The Wiz: Live could have been a trainwreck. Instead, it was one of the best live television productions in years.
Prior to The Wiz, NBC's track record with live musicals was spotty. 2013's The Sound of Music Live, starring Carrie Underwood and True Blood's Stephen Moyer, was perfectly fine — nothing more, nothing less. The next year's Peter Pan Live was, by contrast, an unmitigated disaster, muddled and boring despite Allison Williams's frantic enthusiasm and the bizarre casting of Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.
But The Wiz: Live was immediately different, if only because it made a point of being immediately different. While it paid homage to the original disco musical that inspired it, The Wiz: Live took chances with everything from its production design to its stacked cast. It was exuberant, and even a little cocky. It was different from anything else NBC has aired all year, but hopefully its success (which was big enough that it is re-running on December 19) will inspire more programs like it in the future.
Here are four reasons The Wiz: Live was so great — and one huge missing element that could have made it even more spectacular.
The cast was absolutely committed — and it showed in powerhouse performance after powerhouse performance
Every time I thought I'd seen my favorite performance, another actor marched onstage and made an incredible case for herself. And I'm not just talking about the main cast; even the chorus lines and the Cirque de Soleil performers who sporadically twisted across the stage were excellent.
This started when Stephanie Mills, Broadway's original Dorothy, crooned a heartfelt but powerful ballad as the practical Auntie Em. It continued with The Wiz: Live's Dorothy (Shanice Williams), and exploded with Glee's Amber Riley as feisty witch Addaperle. Riley, who was so badly underserved on Ryan Murphy's musical dramedy, glowed with joy throughout her number ("He's the Wiz"), and her enormous voice never came close to wavering. The same wasn't quite true for Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), who floated in as Glinda toward the very end of the show and had some trouble belting out her final verses. But her rendition of "Believe in Yourself" showed off her gorgeous alto voice, and she clearly meant every word she was singing, so, really, a few pitchy notes here and there barely mattered.
Dorothy's companions — or, to use her words, the members of her "squad" — all brought their own interpretations to roles that have been played to death and back. Elijah Kelley's Scarecrow was anxious but still loose-limbed and frenetic. Ne-Yo's falsetto brought the Tin Man's heartache right to the surface, and David Alan Grier was visibly psyched to contribute his particular brand of goofy energy to the Cowardly Lion.
The production's two biggest standouts won't surprise anyone who was familiar with the cast roster going in. Mary J. Blige stormed out as Evilene, The Wiz's wicked witch, with such a hard and fast glare that I half expected the stage to catch fire. Her "acting" mostly consisted of spitting emphatic insults, but it was exactly what the dramatic part needed. Most importantly, Blige crushed "No Bad News," Evilene's gospel solo number that brings the musical to church.
Queen Latifah had an incredibly difficult job in playing the titular Wiz, Emerald City's mysterious and charismatic leader. But from the second she emerged from the smoke, Bowie-esque in a glittering cape and green-streaked pompadour(!), Latifah owned the already considerable stage. In male drag as the Wiz, she was endlessly magnetic. As the lost Omaha woman hiding behind the Wiz's smooth exterior, she was weary but warm. By the time she floated away in her hot air balloon, there was no forgetting why the musical is named for that character.
Newcomer Shanice Williams is a treasure
As good as The Wiz: Live's casting was, most of the actors were safe bets — except for Dorothy. The 19-year-old Shanice Williams had never been tested on such a huge stage before, but if all else failed, all she had to do was hang in there and let everyone around her carry the show.
Luckily for us, Williams was so radiant that she immediately made an impression.
The Wiz's Dorothy isn't the meek and nervous girl of The Wizard of Oz. She's caring and kind, sure, but she's also unflinchingly confident and quick to push back against any jerks who question her or her friends. Williams embraced the fun of the role, pivoting from concern to cockiness within seconds when needed.
Also: Damn, does she have a voice.
The control and depth of Williams's singing would be stunning for a seasoned performer; for a teenager, it's frankly ridiculous. Yes, she wavered more when she had to dance, and you could hear her fatigue as the show came to a close, but if this is the kind of performance she can churn out now, just think of how much she stands to achieve in years to come.
Paul Tazewell's costumes were nothing short of magnificent
Even if all the singing had been a bust, The Wiz: Live would have been worth watching for Paul Tazewell's incredible work with the costumes. Even before Dorothy arrived in Oz, the clothes clued us in to what this Wiz was aiming to do. Dorothy skipped onstage in a plaid skirt and sneakers; the Scarecrow doffed a Kansas Royals baseball hat. In other words, it was never going to be a strict recreation of the 1970s-era Wiz.
Once Dorothy landed in Oz, though, Tazewell pulled out some next-level wizardry. Every single character was meticulously and elaborately imagined. There were the slightly alien Munchkins, the tough-guy crows who taunted the Scarecrow, the seductive poppies with headdresses blooming and wilting around their faces and winding limbs. There was Evilene's "dominatrix meets steampunk" uniform, which snaked around her impeccably coiffed head, almost like a cage. But the glittering, vogue-ing citizens of the Emerald City were easily the most fun — as well as the easiest to meme, if the Twitter reactions are anything to go by.
With The Wiz: Live, Tazewell, whose résumé also boasts the costumes for Hamilton and In the Heights, showed a range of design that is just staggering in its ambition and fearless creativity.
The Wiz: Live was a modern retelling of the original musical that didn't try too hard to be relevant — it just was
The Wiz: Live's greatest triumph was that it managed to honor a musical born in 1974 while giving itself room to experiment. Just like with Tazewell's nods to modern fashion, writer Harvey Fierstein and veteran choreographer Fatima Robinson's work told a slightly different story than the one Broadway debuted more than 40 years ago.
The 2015 updates included Latifah's genderqueer Wiz; Blige's Evilene screaming, "Work! Fierce! Slay!" at her beleaguered minions; and dance routines featuring post-1974 moves like the Nae Nae, dabbing, and crumping.
Which brings me to one of the most exciting aspects of The Wiz: Live — its wholehearted embrace of black American culture. Yes, it wanted to entertain everyone who watched it, but it took extra care to acknowledge the audience that made The Wiz such a phenomenon in the first place. Even today, an all-black cast and an unapologetic script full of cultural jokes that white Americans might not get are still anomalies. But The Wiz: Live's fearless cast and astonishing technical feats prove why the production was so important. More than anything, it was a celebration — one that will mean more by default to the members of its audience who've traditionally lacked more visible representation in the media.
But to be truly great, The Wiz: Live needed one more thing: an audience
As far as logistics go, I understand why the production didn't have a live in-theater audience. Looking at the musical from a performance standpoint, though, it's just a shame an audience wasn't in the cards. Neither of NBC's past live productions, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, needed to feed off a live audience's energy to work. But The Wiz is built around the kind of splashy numbers and comedic timing that would benefit from an audience laughing and clapping along. In fact, both the book and the music have extra time built in to account for that kind of reaction, to the point that The Wiz: Live suffered a few awkward pauses after its songs ended on soaring notes, and some of its jokes came off as weak because there wasn't anyone around to laugh at them.
Still, the production proved that it didn't require immediate validation to deliver some truly unforgettable performances. And really, it only speaks highly of The Wiz: Live that I kept getting distracted by the fact that none of many breathtaking performances were receiving the thunderous applause they deserved.
The Wiz: Live! is re-running December 19 on NBC at 8 p.m.