The Real Story Behind The Wiz Live!

This week NBC wants to take you to Oz. Not the Oz of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Follow The Yellow Brick Road," but the Oz of “Home” and “Ease On Down The Road.” The network is mounting The Wiz Live! this Thursday in what will be the third installment in its now annual live musical tradition.

The past two productions that have gotten this treatment have been more old-fashioned. The Sound of Music and Peter Pan are from Broadway's "golden age" of the 1940s and '50s. The Wiz, meanwhile, comes from the 1970s, after the notion of what kind of music belonged on Broadway had been upended by Hair in 1968. The Wiz presented audiences a very familiar story (L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz) told in an unfamiliar way. The show featured soul music by Charlie Smalls and a Black cast.

Though an unknown, named Shanice Williams, is taking on the role of Dorothy for The Wiz Live!, the rest of the cast is filled with recognizable names: Queen Latifah is The Wiz herself, Mary J. Blige is the wicked witch Evillene, Ne-Yo is Tin Man, and David Alan Grier is the Lion. A television version of The Wiz, packed with stars, brings the musical full circle, in a way. That’s how producer Ken Harper, a former radio DJ, first envisioned the project. “I was looking for musical material for a one-hour special,” Harper told The Chicago Tribune in 1975. “I hit on the story of Oz because I thought it might be a good vehicle for Melba Moore as Dorothy, with Flip Wilson as the Scarecrow and Bill Cosby as the Cowardly Lion. Later I realized the idea was commercial without major stars, and I began thinking of fresh talent for the parts.”

Hence, Harper went the Broadway route, with the backing of Twentieth Century Fox. When the production opened in 1975, starring a teenage Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote that “the concept is very good in theory, but the practice is not made perfect.” Even with that damningly faint praise, the show started to build an audience through a publicity blitz. It went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and run for four years.
The show captivated The Wiz Live! executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. “We have had a long love affair with The Wiz, starting from seeing the original Broadway production in 1975, individually... knowing how breakthrough it was at that moment, and having it just set a course for Black musicals to become popular entertainment,” Meron told Refinery29. “There are a lot of important moments that production created that really stand the test of time.”

While The Wiz wasn’t the first Black musical on Broadway, it was something new. “Until The Wiz, Black Broadway fell largely into two categories: jazzy, energetic shows that exploited black culture and style without even acknowledging the racial divide in the United States, and Civil Rights plays and musicals that made racial politics their central subject,” artistic director of New York’s Encores! Jack Viertel wrote in Playbill in 2009. “The Wiz did something both bolder and more casual: it took a favorite ‘white’ story, and refashioned it in African-American stylistic terms. It dared to say to a largely white audience: you may think this is your story, but it really belongs to all of us. It's just a really good story. And we can tell it in our culture in our own way; if you are willing to listen, you will hear it anew.”

But for many, The Wiz conjures up a different image: Diana Ross skipping alongside Michael Jackson in the 1978 movie adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet. That version relocated the action from Kansas to New York, and made the 34-year-old Ross’ Dorothy a kindergarten teacher. In her review for the New Yorker Pauline Kael wrote: “Shot entirely in the refurbished Astoria Studios and on New York locations, The Wiz is easily the most expensive film ever made here; it is also the most expensive film ever made with a black cast and, in fact, it is the most expensive movie musical ever made.” Despite the enormous investment, The Wiz was panned. Kael wrote that “each time [Ross] starts glowing for a number, it’s like a nightmare version of ‘Sesame Street.’”

That’s not to say there is no affection for the film. The Grio’s Adam Howard declared in 2011, upon Lumet’s death, that it “has found new life as a black cult classic.” Meron and Zadan discovered that while some of the members of their The Wiz Live! cast had ties to the stage production, others were more devoted to the screen version.

“When we called our friend Queen Latifah to be in it, she said, 'When I was a little girl, the first show I saw on Broadway was The Wiz, and when Stephanie Mills sang ‘Home’ I cried, and I decided that night that I wanted to be a performer.'” Zadan said. “When we did the Oscars last year and we staged the ‘Glory’ number and met Common, Common said, ‘What are you doing next?’ And we said, ‘The Wiz.’ Common said, 'Oh my God, you’ve got to find a place for me in that.' He said, 'That movie changed a generation. It means so much to the community and it means so much to me personally.'”

The Wiz Live!, however, more closely replicates the play rather than the movie, though not without some alterations. Broadway writer Harvey Fierstein (La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots) has reworked the show’s book to make it "deeper and more emotional," and music producer Harvey Mason Jr. has tinkered with music. “[They're] the same songs and all of that, but it has a freshness and a quality that makes it a little cooler and hipper,” Zadan said. Cirque Du Soleil is co-producing, meaning that there are some acrobatic elements to the choreography by Fatima Robinson.

This reboot of The Wiz seems to arrive at a perfect cultural moment, at the tail end of a landmark year for diversity on television. But Zadan said that he and Meron didn’t choose The Wiz to jump on a trend, and that they had been working on securing the rights for a while. “All of these things that happened were just coincidental,” he said. “We didn’t say, 'Hey, Empire’s a big hit, and [Straight Outta] Compton is a big feature film, and all these other things happened, and racism is a discussion that’s ongoing now in our country, so therefore let’s do a black musical.' That was not the case. It just turned out by coincidence that the timing fell into place, and it had its own meaning and became part of the zeitgeist.”

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The Wiz Live! is a one-time-only affair, but unlike The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live!, the event marks the beginning of a new life for the musical. There are plans in place to bring it back to Broadway for the 2016-17 season. Just like Dorothy, it’s coming home.
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