'The Wiz Live!' on NBC: A 1975 musical seeks to evoke 2015

At a soundstage here, "The Wizard of Oz" was colliding with unexpected slices of pop culture.

Mary J. Blige was running scared from Dorothy. Comic personality David Alan Grier took a break from being the Cowardly Lion to pretend he was pregnant, prompting the Tin Man (singer Ne-Yo) and Scarecrow (theater veteran Elijah Kelley) to fall to the floor laughing. Soon director Kenny Leon had plunged into the scrum, bypassing Grier's belly protrusions to give some pointed suggestions to Blige.

"Kenny wants to make sure I didn't get blown up too soon," Blige explained, reasonably, as she took a pause from rehearsing the part of Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West.

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By now it has become tradition: the week after Thanksgiving, NBC stages and airs a live musical. Executives cross their fingers, stars sing, Twitter snarks. And when it's all over, the shows have either attracted a huge audience ("The Sound of Music Live!" in 2013) or a much smaller audience ("Peter Pan Live!" last year), become subject to criticisms both knee-jerk (should Allison Williams be flying so much?) and reasonable (should Carrie Underwood be acting so much?).

This year, however, there's a little more at stake. NBC has decided to go with "The Wiz Live!," an adaptation of the 1975 Tony Award winner for best musical. When the show is performed and aired Thursday from this stage, it will offer up another voice in the debate about African American Hollywood representation, or at least a riposte to Fox's "Empire," another music-themed prime-time event with a predominantly black cast.

These can seem like the best and worst of times for black people in Hollywood. On the one hand, shows like "Empire" and "Scandal," along with movies such as "Creed" and "Straight Outta Compton," feature black creators telling stories long absent from the mainstream. But minority representation remains deficient. The emerging Oscar race, for instance, is largely lacking in black faces, less than a year after a highly acclaimed performance, "Selma's" David Oyelowo, was snubbed.

Add to that a generally fraught period — protests stemming from the Laquan McDonald video in Chicago are among the latest race flashpoints — and "The Wiz" couldn't be arriving at a more critical moment.

" 'The Wizard of Oz' is all about where we call home," Leon said as he sat in a director's chair during a rehearsal break. "All across America right now there are people confused about what home really is. And I think to see an African American girl go on this journey will help them find out."

There are few musicals as apt as "The Wiz" to pose questions of community and identity.

The show had its premiere on Broadway with an all-black cast that included future stars such as Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle and Phylicia Rashad. A fresh spin on a familiar tale, "The Wiz" became a massive hit — accessible but subversive, confectionary yet laden with layers.

The production's sheer musicality ("Ease on Down the Road," anyone?) made it palatable to a wide audience, concealing the more provocative idea of a parallel American black mythology. "The Wiz" spoke to a new demographic on Broadway while paving the way for white audiences to understand and even partake of black culture.

Future versions would reimagine the reimagining, most notably with Sidney Lumet's 1978 movie that transported the story to Harlem and the stars to the surreal (Diana Ross and Michael Jackson). Now, years later  — and after"Oz" interpretations as different as "Wicked" and a James Franco movie — NBC has come back to it.

The idea is to tweak "The Wiz," subtly, so that it fits in 2015. A modern Broadway gloss comes via a script pass by Harvey Fierstein ("Kinky Boots") as does work by the acclaimed choreographer Fatima Robinson and the live television director Matthew Diamond. Though Mills makes a return as Auntie Em — an Easter Egg for fans of the original — producers hope a new star could is born with Dorothy played by a 19-year-old from New Jersey named Shanice Williams, who has never been in a professional production. Cirque du Soleil performers will showcase their acrobatics in several numbers, while R&B stars will sing tunes with updated arrangements.

"We want to stay true to what 'The Wiz' is, but the music has to sound fresher. It has to sound like it's coming from now," said Neil Meron, who is returning to produce the NBC musical with his longtime collaborator Craig Zadan for the third straight year; they plan to take the show to Broadway next year with a to-be-determined cast.

Or, as Grier put it: "Let's be honest, the original had a bit of a jive-turkey quality."

On this day, he and the rest of the quartet are rehearsing "We Got It," the production's lone wholly original number. Co-written by Ne-Yo, Kelley, Harvey Mason, Jr. and Stephe Oremus, it's a piece of lyric empowerment that, as it moves from an R&B beat to a clean falsetto finish, would fit neatly on contemporary Top 40 radio, giving the show a modern sheen.

“Kenny asked Ne-Yo for a song saying ‘if I look over my shoulder, ‘is this the person I can go to war with?'” Kelley said. “That’s the message of the show. That's the message I think brings people in.”

In some respects, the groundwork for finding an audience for "The Wiz" in 2015 has already been laid. The original "Wizard of Oz," remains sacred text to mainstream audiences. Meanwhile, R&B is far more prevalent in American pop music than it was in the 1970s, and black casts in prime time have become more commonplace.

"We're in a moment in time on television where there are more African American viewers watching than ever before. I hope they come, but I also hope it's a really diverse audience," said NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. "I think there's something about taking the current discussion of an African American moment and mixing it with a classic."

The pressure is on NBC. Others are jumping in the game; Fox will air "Grease Live" in January. And viewership was an issue last year — after more than 18 million people tuned in to see "Sound of Music," only about half of that did with "Peter Pan."

Some of that may be faded novelty, but producers said it was related to specific choices too. They overestimated the appeal of "Peter Pan" and underestimated the power of celebrity. "What we realized after last year is we needed not just terrific talent but big stars," Zadan said. Among them are Common, who came aboard as The Bouncer after talking backstage with Zadan and Meron at this year's Oscars (they produced the show), and Queen Latifah as the Wiz, perhaps the only time she will ever step into a role previously held by Richard Pryor.

Producers have also streamlined the production. "Peter Pan" moved among multiple sets, an ambitious but at times unwieldy approach. "The Wiz" takes place all on one stage, with Derek McLane's sets sliding in and out behind the actors to connote character movement. There is more use of LED backgrounds. And the makeup is extensive — teaser clips show actors who bear little resemblance to the performers' real-life appearance.

Still, a one-time live event is a unique high-wire act — there is no way to account for major gaffes and no time to make small improvements. The biggest gamble is probably Williams.

At rehearsals, she showcased strong pipes and reflected a self-assurance uncommon among rookies. "There are so many emotions going on right now. This cast, this scene, this whole experience is mind-blowing," she said, before heading over to a crew table for a cookie.

Can that girl-next-door-excitement translate? Producers point to Judy Garland as a relative unknown when she starred in "The Wizard of Oz." Then again, Garland had numerous tries to shoot and reshoot a scene before presenting it to millions of Americans. And none of them were on Twitter.

 As they rehearsed, Williams went toe-to-toe with one of entertainment's most established.  "Unleash my winged warriors," Blige pronounced, and supporting players moved seamlessly all around them, eventually giving way to a climactic chase between Dorothy and the witch involving a brandished weapon.

 Blige stepped from the stage a few moments later. "This is fun. There will be some jitters the night of because there's no recording but it's really nice to do it live in front of everyone." And the downside of the live-TV experience? "Social media will destroy you, but only if you let it."

A black interpretation of a work as popular as "The Wizard of Oz" may seem unremarkable, even square, but the cast says in a way that's the point. By taking a piece so well-known and filtering it through a black lens, the show gives minorities access to the same American dream. In this regard it shares more than a few commonalities with current Broadway smash "Hamilton."

"I really don't think a multi-culti 'Wiz' would work," said Grier, who, judging by his turns in rehearsals, serves as a kind of comic relief, whether intentionally or otherwise. "It's like when white hipsters serve you sushi. You're not buying it."

Ne-Yo said that "The Wiz" changed his worldview, and he believes the same applies to a large number of black people. "It was 'The Wizard of Oz' but more relatable, because the characters looked more like me," he said.

But the singer added that the show ultimately transcends the question of minority representation to include, in a fast-paced image-driven culture, anyone who feels left behind. "It's a message that's kind of needed," he said. "We live in a society where people feel 'less than' — they're not pretty enough or thin enough or not something else enough, and the show makes them understand that's not true."

Greenblatt boils it down succinctly. "It's timely and timeless — the double hook."

Achieving both simultaneously isn't easy. Any half-decent revival can conjure nostalgia; it's a lot harder to make the case that an old show has something to say about the present. But "Wiz" creators say they can pull it off.

Leon, who won his Tony for another race touchstone, "A Raisin in the Sun," said the power of this show came at once from its history and its contemporary relevance. "We're trying," he said, "to take the future and run it head-on to 1975."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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'The Wiz Live!'

Where: NBC

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 28, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Not in '75 anymore - `The Wiz Live!' aims to ease on down its own, modern road" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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