Trust the process and keep going. Just keep going.”

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