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25 Years After Making Her Broadway Debut, Schele Williams Returns as Director of Two Musicals

By: Regina Robbins
Date: May 22, 2024

As the first Black woman to direct a musical on Broadway in more than 40 years, she hopes to inspire kids of all backgrounds to follow their dreams


Twenty years ago, Schele Williams began segueing from performing in musicals to directing them. At long last she's making her Broadway directing debut with two shows running concurrently: a revival of The Wiz, a Black reinvention of The Wizard of Oz, and the new musical romance The Notebook, co-directed by Michael Greif, who directed her in Rent back in the day. Incredibly, this double whammy makes Williams the first Black woman to direct a musical on Broadway in more than 40 years.

Representation is important to Williams, and that's part of what drove her to direct. Her hope is to inspire other Black women directors, the same way watching a production of The Wiz as a child in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio helped inspire her to become a performer. "Seeing The Wiz changed my life," she recalls. "I saw a little girl who looked like me. I saw dancing that I had never seen on Black bodies before. I saw a grandeur in the costumes and the set pieces—everything resonated with me. I felt like I could belong up there."

Williams was approached about directing The Wiz in the summer of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd left many Americans feeling disconnected and despondent. When she read the script, she realized that, at its core, "the story is about belonging."

Much as Dorothy finds her way home with the help of a supportive group of fellow travelers, The Notebook's central soulmates, Noah and Allie, always find their way back to each other, even through the haze of dementia. Williams' insight into their enduring romance came from personal experience. During the shutdown, Williams, her husband and their two children lived with her mother, who has Alzheimer's. "As I was reading the script, I was like, this is my mom and dad," she recalls. "I know this story."

As a performer, Williams appeared on Broadway in Rent and Aida and did several national tours. "When I was younger, all I wanted to do was perform," she recalls. "It wasn't until I was in my early thirties that I realized I wanted to be a different kind of storyteller."

As she began considering a career switch, she sought advice from her longtime friend and colleague, Greif. "We did so many companies of Rent together, traveled all over the world," Williams explains. "We built a lot of trust. I don't think there's a show of his that I haven't seen." Yet when she asked Greif if she could assist him on a future project, he said no, telling her, "You gotta find your own voice."

At the time, Williams was hurt. Now she knows Greif was right. After his rejection, she went and helmed numerous regional productions and served as associate director for Broadway's Motown the Musical. So, "by the time The Notebook came around, I was already my own director!" she says.

Greif had never worked with a co-director before, but he understood that the production's racially diverse reimagining of this formerly all-white story required a Black perspective. According to Williams, his pitch was: "'I need you for this project. It would mean a lot to me to collaborate with you on this.' And then I fell in love with the piece. I'm so enormously proud of The Notebook because I believe it's unlike any other show that's out there right now. I'm so happy that many races are represented and that many people can say, 'This is my story, too.'"

The Wiz, of course, was a milestone in representation long before that term became ubiquitous. Consequently, it's had a special place in the hearts of Black Americans since it premiered on Broadway in 1975. But instead of simply reconstructing the show that generations know and love, Williams wanted to acknowledge elements of Black culture that have flourished in the intervening decades. "It just felt dated," she says of the original script. Enter Amber Ruffin, a Tony nominee for her work on Some Like It Hot, to give the show's book a refresh. The two challenged themselves to incorporate new ideas that, as Williams puts it, "feel intentional and empowering for young people today, to make it feel like their Wiz." Since Ruffin's background is in comedy writing, she frequently taps into the rich legacy of African American humor. "There are all these nods to the way that we laugh together, the way that we tease each other," Williams says.

Although working on two Broadway shows simultaneously was a massive challenge, Williams sees the timing as an abundance of good fortune, not a stroke of bad luck. It does seem to be paying off: Earlier this month, The Drama League gave her its Founders Award for Excellence in Directing. She also recently published her second children's book, Your Legacy Begins: First Words to Empower, and she has several other projects in the pipeline, including a revisal of Aida and a musical adaptation of the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures about the real-life Black women who helped NASA get to the moon.

Thankfully, she has a supportive spouse who's happy she's so busy. "My husband Scott is the most amazing partner ever," she says. "He said, 'I want you to go and show our children that they can follow their dreams, too.'"


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Wiz and The Notebook. Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.

The Wiz and The Notebook are both frequently available at our TKTS Booths.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.