Two years ago, NBC established a new tradition: Resurrecting old musicals while viewers hate-tweet throughout the entire show. This new business model was a smash success in 2013 with “Sound of Music Live!” (18.5 million viewers) and a lesser one with “Peter Pan Live!” (9 million viewers) last year.
The network’s third musical — “The Wiz Live!” — airs Thursday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time. But unlike the hours before the launch of “Peter Pan,” you can’t really hear the critics sharpening their knives. In fact, all indications suggest “The Wiz” might escape the snark that overtook the first few productions — that viewers might actually be genuinely looking forward to it! Here are three reasons why:
1) NBC went with an unknown as the star.
It probably got a lot harder to woo actors to step into a role for which the world is lining up to mercilessly mock you. Carrie Underwood experienced it as “The Sound of Music’s” Maria, while Allison Williams as Peter Pan brought on the haters.
So the network made a shrewd decision to open up the casting search for a new Dorothy nationwide, looking for a complete unknown. (“Casting directors will be looking for a young African-American woman between 18-27 years old. She must have an extraordinary voice that can tell a story, as well as be mature with a youthful energy.”)
Nineteen-year-old New Jersey regional theater actress Shanice Williams won the part — and look at her! She’s delightful! Social media grinches might be gunning for an established starlet, but is Twitter really going to skewer a young, eager, brand-new actress? Well, some people might, but it won’t seem terribly clever.
2) The rest of the cast is solid.
A slew of R&B stars fill out the rest of the cast: Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West; Ne-Yo as Tin-Man; Common as an Emerald City guard. Plus, beloved “Orange is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba plays the Good Witch of the South; “Glee’s” Amber Riley plays the Good Witch of the North; and Queen Latifah shows off her chops as the Wiz. In other words, more marquee names than in the previous musicals, which enlisted a handful of stars like Christopher Walken as Captain Hook and Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp — but few other recognizable faces.
Even if “The Wiz” stars doesn’t have as much name recognition as a Walken, that’s intentional. “For ‘The Wiz,’ I don’t think it’s as necessary to have one featured star because there are six iconic characters that we know and love,” NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt told Adweek. “So I actually think in the case of ‘The Wiz,’ we could build an ensemble of really interesting actors that maybe aren’t superstars.”
3) It feels like a more modern production.
While the origins of “Peter Pan” hark back to the 1900s and “The Sound of Music” first hit Broadway in 1959, “The Wiz” — a reimagined version of “The Wizard of Oz” with an all-black cast — debuted in 1974; the movie version, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, was released in 1978. Seems like NBC is hoping for an even younger audience that might be actually entertained by the production — instead of just using it as an excuse for snark.