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Why The Wiz hit home on NBC

Shanice Williams and Uzo Aduba in The Wiz Live!
Photograph: Virginia Sherwood/NBC Shanice Williams and Uzo Aduba in The Wiz Live!

Praise be to the television gods, and to television producers and all their winged minions: The Wiz Live! was a hit. I don’t just mean a hit in the ratings, though preliminary reports suggest strong numbers. I mean that it scored surprisingly well among that hardest demographic to please: ardent fans of musical theater. Whatever its failings—we’ll get to them in a moment—The Wiz was by far the best of the three live musicals that NBC has broadcast since 2013. Many who tuned in expecting to share their schadenfreude on Twitter seemed surprised to be experiencing just plain freude: joy, of a kind that this genre still delivers as well as or better than any other.

I’ll admit, I was worried. That’s what musical-theater fans do: We worry. We worry, if we’re honest, about being embarrassed, both for the performers and for ourselves. American musical theater has been on the rebound for the past 15 years, but we’re still defensive about it. When it moves into a mass-cultural space, as in Smash or in previous NBC live productions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, we become acutely aware of how a non-fan public may judge it, and by extension us.

In other words, these shows have to represent. And The Wiz, of course, has an additional burden of representation to bear. An African-American spin on The Wizard of Oz, the show was a hit on Broadway in 1975, then a 1978 Diana Ross film that was maligned at the time but has grown in public affection. It holds a special place in many hearts, but some of its ’70s trappings have not aged well, and the creators of the TV version had to tread a sensitive line in adapting it for modern audiences.

There are so many ways that The Wiz could have gone wrong. What a relief, then, to see it burst so strongly right out of the Kansas-farm gate. The first number is a ballad for Aunt Em, played here by Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy on Broadway. In the first of the evening’s many memorable musical performances, Mills knocked the song out of the cornfield. It was an inspired bit of casting: a respectful nod to history and nostalgia that sent a message about the values of the broadcast. This wasn’t bringing The Wiz to America; this was bringing America to The Wiz.

That self-confidence in what The Wiz had to offer was palpable throughout the night. Whereas The Sound of Music and Peter Pan put name-brand performers in their central roles—Carrie Underwood and Allison Williams, respectively—The Wiz starred the poised 18-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy. She sang superbly, and made an impressive debut overall; even more thrilling was Elijah Kelley’s sweet, limber, comically original performance as the Scarecrow.

The best parts of The Wiz were its most theatrical. Mary J. Blige seemed to have a ball as the wicked Evilene; Uzo Aduba, in an intense late cameo as the beneficent Glinda, was a glory of magical realness. Glamorous costumes (by Paul Tazewell) and makeup (by Dave and Lou Elsey) gave the proceedings a sense of theatrical event; there was even a vaguely Ziegfeld-ish sequence with beautiful chorus girls as flowers. And the camera seemed more willing than in previous years to stay still and let the staging and choreography do their own work—to let us take in the musical numbers as musical numbers.

Not everything went off without a hitch. The performances that didn’t score were the ones that seemed apologetic: Amber Riley’s high-schoolish Addaperle, Queen Latifah’s vague, lost Wiz. The gifted David Alan Grier, as the Lion, was perhaps constrained by reluctance to play the sissy comedy built into the role; he wound up seeming oddly morose, like a veteran haunted by PTSD. (The rapper Common played the Gatekeeper with the gameness of an athlete hosting Saturday Night Live.) Attempts at magical effects generally fell flat, and some of the dance sequences ended anticlimactically.

But The Wiz’s funky, familiar score by Charlie Smalls—augmented by a zippy, TV-theme-song-like new Act I closer by Ne-Yo, who also was a solid Tin Man—kept the energy high. (The soundtrack will sound great.) And the episodic nature of the script may have worked to its advantage in this version; the necessary intrusion of commercials was less disruptive in a show that is already structured as a series of brief scenes. Other problems in William F. Brown’s script, the weakest link in The Wiz, were minimized in Harvey Fierstein’s extensive rewrite, which found clever ways to keep Dorothy at the center of the story.

The NBC broadcasts might work even better if they could somehow be filmed in front of live audiences; without laughter at the comedy moments, and applause at the end of big numbers, the material sometimes lands awkwardly. But producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan seem to have learned from their past adventures in live broadcasting, and The Wiz is a commendable step in the right direction. Heart, brains and courage, after all, get us father down the road than worry. Musical theater works best when it believes in itself.

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