For many African Americans, The Wiz is one of the most sacred creative offerings to ever come from Black culture. However, it has fallen out of favor with contemporary youth. But that is about to change on December 3. That is when NBC will broadcast The Wiz! Live on network television. Such a feat has not been attempted since The Sound of Music Live in 2013. Starring Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Queen Latifah as the Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West, David Allen Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Ne-Yo as Tin Man, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, Amber Riley as the Good Witch of the North, Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em, Uzo Aduba as the Good Witch of the South, and Common as the Gatekeeper, this new school version of the Wizard of Oz is one of the most highly-anticipated broadcast events of the holiday season. I was in attendance with the entertainment press corps to speak with director Kenny Leon, writer Harvey Fierstein, and the entire cast of this upcoming affair. The cameras were rolling and the audio recorders were soaking up all the sights, sounds and humor of this incredible group of creative individuals. Initially, the chief creative minds took to the stage at Grunman Studios to talk about how everything went down. Check out the video below.
Director Kenny Leon is known throughout the theater community for his work on A Raisin in the Sun, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Fences, Stickfly and a multitude of other works. It was a pleasure to speak with this mastermind of theatrical direction regarding his experience thus far with The Wiz Live!, and whether he drew inspiration from the original Broadway production or the movie version.
“From the beginning I was thinking of it as one and the same, but separate,” he explained. “So, I was looking at it through the lens of a Broadway play but I had to look at it separate. I have directed three or four productions of The Wiz with young kids. I had learned something over the years as far as I what I wanted to do. So, when the producers approached me about doing it I already knew that their needed to be a song at the end of the first act that the four friends would sing. Because it’s just not about The Wiz.”
“During my production with the younger kids it was like ‘Evillene must die. A friend of mine wrote the song Eviliene Must Die. But it was a bonding song that the four friend must do. So, when I got this song I thought ‘One thing I know, there needs to be a song about bonding, it needs to be something the four friends do together and I t will be a perfect end to the first act. It should be like the song at the intermission of Dreamgirls. That powerful.”
Leon told the gathered pressed he cast Ne-Yo with a specific goal in mind; songwriting.
“When we cast Ne-Yo I thought ‘Ne-Yo does a lot of things great but he is a better writer than anything.’ I told him what it needed to be about and he did it in like two weeks. We got it, I listened to it and I just started crying. I was in Manhattan walking down 51st street and I was crying because that’s how powerful it was. He got it.”
The title role of the Wiz is one that is sacred to all who are familiar with both the Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. Leon said it was immediately apparent who should be the Wiz.
“They asked me who should play the Wiz and I said Latifah. I worked with her on Steel Magnolias and I just thought she would be great. I didn’t think about the fact that she was a woman. I just thought about the fact that she was a great performer, and the Wiz can be anybody.”
Rumors are already flying that The Wiz will definitely be heading back to Broadway next year. Leon was asked of his plans for a Broadway production of the show.
“I’m working that out now. Certain theatrical producers are interested in taking it to Broadway. So, after I leave here I might go home and write something like ‘There might need to be more of this and a little less of that’ for it to go on Broadway. For instance, the yellow brick road would have to be more theatrical on Broadway. When they did it 40 years ago it was about the dancers. I don’t want that but maybe there’s a way for us to see the light source. You know, things like that. Also, I’m trying to figure out which one of my team is going to be able to come to Broadway. Those are the types of things I would be working on, but I’m still in the beginning stages of that."
The Wiz Live! airs December 3 at 8 EST on NBC.