On a dreary mid-June afternoon, Ashanti is admiring a sketch of a special pair of pumps Giuseppe Zanotti has whipped up for her red-carpet debut as Dorothy in City Center’s production of The Wiz. She made it to the Zanotti showroom during a break from rehearsals. “They’re so hot. I love them—they’re green for Emerald City!” says Ashanti, today shod in Ugg boots. The rendering shows a high (high) heel covered in sparkly chartreuse Swarovski crystals. “Custom-made, just for me,” Ashanti coos. “I’ve been getting my shoes from Giuseppe since my first album, and he’s going back to Italy to make these ones for me. I’m spe-cial, I’m spe-cial,” she singsongs.
When The Wiz debuted on Broadway, in 1974, it was groundbreaking—an all-black adaptation of the whiter-than-white Wizard of Oz. The show ran for four years; its one revival flopped. The 1978 movie adaptation, set in a supernatural Harlem and starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, failed in the theaters but became a cult hit.
“That was before my time,” says Ashanti, 28. She grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island, and shot to fame being paired by producer Irv Gotti with well-known rappers like Ja Rule and Fat Joe. Her 2002 solo album, Ashanti, sold over 500,000 copies in its first week. For a while, Ashanti was the hottest act in R&B, the only girl—a good girl, at that—in a male rap clique. But last month Gotti dropped her from his label.
The Wiz is her new beginning. According to the production’s artistic director, Jack Viertel (who says that the idea for a revival of The Wiz came to him after Obama’s election), Ashanti was cast for both her unassuming charm and the fact that she’d draw a younger audience. “My agent called me and told me it’d be a great opportunity,” she says. “I used to watch the movie in my aunt’s basement. And theater is so prestigious; I thought it’d be a good thing to try.” This version, by the way, is set in Kansas, not Harlem.
But back to all the shoes. “Let’s look around, ease on down the road,” she jokes. “I’m a diamondy jewelry person, and Giuseppe’s shoes are full of bling.” She fingers a glittery yellow strappy heel. “These are so insane. I want to take these home—you don’t understand! If you wore these with some shorts and, like, a white tank top and yellow bracelets, oh!” She moves on to a pair of flat sandals with a jeweled Eiffel Tower charm. “Look, London! I love those!”