‘The Wiz,’ With Added Street Cred, Heads for TV and Broadway
‘The Wiz': Why NBC’s Live Version Introduces “Empowered” Female Characters.
BETHPAGE, N.Y. NEW YORK — Since seeing The Wiz on Broadway as a very young child in the ’70s, Queen Latifah has “gone through a phase of wanting to play every character,” she says, “from Dorothy to The Wiz.” On Dec. 3, Latifah will finally get her shot at the latter role in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, the latest installment in what has become a seasonal tradition.When the Peacock airs its much-anticipated live telecast of “The Wiz” this Thursday, it will also launch a video segment paid for by ConAgra Foods’ Reddi-wip whipped topping.NBC took a big gamble in 2013, casting country music star Carrie Underwood as the Austrian governess Maria in a live production of “The Sound of Music.” The gamble paid off big, drawing 18 million viewers in its first airing and giving NBC the clout to spend millions on two more productions, “Peter Pan” with Allison Williams and Christopher Walken last year and “The Wiz,” which airs Thursday night with a star-studded cast.
— Long before they became professional partners, veteran producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were fans of the Broadway musical The Wiz, an adaptation of L. In the vignette, students from the musical arts program at Excel Academy Public Charter School in Hyattsville, Md., will put on a performance inspired by the popular musical, and will take a crack at a ‘Wiz’ tune that appeared in the segment that precedes their appearance. The director, fresh off a Tony win for Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun, simply believed she was the best actor — male or female — for the part. “There’s no reason she can’t be a woman — it’s a dream!” he laughed, as he told The Hollywood Reporter during a New York City press day for the NBC musical. That’s what NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” is all about, says the effervescent 19-year-old newcomer who stars as Dorothy in this show airing Thursday at 8 p.m. “The message of the show is that you have to find out who you are,” says Shanice Williams. “And sometimes you have to go through a lot to discover who you really are.” That includes, say, getting swept up in a tornado and plunked down in the middle of a wacky world in which there are nice and nasty witches, flying monkeys and a sorcerer who doesn’t always make good on promises.
Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring African-American characters. “Neil had seen the show when he was a kid, when we didn’t even know each other,” notes Zadan. “Separately, we had each seen it many times, with Stephanie Mills,” star of the original 1975 Broadway production playing the starry-eyed Kansas farm girl Dorothy. ConAgra will gain some traction in a program, however, that had been dominated by Walmart for the past two years, and chances are likely the food marketer was able to secure the promotion for a better unit price than might have been available last year.
Seizing the opportunity to say something “about the treatment of women,” he and Harvey Fierstein, who revised the book for this version, included a new backstory for Latifah’s character. “She didn’t have the greatest relationship with her husband and that’s how she ended up here. ET/PT), marks the realization of a long-held dream for the duo, who also served as executive producers for last year’s Peter Pan Live! and 2013’s The Sound of Music Live! “We’ve always wanted to do The Wiz, from way back, but for a long time the rights were tied up,” explains Zadan, chatting with Meron on a lunch break during rehearsals for the live broadcast at Long Island’s Grumman Studios. “We’re lucky that the moment is right. The outcomes of those two gambles beautifully exemplifies the long history of the musical on television: sensational successes dotting a landscape of dismal failures and forgettable outings. Breakout hits like “Ease on Down the Road,” “Everybody Rejoice” and the soul-stirring “Home” are guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat. “I love that song,” says Williams, who’ll put her stamp on it on Thursday.
Blige, the enduring R&B star, was rehearsing her part as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in “The Wiz,” the enduring musical, which NBC will broadcast live on Thursday night at 8, Eastern time. Harvey Mason Jr., another pop and R&B veteran who worked on the Dreamgirls soundtrack, is music producer for ; he joined forces with Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley, respectively cast as Tin Man and Scarecrow, and Broadway vet Stephen Oremus (music director) to write a new song, We Got It.
For every “Cinderella” or “High School Musical” there is a “Cop Rock” or Matthew Broderick in “The Music Man” or David Hasselhoff in “Jekyll & Hyde.” That uncertainty also helps explain why musicals largely have disappeared from primetime, with the exception of PBS presentations of theatrical productions. Original musicals are largely the province of the Disney channel, where an audience of teens happily gobbles them up. (When we say “musical” here, we mean the shows where characters break into song as a way of furthering the story or relating their thoughts. Ads in the broadcast are sold out, said Dan Lovinger, an executive vice president at NBCUniversal who oversees ad sales at NBC and USA. “We have seen double-digit increases on the CPM growth side,” he said, referring to a measure of the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers, a common metric used by TV networks and advertisers in talks over commercial costs. Unlike the audiences of the previous shows, Thursday’s viewers may get a chance to see this one again, off screen: “The Wiz” is already scheduled for a Broadway run next year, with much of the same design, costuming and choreography, including the Cirque performers.
I felt, why shouldn’t she have as important a journey?” Fierstein told reporters when asked by THR. “And she’s living with her aunt and uncle, and nobody ever asks why. Williams was studying musical theater in college when she auditioned for “The Wiz” in an open call and got the part. “I studied for a year in Los Angeles, then I came home and got this job.” The encounter was captured for a network documentary about the show that premiered Wednesday. As a result, Reddi-wip will appear in far fewer ad breaks than Walmart did. “The Wiz” and other programs like it represent broadcast television’s attempt to continue to harness the big audiences advertisers expect it to deliver.
CBS put on Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Medium” on Dec. 12, 1948 as part of its series “Studio One,” introducing the musical produced for television. In a break from rehearsals last week, she talked about plumbing her “nasty, dark side” and showed off her crimson-tipped nails, which she has been growing long to feel witchy.
I have to be a part of this.’ ” When Zadan and Meron reached out to Latifah, with whom they’d worked on screen adaptations of musicals Chicago and Hairspray and a TV movie of Steel Magnolias, “(Latifah) told us The Wiz was the first show she ever saw. That broadcast snared around 18.5 million live viewers, but last year’s “Peter Pan” captured around 9.2 million, and that slip has taken some of the air out of the ad costs associated with NBC’s broadcasts. “The huge ratings for ‘The Sound of Music’ took everyone by surprise, and its success propelled more live Broadway projects to abound, but when ‘Peter Pan’ aired and didn’t perform nearly as well, I think expectations and future ratings projections were lowered a bit,” said Billie Gold vice president and director of programming research for Amplifi U.S., a media-buying entity that is part of Japan’s Dentsu. I want you to make it happen.” An urban adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Wiz” won seven Tonys after it opened in 1975, a milestone for a show with an all-black cast, and introduced the song “Home,” sung by Stephanie Mills, as a radio hit.
She doubts “The Wiz” or “Grease” will equal “Music’s” reach, “since it was something new and special at the time.” To be sure, the price tag is nothing to sneeze at. It became a cultural touchstone, especially for African-American audiences, who grew up on the over-the-top 1978 film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, a pricey critical flop that went on to have a devoted following. At $340,000 a 30-second spot in NBC’s “Wiz” would cost more than in every scripted program on TV except Fox’s “Empire” or AMC’s “Walking Dead” programs, according to Variety’s annual survey of primetime ad prices.
Two of the most memorable TV specials of the 1950s were musicals commissioned for the medium: Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” an original Christmas opera first aired in 1951, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” put on in 1957 with rising star Julie Andrews in the title role. For more than three decades, the musical was a staple of TV specials: “Anything Goes,” “Peter Pan,” “Damn Yankees,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Fantasticks,” “Brigadoon,” “Carousel” and “Kismet” all had made-for-TV productions by 1967. The political side of me, I wanted those in the country who have been raised by their grandmother like me, or who have been raised in foster care, or who have gay parents, whatever nontraditional way of family, to understand, you are just as good as anybody else, you just need love,” the director told THR. “We as an older generation, we need to give all our young people love, and the possibility of realizing their dreams. After a few years of relative quiet, musicals came back strong in the early 1970s, starting with NBC’s production of “Dames at Sea” in November 1971.
And a starry Encores! concert production in 2009 at City Center that featured members of the creative team now behind “Hamilton” generated tepid reviews that seemed only to remind critics of the show’s flaws. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who also produced the last two NBC broadcasts and have been trying to get “The Wiz!” made since 1998, knew that it needed more than a little tinkering to stick. What kept the tradition alive in the late 1990s were the musical episodes of non-musical shows. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Xena, Warrior Princess,” “Scrubs” and “The Simpsons” were among the many shows that cobbled together mini-musicals for one week, usually to the delight of their fans. “Allie McBeal” incorporated elements of musicals regularly. Fierstein took the meeting while contending that he was not the right fit. “‘The Wiz’ is as culturally important as ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was to me as a kid,” Mr. I assumed the experience would be like that for an African-American kid at the theater, to see a show that was created by African-Americans, and I said, that’s why I can’t write it.” (In a phone conversation, Mr.
Geoffrey Holder’s original whimsical costumes are now Broadway classics, but the television version’s designer, Paul Tazewell (“Hamilton”), borrowed from streetwear and haute couture. Gleason and Art Carney reprised their roles, but the wives were replaced by Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. “That’s Life” (1968-69) The first weekly musical series with continuing characters mixed original songs with established numbers in a one-hour format. Leon was pushing for naturalism. “That was good, crows!” he called out after a run-through of a scene with the Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley). “Keep the performances really simple and sincere.” Authenticity was part of the appeal of casting the untested Ms. Burnett had starred in the original Broadway run – and a 1964 telecast. “Copacabana” (1985) The downward spiral of the TV musical might have begun with this production, the only original musical commissioned for network television in the 1980s, based on Barry Manilow’s hit song.
Annette O’Toole played Lola. “Cop Rock” (1990) Producer Steven Bochco took the bold but ill-advised step of combining the musical and the police drama. It lasted just 11 episodes and became the standard by which bad ideas for series are measured. “High School Musical” (2006) Probably the most successful musical written for television, this Disney Channel hit spawned two sequels and its soundtrack sold more than 4 million copies. Robinson injected the Nae Nae and Whip. “There’s a new dance called dabbing,” she said, a head tap to the biceps. “N.B.A. players are starting to dunk and dab. So we have the Tin Man dabbing.” And there’s a new anthem for Dorothy and her yellow-brick-road friends, “We Got It,” jointly written by Ne-Yo, the musical director Stephen Oremus and others.
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