NBC hasn’t had the best track record with live-action musicals, but there was something really special about the network’s third attempt — “The Wiz Live!”
The cast of “The Wiz” has always been black, of course. The 1974 musical won seven Tony Awards and opened up opportunities for black actors (and productions) on Broadway. In 1978, it was adapted into a feature film, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. “The Wiz” is a beloved classic — so sacred, in fact, that there were fears about presenting it in a live-action format.
From the start, “The Wiz Live” felt more high-energy than its predecessors. The decision to cast newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy — was an especially smart one. Unlike previous productions that starred Allison Williams (“Peter Pan Live“) and Carrie Underwood (“The Sound of Music“), there were no preconceived notions to be had about the show’s star. Having seen Williams bring such a youthful spirit to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Dorothy.
Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy on Broadway, played Aunt Em, an appropriate nod to the show’s enduring legacy. We knew we were in good hands when Mills performed the first song of the night — a soulful rendition of “The Feeling We Once Had.”
Thursday’s telecast was a reminder of the discrepancies between the Broadway show and the film, which swapped the original Kansas setting for Harlem. “The Wiz Live!” more closely resembled the Broadway show — Dorothy living in Kansas with her Aunt Em — but there were updates to various aspects of the production. Director Kenny Leon, who won a Tony Award last year for his work on “A Raisin in the Sun” tapped Harvey Fierstein to make some changes to the book. A new song, “We Got It,” was written specifically for the telecast. And acrobatic performers from Cirque du Soleil were well integrated into the production.
There were also modern updates that gave a nod to the show’s live-tweeting audience: Addaperle (Amber Riley) and The Bouncer (Common) used tablets. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) did the stanky leg! Evillene (Mary J. Blige) name-dropped Eddie Murphy. And once Dorothy and her “squad” got to Emerald City, there was a dance scene with actual vogueing.
The production suffered from some clunky dialogue, but there were also meme-worthy lines like Ne-Yo’s amusing Tin Man telling Dorothy that he’d “mollywop any fool” that tried to mess with her. When Queen Latifah’s Wiz was revealed to be a woman, to the surprise of David Alan Grier’s Cowardly Lion, Dorothy immediately chimed in with “and what’s wrong with being a woman?!,” as if speaking directly to Twitter.
Where previous live-action musicals felt stiff and boring, “The Wiz Live” was mesmerizing in a way that made the commercial breaks feel disruptive. Standout musical numbers included “He’s The Wiz,” which Riley belted out as if it were a studio recording. Kelley gave a rousing rendition of “You Can’t Win.” And Blige, who seemed to be having an especially good time, delivered as the Wicked Witch of the West on “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” while bossing around her Winged Warriors like your worst (best) zumba instructor. “Werk!”
As Glinda the Good Witch, Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) gave a powerful performance of “Believe in Yourself,” before sending Dorothy home to Kansas with a few clicks of her silver heels, leading into Williams’s chills-inducing performance of “Home.” And we found Toto after all — he was waiting with Aunt Em, back in Kansas.
“The Wiz Live” just proved that live-action musicals can be a worthy endeavor. Will it become the exception or the rule?