The production that still has your parents, uncles and grandparents singing and reminiscing is airing live on NBC tonight. The Wiz has eased on down into 2015, bringing with it some of the best creatives in the business and an amazing cast. The best thing is that because of the live nature of the show, everyone (but especially you, Black Twitter) can offer praise and/or shade via social media as the performance unfolds.
Tonight you’ll see Stephanie Mills — the original Dorothy in the 1975 broadway play — as Auntie Em, Queen Latifah (the Wiz), Mary J. Blige (Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West), David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion), Uzo Aduba (Glinda the Good Witch), Ne-Yo (the Tin Man), Amber Riley (Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North), Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow), Common (the Bouncer in Oz), and Shanice Williams in her debut role as Dorothy.
With an all-black cast, The Wiz became a hallmark of the African-American community as a musical on broadway and then a movie. This live production’s ability to draw such star power might have stemmed from The Wiz’s historical impact. In fact, Mary J. Blige only decided to venture into this theatrical production because of what The Wiz represented to her growing up.
“100 percent that’s the only reason why I’m here,” Blige said, “The only reason why I’m here is because of The Wiz and what it’s done for me in my life as a kid, and so many of us in my neighborhood.
“Just growing up in the projects and hard places, these things uplifted us and gave us hope. So that’s why I’m here — so I can give someone else hope that’s somewhere living like I lived when I was coming up so they can be like: ‘I believe in myself too.’”
At the Grumman Studios in Long Island, where the set is, Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah told reporters that they both shared this connection with The Wiz that inspired them to dream beyond what they had ever seen.
“Seeing the whole journey — not The Wizard of Oz, [but] The Wiz — people that looked like me,” said Queen Latifah, “People that could be my aunties, or my cousins, or my mom for that matter, to hear these voices and to see the lighting and the production it just opened my mind up. It blew my mind.”
However, this version of The Wiz will not be a carbon-copy of any version before it. This rendition is particularly modern with Dorothy and cast doing modern street dances choreographed by the talented Fatima Robinson, who has choreographed everything from Dreamgirls to the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” video. The Wiz Live! script focuses more on explaining Dorothy’s backstory, her unhappiness, and ultimately her taking agency in her own journey to find where she belongs. The concept of finding oneself and defining home are still major themes in this version directed by Kenny Leon, Tony Award-winning Broadway and film director (Steel Magnolias, A Raisin in the Sun).
“It’s like, you know what, home is just where the love is,” Leon said, “So I think we all have gotten together to drive that home, specifically from an African-American point of view, but to make sure it has a universal appeal for all of us.”
Leon got together a phenomenal team to keep the specialness and universality of The Wiz. It originally emerged as an African-American version of a beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz. Except the remake had soul, songs that would become classics, and that certain magic that stems from the black community.
The Wiz is so special that even multiple Tony-award-winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein hesitated to re-write the script because he wasn’t sure if he could do it justice as someone who isn’t black. Fierstein is jewish man from Brooklyn. He grew up with African-American friends who adored the Wiz, he didn’t feel right altering such a major cultural touchstone that meant so much to his friends’ community.
“I said I am so flattered, but I don’t think you need this little Jew to write this,” Fierstein said, referencing a conversation he had with Leon over dinner when offered the position.
With some convincing by Leon, Fierstein ultimately changed his mind and reworked The Wiz in a way that he hopes will honor the African-American community.
No matter how marvelous the script, the generations of people who remember the impact of the original musical might be hesitant to accept the production altered in any way. This demographic of people, their millennial kids and young children will all be able to express their feelings about the production in real time via Twitter in particular. The cast and creatives know that they will be receiving instantaneous feedback, especially since they’ve had the chance to witness NBC’s other live musicals (The Sound of Music and Peter Pan), and some of the “hate-watching” that ensued.
“I’ve been a part of that reaction,” said David Alan Grier, who is cast as the Cowardly Lion, “I live-tweeted all the way through. Listen, I love the theatre and there is an evil joy that you take in like, ‘Did he just blow that note, what happened? Did you see that pirate trip? The one black pirate — he don’t get no lines?’
“So that’s the nature of twitter. We know Black Twitter is cocked and loaded.”
Black Twitter is a serious force, notoriously capable of identifying mistakes and mishaps and subsequently turning them into witty memes and hashtags. Grier said that Black Twitter would find that one curler stuck in the hair of his mane. So, he has been relentlessly trying to convince the cast to beware.
“He says that every day: ‘Can’t mess up ‘cuz Black Twitter is gonna jump on you,’” said Elijah Kelley, the scarecrow.
However, not everyone is concerned with what other people have to say. Amber Riley of Glee cast as Addaperle (The Good Witch of the North), said that she doesn’t really check blogs for critiques.
“I’m an artist, this is my art,” Riley said, “People are going to say what they want.”
The Wiz Live! is cast with artists that have worked hard to do justice to this iconic work. Perhaps tonight, seeing Dorothy navigate the meaning of home will be even more heartfelt because the actress playing her has experiences similar to the storyline.
“It’s crazy, I feel like I really relate to her,” said Shanice Williams, the 19 year-old cast as Dorothy, “I went to school in Los Angeles and I was just like: ‘I do not belong here.’ I came here [New York City] and I auditioned for this the day after I got off the plane…craziness.”
Despite showing up to NBC’s open calls with neither a manager nor serious assumptions that she would be considered for a role, Williams was discovered by Kenny Leon, who admits to immediately knowing she would be Dorothy. Perhaps it was Williams’s story of taking a chance to go across the country to find herself and what makes her feel at home that made her the obvious choice to play Dorothy.
You will want to cheer for her even after she gets on down the yellow-brick road, as she continues to live her dreams in hopes of inspiring other young girls to do the same.
“I hope that they [young girls] know most importantly that dreams come true,” Williams said, “One of the reasons why I feel like it’s really incredible that I got this on my first audition, not because I didn’t have to go through the whole struggling actor phase, but because it just shows people that nothing is impossible. Like if you really believe in yourself and believe in what you believe in, anything can happen.”