It’s a little easier to find black people on film and television in 2015 than it was in the ’70s, when the original Broadway and film productions of The Wiz debuted. But the “urbanized retelling” of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains a cultural touchstone, especially for some of the actors in NBC’s live television broadcast of the production, The Wiz Live! which aired Thursday night.
Queen Latifah, who played The Wiz, had starred as Dorothy in her seventh-grade production (“my first standing ovation,” she told The New York Times). Mary J. Blige said she was drawn to the role of Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, because of the show-stopping number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” And Ne-Yo, the singer/songwriter/recording artist who played the Tin Man in the NBC production, told the Times, “I can see myself in these characters… It’s our responsibility to bring this story to the next generation.”
With a star-studded cast that also featured David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion), Common (the gatekeeper to Emerald City), Orange Is the New Black‘s Uzo Aduba (Glinda, the Good Witch of the South), and Glee‘s Amber Riley (Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North), the production took as many cues from the Broadway play as it did the 1978 film version, which starred Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor. Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the Broadway production but was unceremoniously left out of the film (in favor of Diana Ross), got some small measure of redemption and proved she’s still got the pipes in her role as Aunt Em. The Dorothy role went to fresh-faced, 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams, a New Jersey native who beat out hundreds in an open casting call for the role. And the more acrobatic elements came thanks to Cirque Du Soleil, who co-produced the show with Universal and lent its performers to three numbers: “Tornado,” “Emerald City,” and “Funky Monkeys.”
One of the more fascinating elements of watching theater on television is the freedom of the camera; at a show, you’re glued to your seat, often quite far from the faces of performers, who have to exaggerate their expressions to reach the far corners of the theater. But on television, the camera can zoom right up on Queen Latifah’s smug smirk, or Ne-Yo’s robotic smile. The camera did its best to add life to an otherwise sparse set, which got most of its aesthetic detail from massive video walls that changed with each scene. But the theater setup often proved awkward, like when Dorothy was hoisted in the air by the tornado (and some visible rigging). The dancing was fresh, though; choreographer and video director Fatima Robinson managed to work in contemporary moves like the Nae Nae and “Dabbing.”
Stretched over three hours (with many, many commercial breaks), the show seemed to drag on a bit, but only when the music stopped. Theater productions have a somewhat built-in element of corniness, but Harvey Mason Jr. did an excellent job of mixing in the classics with fresh beats and even new songs, like “We Got It,” which was jointly written by Ne-Yo and musical director Stephen Oremus. Ne-Yo’s performance was a highlight; we always knew he could sing, but he brought a subtlety to the Tin Man role that was surprisingly impressive, especially considering the intricate costume and makeup he had to contend with. In fact, all of the costumes, from Scarecrow’s mask to the Lion’s makeup to Glinda’s fiberoptic dress, looked incredible. The lone lowlight was the Lion’s tail; its texture did not translate well, and it looked like it belonged to a giant rat.
One thing made abundantly clear by The Wiz Live!: the music of The Wiz has aged significantly better than the staid Wizard of Oz (though, to be fair, it is considerably younger), and it’s better suited to bridge generation gaps in its audience than The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, the first two attempts at live theater from NBC. And while we see black people on the charts and on TV all the time, there’s still something incredibly powerful about seeing a massive theater production exclusively starring black people. Representation’s influence on culture cannot be overstated; the original production of The Wiz helped inspire young black people and convince them they belonged on stage; this version is likely to do the same for a new generation. Whether or not The Wiz Live! is deemed a commercial success remains to be seen, but live, it certainly felt important.