"The Wiz Live!" Wins Big

Last week, NBC broadcast a live production of “The Wiz” to 11.5 million viewers, the third in the network’s series of annual high budget one-shot musicals performed and recorded seven days after Thanksgiving each year.

This all-black, contemporary interpretation of “The Wizard of Oz” was originally performed on Broadway in 1975, and features R&B and Soul inspired music, including the hit song, ‘Ease on Down the Road.’ A 1978 film adaptation was released at the end of the Blaxploitation movement, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Though it differed in tone from the original and was considered a box office flop, the stars’ recording of the feature song achieved Billboard Hot 100 success and Grammy nominations, and the film is now considered a cult classic.

The Wiz Live! has received great praise from critics as a heartfelt revival of the classic show. Production design and dance moves were updated for modern audiences, and parts of the script were rewritten to give the characters a tighter story arc. One new song, ‘We Got It,’ was written especially for the event.

Dorothy is played by 19-year old newcomer Shanice Williams, who hails from New Jersey and auditioned at the show’s open casting call. The show also stars Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, and Queen Latifah as the Wiz. It features dance performances from a Cirque du Soleil ensemble during the flying monkeys and digitally created tornado sequences, and the rapper Common plays the Bouncer, who is the gatekeeper of Emerald City. Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original Broadway production, returns to play Aunt Em.

NBC’s The Wiz Live! is preceded by last year’s production of Peter Pan Live! and 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!. These shows both received incredibly bad reviews; Carrie Underwood’s casting as Maria the first year was seen as a misguided ploy for ratings, and the next year, featuring the bizarre casting of Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, did not fare much better. Adding to the controversy, NBC was accused of nepotism when Allison Williams—daughter of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams—was cast as Peter Pan.

All this controversy led many theatre fans to start “hate-watching” the specials for entertainment, taking to Twitter and other social media with their most creative and scathing remarks. Incidentally, that negative attention led to a larger audience being blown away this year by the unexpected quality of the production. This year’s Twitter activity tripled from last year’s, which had double the number of viewed tweets as the year before it. According to Nielsen ratings, the show actually broke a record for most interactions about a live special program in more than four years of tracking.

All three shows have been produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who also produced the last three Academy Awards programs. The NBC specials are performed in New York for an empty house, and utilize state of the art special effects and close-up photography. They were inspired by the popularity of live, televised musicals recorded on a soundstage in the 1950s. The success of this year’s performance has already led to talks about taking the production back to Broadway next year, as well as prompting Fox Network to host Grease Live in January (starring Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, and Carly Rae Jepson).

For now, the show can be watched on NBC’s website for free, and will also be rebroadcast on Dec. 19. The Wiz represents a celebration of black culture for all audiences, and is more timely today than ever before. By televising it in our modern informational and connected era, this iteration also makes it easier than ever to enter into the conversation about diversity and race relations.