Last Thursday night (Dec 3rd,) me and 11.5 million of my friends tuned in to watch The Wiz Live, but before I get into all that let me back it up.
Here’s the thing about putting together a remake or an adaption. It always helps to gather a cast that’s as good if not better than the original. The Sound of Music was one of my favorites growing up and I remember watching the scratchy VHS of Peter Pan featuring Mary Martin over and over again at my neighbor’s house when I was little. But when I saw what NBC was doing with these first two live broadcasts I was a little confused. Vampire Bill? Christopher Walken? I don’t know what was going on in those production meetings and I’m not sure I want to know. I thought NBC learned their lesson when Walken froze several times, forgetting his lines. I wasn’t expecting them to plan another live production for a while over and imagine how skeptical I was when I heard they were taking a crack at The Wiz next.
For those who don’t know, the original 1974 production of The Wiz, a musical adaptation of the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first debuted in Baltimore. For other people who didn’t know, The Wiz has always had an all black cast so this new line up should not have comes as a surprise. The original Broadway production of The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
For those who extra don’t know, The Wizard of Oz/The Wiz tells the story of Dorothy, a young girl magically transported to the Land of Oz, and her adventure to get back home to her Aunt Em’s house in Kansas. I loved the original movie and coveted the hell out of those ruby slippers. When I finally saw the 1978 film of The Wiz, I drove my mom nuts screaming the lyrics to “Everybody Rejoice” all over the house. Most people familiar with The Wiz, have seen the ‘78 film and immediately picture Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Lena Horne. I mean, think of those three names for a minute and really consider if a live remake is something you’re ready to tackle. I was skeptical alright, until actor by actor, NBC announced the cast over the summer. I squealed with girlish glee with every new name added to the list.
Unlike the first two live NBC productions, everyone in this cast can sing. And I mean everyone. Stephanie Mills who plays Aunt Em, was that original Dorothy who won all those Tony awards. R&B singers Ne-yo (the Tinman) and Mary J. Blige (the wicked witch Evillene) had nothing to prove. Then you have Queen Latifah (the Wizard) who made it known in Chicago and Hairspray that she had the chops to rap and sing. Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow) who starred alongside Latifah in Hairspray showed he can sing and dance his butt off. Amber Riley (Addapearl) killed it on Glee, plain and simple. I’ve played her version of “Don’t Want to Lose You Now” in my car approximately seven hundred times. Oh and she won Dancing With the Stars.
Many might not know that David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion) has pipes, but he’s being singing over the top and perfectly on key since his early stand up days and sketches on In Living Color. Uzo Aduba, who most people know from her role as Suzanne/Crazy Eyes on Orange Is the New Black has a background in opera, and that just leaves the newbie, 19 year old, Shanice Williams. Clearly at this point in the process it would be plain silly to cast someone who couldn’t hold her own as Dorothy. Shanice has a gift. I can’t explain it any other way. I’m looking forward to great things from her.
The production team on this version of The Wiz, headed by director Kenny Leon, made some excellent choices when it came to simple updates to bring the performance to a 2015 audience. Dorothy starts off in ruby studded high top wedge sneakers The hairstyles on the Munchkins included fingerwaves, dreadlocks, kinky twists, afros and asymmetrical flat tops. Addaperle incorporates an iPad into her magic. Dorothy utters the phrase “What had happened was?”. The Scarecrow has an uncanny resemblance to artist Jean Michael Basquiat. The citizens of Emerald City are too busy voguing to take Dorothy’s request to see the Wizard seriously. And in a lovely twist, the Wizard is played by a woman.
Finally bring the journey to an end with the glorious appearance of Glinda The Good Witch portrayed by a dark skinned black woman with full gap in her teeth brought a tear to my eye. Or five. I started weeping the moment Uzo started talking. (The moment she sees her, Dorothy exclaims how beautiful she is.) In a smart move, Toto was missing from the bulk of the production, only showing up in the beginning and the very end. I’m sure no one, including Shanice, thought it would be a good idea to have a dog along for a live stage show. Please check Twitter for some hilarious reactions to the lack of Toto.
This production was choreographed by Fatimah Robinson who is the genius behind music videos by Aaliyah, Rihanna, Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, and Prince. Some of you might remember her work from those awesome GAP ads in the late ’90s. Fatimah refreshed the numbers, taking out swing dancing moves and old timey favorites like the Charleston, and replacing them with Dabbing and the Stanky Leg. She even managed to work in Mary J. Blige’s most gif’d dance move.
For me, Michael Jackson was my favorite part of the 1978 Wiz, so I was ready to instantly jump on Elijah Kelley’s Scarecrow bandwagon. Surprisingly David Alan Grier, brought a false bravado and warm humor to the Cowardly Lion I wasn’t expecting, and his rendition of “Mean Old Lion”, “Be A Lion” and his moves during their run in with the Poppy Girls completely won me over. Mary J. Blige also brought a special umph to her evil Evillene. To me I really felt like Mary played up the character for the kids and I just loved that. I’d like to say I have a favorite song, but I’d be lying. Every song is great, “What Would I Do If I Could Feel”, “We Got It”, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”, “Everybody Rejoice”, being the tracks I know I’ll listen to on repeat the most when the soundtrack releases on December 11. The Wiz Live is available now on NBC.com and Hulu, for your first or in my case fifth viewing.
Rebekah Weatherspoon was raised in Southern New Hampshire and now lives in Southern California with a great human, one cat whom she loves dearly and another cat she wants to take back to the shelter. Her most recent release, So Sweet is out now. You can find out more about Rebekah and the steamy, funny romance she writes at RebekahWeatherspoon.com or find her on Facebook or Twitter.