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'The Wiz Live!': Five storylines to look out for during NBC's Thursday night musical

'The Wiz Live!': Five storylines to look out for during NBC's Thursday night musical
Ne-Yo as Tin-Man,Shanice Williams as Dorothy and Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow are seen during a dress rehearsal of "The Wiz Live!' in New York. (Virginia Sherwood / Associated Press)

Two years ago, viewers tuned in to see what Carrie Underwood might do. Last year, they wanted to see how Christopher Walken might dance. And let’s be honest, pretty much everybody is watching, hoping for a train wreck, or at least a tweetable flub. 

NBC’s live musical event has become a mini-tradition, with the network staging a star-laden classic the Thursday after Thanksgiving (“The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan”) in the past two years. That continues in 2015 with “The Wiz Live!,” a mounting of the 1975 Tony winner for best musical and one of the first Broadway shows to feature an all-black cast.

As the network enters its third year of December musicality, there are as many stakes and storylines as ever — not the least because the groundbreaking musical is airing just as the nation is engaged in a charged discussion about race and the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing.

From an unremarkable patch of Long Island beginning at 8 p.m., Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo and others will sing and dance through “Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” “Mean Ol’ Lion?” and, of course, “Ease on Down the Road.” There will be plenty of makeup and effects to help them along, as well as Tony-winning director Kenny Leon guiding them. Stephanie Mills, who starred as Dorothy in the original production, returns, this time as Auntie Em.

What will jump out when the curtain goes up? Here are five things to watch for. And come watch with The Times' writers, who will tweet and share thoughts on the site beginning at 5 p.m., when the first broadcast on the East Coast airs.

Spot the radio star. There will be a lot of makeup, so they won’t look as they normally do. Still, whether it’s Mary J. Blige (Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West), Queen Latifah (The Wiz), Ne-Yo (The Tin-Man) or Common (The Bouncer), there will be more pop titans on the screen than at a Grammys after party. At a “Wiz” rehearsal visited by The Times last month, Blige sang “unleash my winged warriors” as minions swirled around her, then faced off with Dorothy in a climactic chase scene. Also on the music front, it will be worth keeping an eye on “We Got It,” an ensemble number on which Ne-Yo was a co-writer — and the only original song in the production.

Of course, there’s always the question of how successfully people known for their pipes more than their acting chops can pull off a role, and Thursday will be no different. Can they do it? Blige says she welcomes the change, at least. “It's nice to do something like this,” she said last month, “instead of playing some singer.”

Bring the laughs. Last year, Walken created some unintentional comedy in “Peter Pan Live!” (try watching him shuffle through “a hook for every boy” and not laughing). This year, the mantle has been passed to Grier, playing the Cowardly Lion. Sure, it’s more intentional — but even when he’s not trying, his expressions and dancing seem to evoke a laugh. As the ensemble fights off challenges on their way to see the Wiz, he’s the one in the quartet where your eyes may be drawn.

Not that the role will be easy. As a comic performer, Grier is used to acting on the fly. But he’s been doing a lot of TV and film, which offers the luxury of repeat takes. And even in live theater or comedy, a performer gets feedback from the audience.

This is a different experience — there’s a lot of rehearsals in front of the people who know the show, and then a performance in front of everyone who doesn’t. “It is weird. It’s a little scary because usually the audience informs you immediately if something doesn’t work, and we won’t have that,” he said. “But it’s also less scary once we start because you don’t have the time to sit back and wonder how it lands. You just throw it against the wall, then check Twitter at midnight.”

Does he do that? “I mean, you gotta do that.”

Jump the snark. Speaking of Twitter, one of the joys of the broadcast — for some viewers — is the snarkability. There are just too many factors — live performance, musical theater, much of the country watching at once — for there not to be some hate-tweeting going on.

Last year brought a bounty of such posts, and from some famous people as well — Josh Gad (“#ChristopherWalken is literally doing the best #Walken impression I've ever seen”) or Sarah Michelle Gellar (“I wonder what next years live musical will be?? I'm hoping for @MariahCarey in #HelloDolly.”)

Too many famous people are trying too many ’70s Broadway things for there not to be a similar outpouring Thursday night. And of course there’s Black Twitter. Still, NBC says it’s not too worried about snark. As the network’s entertainment chief, Robert Greenblatt, is fond of noting, the people who hate-watch count toward the ratings too.

Ground the flight. One of the aspects NBC sold last year was the flying. As Peter Pan, Allison Williams was hoisted on wires above the set and went through windows, across the night and on to Neverland. That was all possible thanks to three different sets, which the production treated with a certain fungibility, moving crew and performers between them throughout the night.

This year, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are trying a different approach: They’re keeping all the performers on one stage, Broadway-style, and using moving backdrops, LED screens and some digital trickery will have it appear as if they’re moving.

How will that play? It reduced the blocking logistics, though whether it retains the feeling of authentic movement that one expects on television (and that one needs to not feel like they’re watching a PBS telecast) remains to be seen.

At rehearsal, some new sets slid across the stage in a way that wasn’t entirely seamless. Said set designer Derek McLane, “The night of the show you hopefully won’t notice that’s happening.”

Smashing Shanice. Fittingly for a show featuring munchkins and witches, Shanice Williams, the 19-year-old from New Jersey who plays Dorothy, is green. How green? When talking to a reporter last month about a show at the longstanding New Jersey theater the Paper Mill Playhouse, said journalist innocently asked which role she played. “Oh, I wasn’t in it,” Williams said. “I went to see it with my high school class.”

Yes, Williams will be performing in her first professional job ever with 10 million people watching. But she has poise and verve, and an incredible set of pipes. A star was born when Judy Garland inhabited Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” 76 years ago. It could happen again Thursday night.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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