No amount of clapping could have brought last year’s NBC telecast Peter Pan Live! to life. And our heads are still spinning like a maniacal Carrie Underwood on a soundstage hilltop over the previous year’s woefully miscast, similarly snoozy production of Sound of Music Live!
Despite both productions’ critical thrashings and the tidal wave of giddy hate-tweeting that they spawned, they were rare ratings blockbusters for a network—heck, an entire TV landscape—starved for the practically extinct practice of live event viewing. A third go at a musical production was a foregone conclusion.
So here we are, steeling our minds, hearts, and nerves to oh-so-cautiously ease on down the road for Thursday night’s telecast of The Wiz Live!
A trip to the Grumman Studios set on Long Island where the groovy trip to Oz will be staged revealed a cast and crew—among them Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evilene, and newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy—as optimistic as a Kansas teen about their production’s prospects for ending the tradition of snarky hate-watching.
Maybe Glinda’s wand, handled here by Orange Is the New Black Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba, has cast a spell on them.
They’re predicting a live musical spectacular that will erase unpleasant memories of musicals past, transport The Wiz from 1975 to present day, and have the same transformative cultural effect as the original production did when an African-American version of The Wizard of Oz trailblazed its way to the Broadway stage exactly 40 years ago.
And what brains, heart, and courage are they employing in order to do this?
For one, forget what you know about The Wiz and that New York City-commentary Sidney Lumet movie version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson that you watched in middle school. We’re back in Kansas, folks.
Two, hire Harvey Fierstein to pen a script that finally, after all those years pop culture has spent in Oz, gives Dorothy some agency. And three, enlist top Grammy-winning producers and hip-hop’s best choreographer to update an aging, arguably corny musical for a new generation.
Oh yes, get ready to watch Dorothy whip and nae nae.
Everyone remembers their first encounter with the Wizard of Oz legacy. “Me? I was heterosexual,” Harvey Fierstein jokes. “And then I seen them shoes, end of story…”
Fierstein, who has carved a bit of a niche for himself in updating classic scripts for musical theater (Kinky Boots, Newsies, La Cage aux Folles), has his own special connection to The Wiz, too.
By the time producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, Hairspray, the last three Academy Awards shows) approached him about writing new material for The Wiz, Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, Steel Magnolias) had already signed on to direct.
The two had dinner “and I gave him a lecture on how important The Wiz was to me as a little Jew white boy from Brooklyn,” Fierstein says, his trademark Bensonhurst rasp cutting through the din of The Wiz team members gathered at Grumman Studios to speak to press.
“As important as seeing Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway was to me, this was to my black friends very important,” he goes on. “And so I said [to Leon] I am so flattered but I don’t think you need this little Jew to write this. You need some African American, the way it was written originally.”
That’s when Leon reminded him: The original script for the Broadway version of The Wiz was written by a white man, William Brown.
Four decades ago, Brown did a serviceable job of penning a script that set up the show’s iconic musical numbers, but left much to be desired in terms of character development and story. Here was a heroine who just sort of floats on down the yellow brick road, never questioning the journey.
Fierstein wanted to give her some agency, to empower her. You might go as far as calling her the feminist Dorothy.
“The question nobody asks is, why?” Fierstein says. “I said there are certain questions I’ve always had, like ‘What happened to Dorothy’s parents?’ and ‘What is her journey?’ and ‘Is she just a victim?’ Because she didn’t kill the [first] witch—the house gets picked up. And so I made her not a victim.”
In this version, Dorothy was born in Omaha, but moves to her Auntie Em’s house in Kansas when her parents die. She’s not happy there. It doesn’t feel like home—at least not until she’s taken up in a storm, whisked away to Oz, and forced to confront her past and her future.
“So she becomes the hero of her own story in this version,” Fierstein says.
Meron remembers when he and Zadan produced an updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on ABC in 1997 starring Brandy and Whitney Houston. “We made sure that Brandy wasn’t a victim either,” he says, remembering letters he received from girls about what that meant to them. “At that moment we learned how important doing those types of things were,” he says. “So it’s kind of taking those lessons that we learned from that time and instilling them in Dorothy.”
Does it work?
“I think Harvey brought The Wiz from 1975 to now in 2015,” says Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy in The Wiz on Broadway 40 years ago and stars as Auntie Em in the NBC staging—the ultimate co-signer. “He brought it right in to where it needed to be.”
Of course, Dorothy’s renewed sense of conviction isn’t the only alteration Wiz purists will notice. The musical numbers are getting an update, too. If you’re gonna ease on down the road in 2015, you gotta do it with 2015 swagger.
Musical producer Harvey Mason Jr., who has worked with the likes of Chris Brown and Beyoncé, worked with musical director Stephen Oremus, a Tony-winner for his orchestrations for The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots, to marry a Broadway sound of 40 years ago with hipper modern musical tastes.
“We dressed it every way you can dress it,” Mason says about the show’s signature number. But Oremus is quick to clarify that they’re not in the business of fixing something that isn’t broken: “We’re not just putting a hip-hop beat on something and going, ‘Here! It’s new!’”
But there will be a hip-hop beat. And there will be hip-hop dancing.
“We’re touching upon every street dance out there,” choreographer Fatima Robinson says. “We’re hitting the Quan.” (Don’t worry, we also had to google what that is. Here’s an explainer.) “We’re hitting the nae nae.” (Of “watch me whip…” fame.) “We have every kind of fun street dance that’s out there incorporated into the choreography.”
Barely containing her excitement about it all is 19-year-old Shanice Williams, who will be making her professional acting debut in The Wiz Live! after auditioning in an open call to play Dorothy—just one day after moving to New York to pursue a career in the arts.
“Listen, we do the nae nae,” she says, kicking her feet with giddiness. “We do everything. The whip—but in the classiest way. It’s not gonna be ratchet!”
Naturally, when the word “ratchet” is being invoked to talk about a classic Broadway musical, the Twitter army begins stretching its typing fingers and loading its 140-character guns.
To do a live event like this, as the casts of Peter Pan and Sound of Music Live! can attest, is to march stoically to the firing squad of hate-tweeters ready to pick apart every second of psychedelic crocodile screen time and broke-ass Maria Von Trapp wig.
“I’ve been part of that reaction,” says David Alan Grier, who plays the Lion, roaring out a guffaw. “I live-tweeted all the way through. Listen, I love the theater. And there is an evil joy you take in like, ‘Did he just blow that note? What happened? Did you see that pirate trip? There’s one black pirate—he don’t get no lines!?’ So that’s the nature of Twitter. We know Black Twitter is cocked and loaded.”
Elijah Kelly, the Scarecrow sitting just to the right of his Lion friend, starts cackling: “He says that every day. ‘Watch out for Black Twitter!’”
“They’re going to find that one curler stuck in her hair,” Grier says, before getting serious. “We’re really trying to put the best, most enjoyable show on. And damn the torpedoes. Throw it all on the wall. And just know whatever you saw, we’re giving our all, man.”
But if the Wiz cast is putting on some armor underneath their elaborate costumes to brace themselves for what might be headed their way on social media, their fearless leaders Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have already become bulletproof to it—and not just from weathering the reaction to the previous two live musicals.
“We don’t deal with critics. We produced the Oscars the last three years,” Zadan says with a good-natured laugh. “And if you have the audacity to produce the Oscars for three years you just do what you think is right. You follow your existent vision. And if people like it, it’s fantastic. And if they don’t, they don’t.”
And while a critics-be-damned attitude is maybe the only truly healthy one to take, Leon does feel a responsibility not to offend different generations who feel fierce ownership over the groundbreaking nature of The Wiz.
He doesn’t take it lightly and, as such, “I think we’ve got a shot of people embracing this,” he says. “I was telling my friend Sam Jackson, ‘As long as people are sharpening their pencils…’ So as long as people are responding, that’s probably OK.”
When Queen Latifah was 5 years old, she saw Stephanie Mills sing “Home” in the original Broadway production of The Wiz.
“It was mind-blowing to me, to be honest with you,” she says. She remembers her eyes welled with tears. “Having never been to Broadway and then seeing this for the first time and seeing this whole journey,” she says. “Not The Wizard of Oz. The Wiz. People who looked like me. People who could be my auntie or my cousins or my mom, for that matter.”
Her destiny was set. She was, well, home.
“It made me realize it’s possible maybe to do this, maybe not as a job—I don’t know if I saw it as a career yet—but I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
In her seventh-grade production of The Wiz at St. Ann’s Catholic School in Newark, Latifah got her first standing ovation as one of three Dorothys. Forty years after being first introduced to the show that would change her life, she’ll play The Wiz, the great and powerful one who, at least superficially, has the power to help us all find our way home.
“This opens up a world,” she says about NBC deciding to produce The Wiz, of all possible shows. “And I hope that it just touches someone. Not just someone African-American. But anyone who feels it and feels like, ‘This can be me. I can do this.’ And then inspires the person watching it.”
Sitting next to Latifah with a big grin on her face as she watches her friend talk is Mary J. Blige. The R&B singer is looking downright inspired herself as Latifah waxes on. And she needs the inspiration.
Blige plays Evilene, The Wiz’s version of the Wicked Witch who belts out the gospel hellraiser “No Bad News,” sure to be a highpoint of the production with Blige the one taking us to church. The acting, however, to hear the Grammy-winner tell it, is a different story.
“This is hard,” she says, cutting it to it. “I’m trying to work to make it happen. And it’s very uncomfortable. But I’m finding it.”
If it wasn’t The Wiz, and the personal connection she has to it, she wouldn’t be putting herself through this—but it’s also what’s motivating her to knock it out of the park.
“100 percent,” she says. “The only reason that I’m here is because of The Wiz and what it’s done for me and my life as a kid and so many of us in my neighborhood. Growing up in the projects and hard places, these things lifted us and gave us hope. That’s why I’m here, so I can give someone else hope that somewhere living where I lived when I was growing up so they can be like, ‘I believe in myself, too.’”
These NBC musicals have become an annual tradition of sorts for the network. A holiday treat—whether you’re a musical theater super fan swooning over Audra MacDonald singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” or a Twitter comedian going to town on Allison Williams’s crowing—that marks the rare television event where an entire family can watch together, which certainly counts for something.
“This is something that feels right for me this time of year,” Latifah says, saying again she hopes people are inspired by it. “And if not, hey, just enjoy the ride and go along for the journey, having your kids quiet for like two hours.”
Really, no bad news.