Queen Latifah, Ne-Yo, and More Will Introduce a Contemporary Oz in NBC's The Wiz Live!
In the all-new, Broadway-bound production, Kenny Leon unites 1975 and 2020 to create "now."
Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, Judy Garland's daughters, weren't allowed to watch The Wizard of Oz as young children. According to The Wiz Live! executive producer Craig Zadan, who grew up around the girls, their mother thought the movie was too terrifying. At the time, Zadan remembers wondering why his friends were so frightened — he only internalized the film's cheerful aspects — and it wasn't until watching the movie again later in life that he realized, "It is a really amazing story of scariness and joy." But it was seeing The Wiz on Broadway, a 1975 retelling of the classic tale through the lens of the African-American experience, that Zadan recalls as a "life-changing" experience.
"I thought that I had never seen a musical on Broadway that had the kind of joy and exuberance," he recalls. "I remember thinking that it was unique and different from anything I had ever seen before." With NBC's The Wiz Live!, which Zadan is presenting along with his producing partner Neil Meron, he'll be creating yet another exciting new version of this exuberant and slightly scary story.
A New Book
Just as The Wiz in its original form was a fantastical look at the America of the '70s, The Wiz Live!, which will air on December 3, will be a fresh and relevant look at Dorothy's story. With a cast that includes big names such as Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Common as the gatekeeper to Oz, Glee's Amber Riley as Addapearle, and David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, the show is sure to look familiar to its audience, and with an updated book by Harvey Fierstein, it's bound to ring true on an emotional level as well.
When Fierstein was offered the chance to rework The Wiz, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. There were questions, he said, that he always had about the Wizard of Oz story, like, "What happened to Dorothy's parents and what is her journey and is she just a victim?" Fierstein pointed out that in the original version, everything happens to Dorothy rather than Dorothy doing anything herself. In fact, she doesn't even kill the Wicked Witch, the house just lands on her. "So I made her not a victim," said Fierstein. "I made her in charge of her own life, and I made it about a real journey to figure something out."
Fierstein even made changes to the conclusion of the tale, taking the plot out of the hands of fate and placed it firmly in Dorothy's own grip. In the ending of the original, he recalls, she's totally powerless once again. "I don't like that sh*t," said Fierstein. "Hopefully I'm giving a new generation a new thing."
A New Dorothy
When the creators of The Wiz Live! considered whom to cast as this empowered Dorothy, they quickly realized they wanted to cast a new actress. Director Kenny Leon and his team had open casting calls in New York and Los Angeles, eventually finding 18-year-old New Jersey native Shanice Williams.
"[Shanice] is a living embodiment of Dorothy," said Leon. "She doesn't look like a Hollywood size 2. She looks like an ordinary girl who's beautiful [and] who went out for her passion and got an opportunity.
For Shanice, finding her way to Oz has been a whirlwind. The day before her first audition for The Wiz, she was flying home following her first year of college in L.A., with no plans to return to school. But she wasn't sure what she should do next. "I never even got cast in any shows at my college," she recalled. [The Wiz Live!] was my first real audition. So that really showed me that dreams do come true and nothing is impossible."
A New Song
Perhaps the biggest addition to The Wiz Live! is a fresh song, written by Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, music producer Harvey Mason Jr., and music director Stephen Oremus. Titled "We Got It," the new tune was a project initiated by Leon as soon as he got the call from Zadan and Meron.
But the songwriters were not without their misgivings. "You go, OK, this is a song that is going to be incorporated into the iconic story of The Wiz. Nothing you do is good enough for that," said Ne-Yo. Mason had different concerns. "My day job is making records and trying to be on the radio, so I didn't really want to stifle what I was doing to come backwards and do some stale stodgy music for an old Broadway show. I wanted to do something cool." Leon assured Mason that he had every intention of making the music contemporary. "This play is like 2020 running into 1975 to create a place that we call 'now,'" Leon said, and the new song fits right in. "It doesn't stick out; it complements everything that's already there."
A New Wiz
The most important piece of the puzzle was casting The Wiz him- (or her-) self. But for Zadan and Meron, there's always one phone number at the top of their lists: "The first call we make on a project is to Queen Latifah," smirked Zadan. The multihyphenate artist was also at the top of Leon's list: "The Wiz can be anything. I wasn't thinking about gender. I just said Queen Latifah. First thing out of my mouth," he said.
Latifah herself wasn't surprised to get the call. As a lifelong feminist, she's been working to empower women and girls in various roles throughout her career. Latifah's dream is for The Wiz Live! to empower young people in the audience, whether they're watching from a "foster home or a mansion in Calabasas," she said. "I want whatever their creativity is to be unleashed. Maybe they're not living the real life that they should be living, maybe something in there touches someone. That's the greatest hope for me."