Mere minutes into NBC’s broadcast of The Wiz Live! you could feel the Internet – or at least its nicer corners – breathe a huge sigh of relief. The network’s previous attempts at creating a classic for a new generation with The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! resulted mostly in deflated fodder for live-tweeters hoping to get their fifteen minutes. Against all odds, The Wiz Live! managed to shake the Hate-Watch label and put on a legitimately entertaining show. Thanks to solid casting, spotless performances, and a strong choice of source material, NBC finally found a way to make appointment television satisfying for families and musical theatre fans alike.
Based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wiz eased on to the Broadway stage in 1975 as a soulful retelling that featured an all-black cast and a score with roots in pop and R&B. NBC’s take features a revamped script written by Harvey Fierstein and new songs aimed at introducing the musical to a fresh audience of young people. Yes, the 2015 vision of Oz features iPad-toting bouncers (Hi Common!) and “squad” shoutouts. But, thankfully, no, these additions don’t strip any of the heart from this familiar story.
Like most versions of the tale, The Wiz Live! begins in Kansas, with Dorothy (Shanice Williams), a frustrated young girl who is determined to leave her Aunt Em’s (Stephanie Mills) house and go back home to Nebraska. After getting caught in a storm, Dorothy is swept up by a tornado of professional dancers and finds herself dropped down in the strange new world of Munchkinland. There, she is visited by the kind-yet-ditsy Good Witch of the North, Addapearle (Amber Riley), who names Dorothy a hero for killing the Wicked Witch of the East in her fall. Dorothy just wants to get home, so the Good Witch sends her off to see the illustrious Wiz (Queen Latifah) in Emerald City.
Dorothy starts down the Yellow Brick Road toward the Wizard with the deceased Wicked Witch’s magical silver slippers in tow for protection. Along the way, she finds unlikely comrades in a friendly Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), a warm Tin Woodman (Ne-Yo), and a sad-sack Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier), all of whom are missing parts of themselves that Dorothy is sure the Wizard can provide.
Upon reaching Emerald City, the four are shocked to find a Wizard who is less than thrilled to help them, and only will on one condition: they kill the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (Mary J. Blige). On their quest, the four battle seductive poppies, deceptive shapeshifters, and flying monkeys all in the name of finding a brain, a heart, some courage, and a home – things they come realize they had inside themselves all along.
A large part of the credit for this successful stab at musical theatre is owed to NBC for a smart choice of source material. Putting on a musical with an all-black cast is clearly a strategic effort on behalf of NBC to combat criticism it has received for the lack of diversity in previous live performances, but regardless of the politics behind the choice, it’s always a welcome change to see more diverse performers on television.
The Wiz, albeit a strange and campy musical, injects life and energy into a timeless story, putting on a show that is upbeat, relishes in silliness, and has actual laughs. Furthermore, it does not disappoint in the music department. The Wiz’s score is peppered with elements of pop, gospel, R&B and soul, mixing danceable showstoppers like “Ease On Down The Road” with emotional ballads like “Be A Lion” and “Home” – songs that are likely to resonate more with a modern audience than the stuffy and dated tracks from Peter Pan.
Even the way the show is structured – by featuring powerhouse characters, like Evillene, Glinda (Uzo Aduba), and The Wiz, who show up for one or two solos and then disappear – seems to lend itself perfectly to this kind of live event. It allows NBC to bring in big names like Blige and Latifah to draw an audience and have their musical moment, without having to rely on a star, who cannot match the polish or stamina of a trained theatre actor, to carry the show.