Ease on down, ease on down the road. Don’t you carry nothing that might be a load …The lyrics to this tune are synonymous with Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and Tin-Man skipping on a winding path to a mysterious realm. Not to be confused with the American film classic The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz is the mighty Black, soul-injected interpretation. Depending on your age and proximity to the Great White Way in the ’70s, what you imagine when you hear that chorus will vary. Perhaps you see a young Stephanie Mills on the Broadway stage circa 1975, or maybe it’s then-Motown star Diana Ross in the 1978 film. But it probably never crossed your mind that there’d be a bright-eyed unknown and crew of contemporary celebrities pop-locking through a circus dreamland on prime-time television. To suggest such a wild option makes one wonder: Just how many more miles does that yellow brick road have left?
The Wiz of the Future
We’ll find out December 3 if another interpretation of this story really resonates when NBC airs The Wiz Live!, a radically updated take on the iconic title. Producing partners Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the team behind the film Chicago and Hairspray, tapped Tony winners director Kenny Leon and writer Harvey Fierstein to work on a live televised performance of the musical, which will return to Broadway in 2016. (Its last official Broadway revival was in 1984).
The Wiz Live! storyline is set back in Kansas this time and uses the original Broadway script as the point of departure. “It’s like 1975 collides with 2015 and lands in a special place called now,” teases Leon. Fierstein has revised the script, and the producers partnered with Cirque du Soleil Theatrical to infuse circus arts into the magical land of Oz. In addition, modern-day dance legend Fatima Robinson has added updated choreography. “Hip-hop is the universal dance right now [and it’s] Black, so of course [the show is] going to have that,” she explains.
Brand New Day
Vibrant music anchors each incarnation of The Wiz, and The Wiz Live! will have a sound all its own. Shepherded by music producer Harvey Mason Jr., composer Charlie Smalls’ Tony-winning score will be injected with an authentic contemporary sensibility, Zadan reveals, and audiences can look forward to a brand new song written for Dorothy—played by 18-year-old newbie Shanice Williams—and her pals. Whether the new music will stand up to arranger Harold Wheeler’s original orchestrations remains to be seen. Quincy Jones added new melodic dimensions to the feature film, and hopes are high for this present-day collaboration.
Despite the many departures, the 2015 creative team wants to honor the integrity of the original stage production, particularly through the inclusion of Mills. The singer was 17 when cast as The Wiz’s first Dorothy, and she hadn’t yet made her mark in R&B. In The Wiz Live!, she won’t portray the naive girl trying to get home, but instead the wise, nurturing Aunt Em, leaving the part of the ingénue to Williams. Mills gets an opportunity to have art imitate life and offer sage advice to the up-and-coming starlet. “Her yellow brick road is going to be golden,” says Mills of Williams, who beat out hundreds of other applicants for the lead at an open casting call. “Her life is never, ever going to be the same.”
A Woman Wizard
Asking Mills to leave behind her signature role for something new isn’t the only starry casting choice Leon made. Singers Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo play the wicked witch Evillene and Tin-Man, respectively; actresses Uzo Aduba and Amber Riley take on the good witches Glinda and Addapearle; comedian David Alan Grier is the Cowardly Lion; and rapper Common makes an appearance as the Bouncer, aka the gatekeeper of the Emerald City. Most notably, triple threat Queen Latifah portrays the titular Wiz—a role traditionally played by a man. The cast is fully supportive. “It’s always exciting when people dare to step outside of any box,” says Aduba. “And isn’t that what the Wiz is saying anyway, that we should have courage? I love that she’s the Wiz!”
The producers are making bold departures with their choices in music, script, setting and casting, but the question remains: What’s the best way to pay homage to a classic? The Wiz, after all, was more than costumes and choreography. The groundbreaking production challenged conventions and created opportunities for a generation. “We were trying to [create] a dream we’d only [previously] seen White people in, about witches and wizards. We could embrace the shininess and the newness of it, and the freedom it offered,” says original choreographer George Faison. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that after four decades a new team of artists would take creative liberties and further push the boundaries for this 21st-century version.
Ultimately, today’s cast and production team see The Wiz Live! as more of an extension of the show’s legacy than a departure. Queen Latifah, who fondly remembers seeing the Broadway production as a child, says watching Mills belt out the show’s iconic finale, “Home,” inspired her to become a performer. Zadan says his aim is to encourage that same nostalgia with viewers.
“We want the audience to feel what we felt when we first walked into that theater all those years ago,” affirms Latifah. “That incredible joy.”