When Melody A. Betts came onstage during the Broadway in Chicago Summer Concert at Millennium Park in August, the energy was palpable.
Introduced as “Chicago’s own Melody Betts,” she launched right into Aunt Em’s “The Feeling We Once Had” from “The Wiz” with the backing of a full orchestra. Her ability to immediately transport the large crowd through high drama, crisp diction and virtuosic vocalizing enraptured the audience.
While the audience—though not Betts—was still catching its collective breath, she went right into the eleven o’clock number of “The Wiz,” Glinda’s “Believe in Yourself.” It was, by far, the highlight of a concert offering a season sampler of Broadway in Chicago’s 2023-24 offerings.
“Are you kidding me with that?” asked one of the hosts while the audience was still cheering.
Backstage, Betts is candid about the range of backgrounds behind such an impact. “The training is what helps me to sustain and maintain the instrument,” says Betts, of her foundation as an operatic soprano. “The church upbringing helps me figure out how to make it feel like something. So what I’ve done is I’ve merged the two. And that’s what I’m doing for ‘The Wiz.’ I will be maintaining what I’ve learned training-wise to sustain. But I’ll be using what I learned from my culture and my upbringing and from what I’ve learned in church to make sure that people are feeling while I’m singing.”
At the basis of it all is Betts’ family. “Everyone’s a musician. My father was music director for Nancy Wilson and such. He’s been doing that his entire life. My mother also is a musician. The man who raised me, my stepfather, is also a musician so I was just around it. It was just a natural thing. It started by hanging around with my grandfather who played jazz records all the time. That’s where it began and where my ears started becoming trained to the music.
“Then I started singing in the gospel choir at Greater Garfield Missionary Baptist Church in Humboldt Park. That’s the church that I grew up in and I was a soprano in the Sunshine Choir. That’s where I learned how to create feeling, how to communicate feeling. I also learned how to train my ear for harmonies in the choir and learned it quickly enough that I could become a director, so I directed the choir as well. And I taught. But that’s where it all began.
“When I was in elementary school I was part of the All City Choir. That’s where I started to learn to read music. They taught me that at Burbank School. I started in the theater and then when I graduated from there I went to Lincoln Park High School where I was a theater major and a voice performance and dance minor.” Betts would go on to an MFA at Western Illinois University and has performed musical theater pieces in multiple venues.
Earlier in the year, Betts could be heard at Lyric Opera, originating the role of Chantel in the world premiere of Will Liverman’s sold-out run of “The Factotum” and as Grandma Tzeitel/Fruma Sarah in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
For “The Wiz,” which is Broadway-bound in a fiftieth-anniversary production and coming to the Cadillac Palace Theatre November 28 to December 10, Betts was asked to audition for three roles: Aunt Em, Glinda and Evillene.
“It’s usually Aunt Em and Glinda that are coupled together. I’m in at the very beginning of the musical, Glinda is at the very end. But it’s also written in a way where you can put Aunt Em and Evillene together, which is what we’ve done. With the mechanics, it definitely works. But that’s not usually what people choose.
“When the offer came in, after the callback, my offer was actually for Aunt Em and Glinda. But we had a workshop that we did in May and the young lady who was supposed to do the reading for Evillene didn’t show up and they asked me to do it.”
If Betts had to choose one of those roles, which one would she have gone for?
“I’ve always wanted Evillene,” she say with a mischievous smile. “It’s the complexity of her that draws me to her, like a moth to a flame. I think the mistake is that people like to just play her as angry or she is annoyed or that she’s mad all the time. And I think that it’s way deeper than that, that she’s driven by fear. And that fear comes from a place of hurt, right? That is the thing that actually drives her. It’s very human. It’s not a one-dimensional thing. I know what that is. I also believe that what she represents in us is that place of fear that keeps you from the other side of whatever it is you’re supposed to accomplish. Fear stops us if we allow it. It keeps us stagnant and keeps us from excelling. I think Will Smith said something really important related to what I’m trying to say, ‘The best things, the rewards are on the other side of fear.’ And I feel like that is what Evillene is for Dorothy. She’s that thing that’s stopping her from getting her to where she needs to be, where she wants to be. And in order for her to get there she has to defeat that part first.”
Does playing such an iconic character as the Wicked Witch of the West bring baggage given the books, the films and, in more recent years, the popularity of “The Wiz?”
“I don’t think so,” says Betts. “I think that all perspectives of the story are important. I think because all of them are told, they reach more people. Some of the same themes are in all of these interpretations of this piece and they’re important for people to hear, to understand. Fighting your demons. Overcoming your fears. Overcoming yourself when you get in your own way. Making friends with all parts of yourself. These are the things that repeat themselves in each one. It doesn’t complicate things at all because they’re still relevant across the board.”
Is it jarring to go from playing a character so associated with good to playing a character so associated with evil?
“Well, thankfully, I don’t have to worry about Glinda anymore, that’s someone else’s role. Deborah Cox is playing Glinda now. So I don’t have to be as bipolar. There’s enough time in between Aunt Em and Evillene that I can put one on and remove it completely before I get into the other.”
“The Wiz” at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, November 28-December 10, broadwayinchicago.com.