Typically, entry into the land of Oz requires hopping aboard a Kansas twister. But on this November afternoon, the most recent adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s magical story of witches, wizards, Munchkins, and denizens of an elaborate Emerald City exists just an hour outside Manhattan, on a Bethpage, Long Island, soundstage. The cast and crew of NBC’s upcoming The Wiz Live! (airing Thursday) are rehearsing the latest installment in the network’s annual franchise of live musical productions. Singer Ne-Yo — who’s playing the Tin Man but today is casually dressed in gym clothes — hangs from the side of a large metal heap, grunting. Dorothy (played by newcomer Shanice Williams) and the Scarecrow (Hairspray’s Elijah Kelley) follow the yellow brick road to offer an assist. With a few strategic squirts from an oilcan, the Tin Man soon limbers up and performs “Slide Some Oil to Me.” He’s even loose enough for a little pop ‘n’ lock, breathing fresh energy into the 1975 Broadway triumph, which, at the time, was one of the first mainstream musicals to boast an entirely African-American cast.
Dusting off popular musical properties and infusing them with new life is a trademark of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the show’s executive producers and the duo behind the big-screen musical versions of Hairspray and Chicago, as well as the TV events The Sound of Music Live! (2013) and Peter Pan Live! (2014). While Music was a blockbuster ratings hit, von Trapping 18.5 million viewers thanks to its family-friendly title and Carrie Underwood as Maria, Pan disappointed with just 9.2 million viewers and criticisms over a meandering plot and star Christopher Walken’s hammy acting. “We discovered there wasn’t as much interest in Peter Pan as we thought there would be,” admits Meron. “Also, the star-driven nature of these events is something that’s a big motor.” Zadan adds: “What we learned is we wanted to do something that was cooler and hipper and contemporary. And something that had a lot of stars.”
Thankfully, the road to Oz can be paved with both yellow brick and a plethora of talent. The original musical not only nabbed seven Tony Awards (and was adapted into a 1978 film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson) but also inspired an upcoming generation of performers, helping this reimagining land a seriously celeb-heavy ensemble, including Queen Latifah (the Wiz), Mary J. Blige (the Wicked Witch of the West), Uzo Aduba (Good Witch Glinda), Common (Emerald City’s gatekeeper), and David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion). “It’s one of the first plays I’d ever seen,” says Latifah. “My mom took me as a kid, and it just blew my mind. To see people who looked like me and had my color skin, my body type. People who looked like my aunts and my uncles and people I knew — black people. I had never seen anything like it.”
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In a remarkable year for diversity on TV, with massive hits like Empire and Black-ish, the fact that a major network is championing an all-black musical is not lost on the cast. “Everybody knows about the unspoken stigma [of race] in Hollywood,” says Ne-Yo, who also co-wrote an original song, “We Got It,” for the production. “It’s one thing to talk about it and how wrong it is, and it’s another to actually do something to show you’re not about that. And that’s what NBC is doing.”
And there are even more ambitious goals for The Wiz in the works — a Broadway revival is being planned for late 2016, involving The Wiz Live!’s creative team, including director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), choreographer Fatima Robinson (Dreamgirls), and, hopefully, the show’s star Shanice Williams, who Leon discovered at an open casting call. The Wiz is the 19-year-old’s first professional gig, and she still can’t quite believe she’s here. “I never thought I’d be doing anything like this,” she says during a rehearsal break. “It’s always been my dream to be on Broadway.” And has there ever been a city more perfectly suited for dreams to come true than Oz?