AMERICAN THEATRE | Amber Ruffin, Happy to Live in the World of ‘The Wiz’

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AMERICAN THEATRE | Amber Ruffin, Happy to Live in the World of ‘The Wiz’

Amber Ruffin.

Amber Ruffin may have a Tony nomination (for co-writing the book of Some Like It Hot) and a new show opening on Broadway (a revival of The Wiz, opening tomorrow night, for which she provided “additional material”). But, as she said in a recent interview, “I always forget—oh yeah, I started in theatre. It was a decade of eight shows a week.”

Most widely known as a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers and for her own talk show, The Amber Ruffin Show, Ruffin not only got her start, like many, in school plays and community theatre in her hometown of Omaha, Neb. She then went on to do improv and comedy at Chicago’s IO (ImprovOlympic), then in the Netherlands at Boom Chicago Amsterdam, and again while living in L.A., writing and staging original musicals at “various theatres” in town.

She clearly maintains a flair for the theatrical. On a recent afternoon in the Blue Room at the Civilian Hotel in New York, with memorabilia and designs from Broadway productions arrayed in glass cases around us, Ruffin walked in, introduced herself as “The King” with an infectious laugh, and took a seat to talk about her craft and motivations.

She told me about her theatrical beginnings in Omaha, and about the time she took over as the church’s music minister. “It was a mess—the minister of music was involved in a scandal, let’s put it like that. I had to take over,” even though she had had “only one lesson” on the piano. “That’s another story,” Ruffin said with a smile.

She’s refreshingly frank about her inspirations (“I have none—I do my work because my work is due”) and is happy to give credit to others. In adapting Some Like It Hot with Matthew López, she recalled, the team tailored the show’s exploration of gender to the actors playing the roles, particularly J. Harrison Ghee, who won a Tony for their portrayal of Jerry/Daphne. At the end of the show, Daphne’s partner, Joe, asks her, “What should I call you?” Ruffin said that Daphne’s reply—“You can call me whatever you want, just do it with love and respect”—came “right out of J.’s mouth” in conversation. What mattered to Ruffin, was giving some agency to “the person who has to repeat those lines every freaking night!”

The Wiz didn’t need as much adapting, just some updates and tweaks to William F. Brown’s book for the original 1975 Broadway show. When Mike Isaacson, a co-producer for the new Wiz revival, approached her, it was an easy yes.

“I know The Wiz holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts, and it’s a culturally significant play experience—it was futuristic as well,” she said. Still, she admitted, updating it “presented its challenges.” We made a choice to not modernize it, but to make it so it could always go up at any time—I honestly feel like this version could go up 30 years from now and you don’t have to change a word and it is fine.”

Gone is such ’70s slang as “jive turkeys,” though observant audiences may clock some other changes. 

“One of the things that survived, that I don’t know if people really notice, is we put in an extra song—a trunk song called ‘Wonder, Wonder Why.’ It is Dorothy singing, ‘I wonder why the Wiz laid this trip on me,’ which has a double meaning. I feel like that’s the one big ’70s lingo survivor.”

Amber Ruffin, Nichelle Lewis (Dorothy), Deborah Cox (Glinda), and Schele Williams (“The Wiz” director). (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

With a keen eye for preserving the essence of The Wiz while pruning away outdated language, Ruffin and the creative team have crafted a version that feels timeless yet relevant. I saw the show last week, and I heard Ruffin’s comedic voice come through, with clear punchlines inducing belly-aching laughter. (References to karaoke, self-care, and The Lion King were definitely not in the 1975 original.)

As a major figure in pop culture herself, Ruffin acknowledges the responsibility of representing diverse perspectives on Broadway. She emphasized the collaborative nature of theatre, highlighting how a committee of diverse minds came together to shape the vision for this revival, including director Schele Williams, vocal arranger Allen ReneﹶLouis, music supervisor Joseph Joubert, scenic designer Hannah Beachler, and choreographer JaQuel Knight. Ruffin called this group “the best artistic Black minds on the planet, and me,” and said they “all sat around before I even started this draft and were like, ‘These are the things we want. This is the vibe.’ We talked for days.”

Ruffin made it personal, turning to me to say, “We wrote this for you. I wrote The Wiz so that Black women could feel celebrated, so that Black people can feel seen, and then to make sure they get in these seats.”

Her quotable conclusion: “It is dreamy to be a Black person who lives in a world where The Wiz exists. It’s the coolest shit on Earth.”

Kianga J. Moore (she/her) is a creative writer, published journalist, and producer from Detroit. A lover of art and culture with a deep appreciation for authenticity, Moore draws inspiration from the vibrant and diverse world around her. Her writings explore the intersections of culture, identity, and social dynamics. @johari_writes

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