Tomorrow night on NBC, 8:00/7:00c, The Wiz Live! updates the 1978 movie classic with Broadway’s original 1975 “super soul musical.” Common, Queen Latifah, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley and newcomer Shanice Williams will come together for a one-time performance, giving new life to roles made famous by Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and others.
The creative forces behind The Wiz Live!—including director Kenny Leon, choreographer Fatima Robinson, music director Harry Mason Jr. and costume designer Paul Tazewell—gathered together at Long Island’s Grummen Studios to discuss the challenges and rewards of the live TV production.
EBONY: I’m going to start by asking everyone to talk a little bit about what they remember from the first time they've seen The Wizard of Oz and what that was like.
Fatima Robinson: I have to say The Wiz was my first introduction. So for me, The Wiz is what I know.
Kenny Leon: Yeah, I grew up a poor kid in Florida, living with my stepfather and my mother, and we used to every year sit down and watch The Wizard of Oz. I think to this day that’s probably the foundation for everything I’ve done since. I think every story sort of centers around The Wizard of Oz: love, courage, home, all that stuff.
So then when The Wiz came on the scene and made it more specific for my culture, then that broadened the scope and impact of The Wizard of Oz. And there are so many kids of color who live in foster homes or live with their uncles or aunts or are raised by their grandmother. It’s like, you know what? Home is just where the love is. So I think we all have gotten together to drive that home, specifically from an African-American point of view, but to make sure it has a universal appeal for all of us. And we’re having a good time.
Paul Tazewell: I remember being completely terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West, when she would appear in… I think it was red smoke that she would come out of. But then delighted with the appearance of Glenda. So it was the dichotomy of both of those. Being completely at home with all of the fantasy world [elements], but then intrigued and, like I said, frightened of all the other storytelling that went on. It was amazing.
Harvey Mason Jr.: I originally saw The Wizard of Oz, and for me it was the scenery, the grandeur, the excitement, the sets, the outfits, the choreography, the shoes. And that carried over to The Wiz for me. When I saw The Wiz initially, that was the same thing that struck me, is how amazing it is, how big everything was, how exciting, how much energy there was.
As a musician, as a producer, I really gravitated towards the music and how incredible those songs were, how well they were written, how heartfelt they were, how they furthered the plot, how they furthered the story. And I couldn’t get enough of the music, all the way from the play to the film and now to what we’re doing.
For me, it’s just a huge honor and thrill to be a part of something this amazing and special. Especially for me as a kid growing up and watching and seeing this play happen, it’s incredible for me to be part of it. It’s been an amazing journey because all of us as a creative team just get to keep layering on all the things that we love to create this world anew.
KL: I remember early on, the question: “Well, who do you think for the Wiz?” And I just said, “Queen Latifah.” First thing out of my mouth. I wasn’t thinking about gender. I said Queen Latifah. The Wiz can be anything, do anything. They said, “We’d love Queen Latifah!” And we went after her right away. But there was no other name. They asked me and I said, “Queen Latifah.” And when I looked at that image of her, and I said, “That’s it. That’s the realization of the first time we spoke about it”
EBONY: What about Dorothy? How do you cast a 19-year-old unknown as Dorothy?
KL: I think we all love Shanice [Williams]. But early on, we spread our net wide and started talking about the innocence that we needed in Dorothy. [NBC’s Robert] Greenblatt said we could have an open call, and that was great. So we had a big, huge open call in New York initially, and then in L.A. You know, 600, 700 women, girls.
And that was a beautiful thing in and of itself, to see 40-year-old women who are, like, “I wanted to act when I was younger and then I went and raised my kids, so they came. I can audition.” Then we had a group from Spelman College on a bus, 20 girls coming from Spelman, they’re going to audition. So that was a beautiful thing just to see all those women for this.
But the first time we saw Shanice in the open call, I mean, I stayed and watched her audition. I remember when she came in and Fatima met her and said she moves better than most of these girls. She moves, she sings. I thought that the story has to be seamless. It has to be a good actor, great dancer and great singer. She asked me last week if could she call me Uncle Kenny. I said yes.
EBONY: Talk a little bit about the differences between directing a Broadway show and a live TV show. What are some of the challenges involved in that?
KL: Well, number one, it’s all the same in terms of truth. I build ensembles, and I think there’s a reason that these guys called me to do it, because we’re going for authenticity. The difference is, with this we have previews, opening and closing all in one night.
EBONY: That’s a lot.
KL: But it’s similar, because when you go to a Broadway show, the audience only sees the show once, just like the live audience will see it once. As artists, we get to work on a Broadway show over and over again until we get it right.
In many ways, it’s the same as what we talked about early on. This is not theater, it’s not television, it’s not film. It is a hybrid. And what I’ve tried to do as director and what we’ve tried to do as creative team [is] find what is good about all of those and put them into one and not put anything that’s bad about those.
So it feels like you’re watching it for the first time. You get points of view where you feel like you’re in a Broadway house, but how could you get that close? You can’t get that close. So we’ve got a way to look into the wings. And it’s very beautiful. So what we say is that it’s something that you have never, ever seen before.
EBONY: That’s pretty cool. Fatima, could you talk a little bit about what we should expect in terms of the movement and the choreography in the show? I understand that there are some Cirque du Soleil elements incorporated into this.
FR: Yeah, we had the privilege to work with six acrobats from Cirque du Soleil who are coming in as part of our ensemble. They’re exciting because they’re bringing their acrobatic energy to the Winged Warriors and to the Kalita people. It’s really exciting working with them. This is the first time I’ve ever done it.
But as far as choreography-wise, I always call myself a hip-hop choreographer at heart, although I do different styles of dance.
KL: She does everything.
FR: We are touching upon every street dance I think out there. And what I love is the new world of discovering dance, where you can go to YouTube and find the latest dance step. We’re hitting the quan, we’re hitting the nae nae. Every kind of fun street dance that’s out there, we’ve incorporated in the choreography. And it’s so much fun.
EBONY: Sounds great. There’s a new song in the show, written by Harvey Mason Jr., Stephen Oremus, Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley. How did that come about?
HM: Well, it came about through Kenny I think. He talked to us a little bit about it, and had the idea that there was a point in the show where the four characters really needed to come together and be brought together with a song. And we didn’t have that song in the show.
So Kenny spoke to me about it. “What do you want to accomplish story-wise?” What the feeling was he wanted at that point in the show. And we kind of got together in the studio and put some music together. Ne-Yo had some great melody and lyric ideas. Stephen came up with great ideas musically as well. And over the course of about three or four sessions we crafted a sketch, sent it to Kenny.
EBONY: Were you all together in the same space?
HM: Neil and I were together initially, and then Elijah came in, and then Stephen came in. So different combinations at different times. We sent a sketch to Kenny and made sure it was in line with what he was looking for story-wise and production-wise. And then Stephen and I kind of just got together and really fine-tuned it and made it dynamic and dramatic enough. I think Fatima got a chance to hear it and make sure it fit in line with what she needed. I think that’s kind of how we finished it off.
One of the goals for us was to make a song that fit in context with everything else. So we didn’t want a song that stood out [like], “What is that weird one-off song?” So we took a lot of time to make sure it fit in sound-wise, songwriting style. But for us, we were also excited because it’s very fresh, it’s very exciting and new. We’re looking for the standing ovation moment. It’s a big kind of song.
KL: Even in that living room. I always said this play is like 2020 running into 1975 to create a place that we call “now.” So this music does that. It’s like, wow, so it fits 1975 but it fits now. And it’s just a beautiful new song that complements it. It doesn’t stick out; it complements everything that’s already there.