EXCLUSIVE: The Wiz was a wow — that’s what you read on every bus and Broadway poster back in the mid-1970s (the ubiquitous pitch line came from Marilyn Stasio’s review in the long-gone Cue magazine). An urbane R&B reinterpretation of L. Frank Baum’s tale of Dorothy’s tornado’ed trip to the Land of Oz, her companions the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman; her benefactress Glinda and her nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West, not to mention old flim-flam himself, the Wizard, The Wiz began performance on Christmas Eve, 1974 and ran for 1,672 performances. Along the way it won seven Tony Awards including best musical, and spawned a 1978 box office bomb starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson (cost: $24M; domestic take: $13M) that nonetheless developed an impassioned fan base.
The Broadway show was star-packed then, and so it is in the latest incarnation as The Wiz Live! The third in NBC’s annual live telecasts of Broadway musicals, it will go up December 3, following last year’s Peter Pan and the prior year’s The Sound of Music. The cast includes the 1975 Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, as Aunt Em, and more boldface names than you can shake a fiery broom at: Queen Latifah as the Wiz; Common as the Gatekeeper, renamed the Bouncer; Uzo Aduba as Glinda; Mary J. Blige as negatory witch Evilene; Amber Riley good witch Addaperle; David Alan Grier as Lion; Ne-Yo as Tin Man; Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow; and an unknown powerhouse triple threat, Shanice Williams, as Dorothy.
At the helm is Kenny Leon, a director of uncommon sensitivity who staged not only a brilliant Broadway revival of A Raisin In The Sun but also the pre-Hamilton rap musical Holler If Ya Hear Me. The show is a co-production of NBC and Cirque du Soleil, which plans to bring it to Broadway next season, possibly with executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, possibly not, they told me during a recent conversation at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, Long Island, where these shows have been mounted on sound stages where jetliners once were minted.
Meron and Zadan, the Oscar producers and old hands at bringing musicals to TV, have had their minds set on The Wiz for a long time, they told Deadline.
Craig Zadan: There’a a deep, deep affection for this show in the African-American community, and it’s split down the middle as to where the affection comes from. Queen Latifah, for example, said that it was seeing Stephanie Mills sing “Home” in the original Broadway production that made her want to be a performer. Her reverence of The Wiz comes from the show. But when we were doing the Oscars and we were staging “Glory,” Common said he was obsessed with the movie of The Wiz, and when we told him were were doing it, he said, “I’ve got to be in this.” Everyone wanted to be part of it.
Neil Meron: When we did Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1997 with a multicultural cast [including Brandy, Bernadette Peters, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Jason Alexander], the very next show we planned was The Wiz. This was in 1998 — we had a script written, we were casting, we’d hired Robert Iscove, who’d directed Cinderella as a TV movie for The Wonderful World Of Disney. Paula Abdul was going to do the choreography and we found an unknown at the time to play Dorothy — the unknown was Anika Noni Rose. Anika was ready to sing “Home” for the Upfronts, at the Palace Theatre.
Zadan: For her audition, she walked in off the street and sang “Home,” and we needed an ambulance to pick us up off the floor.
Meron: And then ABC found there was a problem with Universal, which owned the film rights, and it all just fell apart. But The Wiz has always been on our list of projects. What we didn’t know this time was that Cirque was planning to do it on Broadway and they had hired Kenny. It was kind of a perfect marriage.
Zadan: One of the key elements for us was [choreographer Fatima Robinson], who did the “Happy” number with Pharrell Williams for the Oscars; we were blown away by how she choreographed and her professionalism. She choreographed the movie of Dreamgirls and Bill Condon had raved to us about how great she was to work with.
Another key choice was Harvey Mason Jr., who produced the soundtrack for Dreamgirls and worked with Justin Timberlake and Usher. We thought, with Fatima we’re going to get non-Broadway, very authentic African-American choreography. With Harvey Mason Jr. we’re going to get authentic black R&B music and it’s not going to sound like Broadway pit band music. The influence comes with the way music is produced for R&B albums, which starts with rhythm tracks. And that’s what he specializes in.
Meron: Of course, The Wiz was never a traditional Broadway score to begin with; it had an R&B vibe.
Zadan: And you won’t hear distortion of the original score, but it breathes new life into the songs. And the other part is Stephen Oremus, who did Kinky Boots and so many other things, he has a foot in Broadway and a foot in contemporary music, and he’s able to bring the string charts and the rest from the Broadway arena. The combination of Stephen and Harvey together makes for a freshness that we find exciting.
Meron: And let’s not forget our other Harvey, Harvey Fierstein, who’s added depth and clarity and his brand of humor.
Zadan: It’s a bit funnier, and it’s a bit more emotional.
Last year, Meron and Zadan signed a co-production deal with the Shubert Organization, and they’ve been looking at plays and musicals, having homed in on a few they want to develop. Meanwhile, as soon as the curtain comes down on the Wiz broadcast, they return full-time to work on Bombshell for NBC.
Zadan: Bombshell will get our full, undivided attention after The Wiz, and we’ve been given the option of producing The Wiz with Cirque on Broadway if we want to.
That likely will depend on the results from Thursday night’s telecast — and the audience verdict on whether or not, 40 years on, The Wiz remains a wow.