While The Wiz Live! lucked out in terms of its pre-existing book and score, its success also rested on execution. While the show fell into some of the same traps as NBC’s previous musical attempts, showcasing sparse sets and middling special effects, it managed to push past its rudimentary elements to flourish into an engaging piece of television. Credit Fierstein’s script, which towed the line between campy and over-the-top, having its players utter uber-modern phrases like “throwing shade,” without cheaply pandering to younger audiences.
However, The Wiz Live! truly soared when it focused on the performances of its stellar cast. Right off the bat, the chemistry between Williams’ Dorothy, Kelley’s Scarecrow, Ne-Yo’s Tin Man and Grier’s Lion feels natural and palpable, the warmth between the group easily selling the show’s message of friendship. Kelley, Ne-Yo and Grier all shine in their individual performances, both vocally and otherwise, bringing charm and wit to characters that often lean more towards caricatures. Mills (who originated the role of Dorothy on Broadway) proves fantastic as Aunt Em, starting the show off with a bang. As the three witches, Riley, Blige, and Aduba each added vocal chops and star power to the mix. Unfortunately, the only real weak link in the bunch is Latifah, who was theoretically perfect for the role of The Wiz but never appeared comfortable enough performing live to really pull it off.
The Wiz’s true standout is newcomer Shanice Williams. Williams plays Dorothy as feisty, resilient and vivacious, without skimping on the wide-eyed vulnerability that made Garland’s portrayal of the character so iconic. The role is more challenging than it seems, with Dorothy is the focal point of almost every scene in the show. But, the 18-year-old pulls it off with ease – while dancing and riffing no less – not once wavering in her commitment to character. It’s a stunning debut that is sure to get her a spot on Broadway (or at least a Ryan Murphy pilot) in the near future.
By all accounts, The Wiz Live! checks off a lot of boxes on any wishlist for a musical performance. There are enough big chorus numbers, beautifully belted ballads, and carefully sequined costumes to satisfy the most particular Broadway fan. However, where show’s execution falters is in its lack of commitment the theatrical elements that make musicals so great. Part of this issue stems from the fact the show is not performed for a live audience, leaving the moments where there would naturally be a pause for laughter or applause feeling empty – as if a necessary part of the experience is lacking.
More detrimental, however, is the way in which the special was filmed. Instead of using wide shots that focus on the enormity of the magical world that has been created on screen, The Wiz Live! tells much of its story in close ups and tighter shots. While this works at times, as it allows the audience to really gage how Dorothy is feeling in a given moment, guiding the audience’s attention to quieter moments makes it feel like a smaller story. The best part of seeing a musical like The Wiz on stage is the lavish, all encompassing spectacle of Oz that sweeps in and surrounds the audience. This is lost in The Wiz Live! as the audience is pointedly shown what to focus on in this world, instead of being given the opportunity to be lured into it.
All in all, The Wiz Live! is packed with talent, focused on showcasing brilliant vocal performances, and utilizes a rejuvenated script to become a piece of live television that NBC can be proud of. While it may not be enough to renew every musical-lover’s faith in live-to-TV performances, The Wiz Live! certainly proves that musicals have a place on television right now – and not just in late-night monologue jokes.
While it may not be enough to renew every musical-lover’s faith in live-to-TV performances, The Wiz Live! certainly proves that musicals have a place on television right now – and not just in late-night monologue jokes.