‘The Wiz’ Eases on Down the Road to Television

Posted December 3, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

From theatre to the big screen and now to live television, The Wiz comes full circle on 4oth anniversary

The Wiz, a Tony winning musical that put an Afro-centric and urban spin to the Wizard of Oz, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. And the year-long commemorations have been over the top, a perfect theatric overture to the riveting 1972 musical. To kick off the milestone, Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS showed off a terrific mini-production of The Wiz at the 26th annual Gypsy of the Year. The event, raising over $5,229,611 for charity, featured Ken Page as The Cowardly Lion, original Wiz cast members Andre’ De Shields (The Wizard) and Dee Dee Bridgewater (Glinda the Good Witch) and performances by Charl Brown and Lillias White. But that wasn’t enough.

After success of putting Broadway and theatre classics like The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, the NBC televison network announced that the next live television special theatre presentation in the works would be The Wiz. As the 2015 rolled on, the announcement of its all-star cast made news headlines. Stephanie Mills, the Dorothy of the original Broadway version, was signed on to play Aunt ‘Em. Then came revelations of Ne-YoQueen Latifah, rapper CommonMary J. Blige, television veteran David Alan Grier and Glee’s Amber Riley joining the force. Las Vegas entertainment troupe Cirque du Soleil was also assigned to bring big showmanship and glitz to the special.

The Wiz was turned into a motion picture in 1978 by Berry Gordy’s cinema arm of Motown Records and ended up being a commercial failure. It was also panned by a number of critics, but it did yield a commanding performance by Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow. Jackson would play alongside his musical mentor Diana Ross, who took on the daunting role of Dorothy. In the NBC special, Elijah Kelley takes on the role that Jackson once filled. He admitted to being slightly nervous over the feat, but knows he’s not trying to replace or dethrone the King of Pop. “I’m extremely cognizant of the legacy that went before us,” Kelly told Wendy Williams on her daytime talk show. We’re doing all we can to honor them. We’re not trying to outdo or refill anything – this is the 40th anniversary. We get to pay homage and I’m extremely grateful.”

The stars may be getting all of the attention, but the actual production is what will probably get the most buzz on social media. That’s because there’s a number of tricks and additions thrown into the fire. “This is not based in the ‘70s but in 2015,” Kelley told EURWeb. “That’s from the chorography to the technology even to the lingo, but not in a way that it takes away from it. We didn’t make it so modern that you don’t recognize it anymore. We just brought it to today’s generation would be able to watch and adapt and be able to relate.”



In an interview with Wendy Williams, Ne-Yo revealed that the music in the NBC live version will feature a combination of arrangements from both the Broadway songbook and cult classic film. The late Charlie Smalls contributed much of the iconic songs to the award-winning original: “I’m a Mean Ole Lion,” “Ease on Down the Road,” “Home,” “Be a Lion,” “Believe in Yourself.” And they will most certainly be in place – even the rousing climax of “Everybody Rejoice,” a song penned by then-background singer Luther Vandross. Ne-Yo, who plays the role of The Tin Man, composed a new song along with Kelley for the live show. “I think I was nine-years-old when I first saw ‘The Wiz.’, so for me to have a song that has been incorporated into this iconic and classic story, it’s an honor beyond words,” Ne-Yo told EURWeb.

There are a few unexpected twists to The Wiz Live! casting. Latifah plays the role of the indomitable Wiz, a role usually assigned to men. The role of Dorothy has been rendered to virtual unknown Shanice Williams, a 19-year old with moderate experience in the world of theatre, television and film. This will be her biggest debut, and will critiqued heavily since it is indeed the production’s lead role. But have no fear, Stephanie Mills made her debut in the original Broadway run and smashed it. In promotional clips of pre-production seen across the Internet, Williams is confident, lively and youthful – a ray of sunshine as a big city girl Dorothy.

The Wiz Live! airs Thursday, December 3 on NBC at  8/7 c.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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