When Shanice Williams walked into her first New York open call, she carried these words from her grandmother: “If you’re nervous, you’re never going to get anywhere in life.”
But Williams wanted to go places, Broadway to be exact, and this casting call at age 18 was the first step. Putting her nerves aside, she auditioned for the lead role in NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” — a soulful reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz.” That was on June 6. Six months later, Williams’ first professional audition will pay off, big time, when “The Wiz Live!” comes to television screens Dec. 3.
“When I think about how much I wanted this and I turn on the TV and see my face, the best part is realizing every second of the work I put in was worth it,” she said about being cast as Dorothy. “All that training wasn’t for nothing.”
Williams grew up in Jersey City, N.J., as an only child, getting her start singing in her grandparents’ church choir. At home, she had to find ways to entertain herself, eventually discovering an audience in family and friends. She took up acting, one of her memorable performances being a middle-school production of the very musical she now leads. (She was too nervous to try for Dorothy, so she played Addaperle.) Senior year at Rahway High School, she was nominated for the rising star award from Paper Mill Playhouse, a regional theater in Millburn, N.J.
She enrolled at the Los Angeles campus of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy but left, wanting to return home. The day after stepping off the plane, she auditioned for “The Wiz Live!”
Williams will introduce herself to the rest of the world in a production most cherished by black audiences. Originally a Broadway show that won seven Tony Awards, including best musical in 1975, then adapted to film in 1978 (starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross), “The Wiz” takes L. Frank Baum’s classic “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” novel and places it within the context of an African American family. “The Wiz Live!” Williams said, further contemporizes the story.
“You ain’t ready for it,” she said by phone from New York, taking a break from rehearsals.
The production is directed by Kenny Leon, who earned a Tony Award nomination in 2010 for “Fences” and who won a Tony in 2014 for “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Leon is joined by famed choreographer Fatima Robinson and producer Harvey Mason Jr., who has worked on projects with Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake. NBC also is partnering with Cirque du Soleil Theatrical to bring key scenes to life with the company’s acrobatics.
The production, which will run upward of two hours, is the third live show produced by the network, following “The Sound of Music Live!” and “Peter Pan Live!” Returning as producers are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced 1997’s “Cinderella” starring R&B songstress Brandy, “Hairspray” the movie and the last three Academy Award ceremonies.
The pair are drawing on lessons from “The Sound of Music Live,” which starred Carrie Underwood and was a ratings smash in 2013, and “Peter Pan Live!” which faltered a year later with Allison Williams as the title character. Underwood helped the network to a 4.6 rating in the 18-49 demographic and nearly 19 million total viewers, whereas “Peter Pan” pulled only a 2.3 rating and about 9.1 million total viewers, based on Nielsen estimates.
“Following ‘Sound of Music,’ we learned it was a title that is enormous and Carrie is one of the biggest stars on the planet. We’ve learned since that ‘Peter Pan’ is no longer a piece that the audience is in love with as much as they used to be,” Zadan said, citing his TV production and the poor box office numbers for the recent movie “Pan.”
“Even though you can cast really gifted and talented people to play the parts, you need the title and star names to generate ratings.”
Hence the selection of the likes of Hollywood heavyweight Queen Latifah, singer Mary J. Blige and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Uzo Aduba for “The Wiz Live!” The show also features singer-producer Ne-Yo, “Glee” actress Amber Riley, actor David Alan Grier, rapper Common, Elijah Kelley of the movie version of “Hairspray” and the Grammy-winning Stephanie Mills.
Williams is the only unknown in the main cast of the production — a decision by Zadan and Meron to return to the original concept of the stage play, where Mills, then 17, played Dorothy. (Ross was 34 when she played the film’s lead.)
The selection process for Dorothy was daunting, Zadan said, considering the high bar they knew the unknown starlet would have to meet.
During auditions, Zadan said, they needed to find that one person who was the right age, could sing well, could dance and could not only act but also carry the story.
“You’re setting your expectations so nearly impossible to achieve, that when someone walks in like Shanice, you just go, ‘We’ve been blessed,’ because the odds were that we wouldn’t find her.”
The telling moment of Williams’ auditions came during the singing of the production’s final number, the high-note belter “Home,” renditions for which Ross and Mills are known.
“Shanice came in and sang every note to perfection and had everyone in the room in tears,” Zadan said. “There was no second choice.”
Though Williams is the newbie of the cast, Meron said, “she takes to it without skipping a beat.” But Williams says she has a strategy for working with her illustrious co-stars.
“I have to pretend that I don’t know how amazing they are just to get through the day,” Williams said, adding that she pretends not to have Ne-Yo’s music on her phone. “I love him so much, but I can’t be fan-girling. I have to do this to cope.”
As for stepping into Mills’ and Ross’ glittered heels, the young new Dorothy keeps her grandmother’s words in the back of her mind, doing away with nerves to make the role her own.
“Diana and Stephanie, they did it two completely different ways,” Williams said. “But they were legendary. I feel like I have this one chance to make it my own. I connect with Dorothy in a lot of ways, and I think everyone’s going to like what I bring.”
Director Leon agrees, predicting a big future for her.
“It is no doubt in my mind that five years from now, she will be a major star,” he said. “She has a little bit of Stephanie and Diana. She has that old soul of Lena Horne. And she has a little sprinkling of her X-factor. I think she’s going to be one of those one-name artists like Patti or Lena or Aretha or Janelle. She’ll be Shanice.”
But until then, Dorothy works just fine.
‘The Wiz Live!’
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 3
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)