NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” arrives Thursday night at 8 from Bethpage’s Grumman Studios — the network’s third live musical from these stages. But enough about the what and where.
Let’s talk “who.”
Re-imaginings of beloved Broadway musicals — to paraphrase the Wicked Witch of the East — must be done dellllllicately. Memories, even love, are at stake, and there are lot of memories and love to go with this one. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have returned to Grumman once again (they also mounted “Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” from here), and will get a big assist from veteran Broadway director Kenny Leon. Harvey Fierstein is (in NBC’s words) “providing new written material” to William F. Brown’s original stage play. Charlie Smalls’ music and lyrics remain intact. (Smalls died in 1987 at the age of 43.)
Many thousands of theatergoers saw “The Wiz” over 1,672 performances at the Majestic and Broadway, from 1975 to 1979, quite a few less at subsequent revivals. But millions saw Sidney Lumet’s ’78 big-screen adaptation — a campy, funky, eccentric and undeniably entertaining version that some critics savaged and many viewers loved. Let’s consider that the standard against which NBC’s production must be set.
With that, here’s your who’s who guide to key cast members:
DOROTHY Shanice Williams, a 19-year-old New Jersey native, and “raised” per NBC, in the musical theater. She’s a TV newcomer, doubtless a talented one too, but the silver shoes she must fill (no pressure!) are immense. Stephanie Mills originated this role, and brought down the house night after night with “Home,” the Great American Songbook standard from “The Wiz.” (Mills is Auntie Em in this production.) "Home" is the lynchpin of "The Wiz." Tremulous and full of yearning, it shifts moods, shifts audience expectations, and puts the weight of an entire production on the shoulders of the star who sings it (twice, in fact). Plus, the true essense and meaning of "The Wiz" emerges from these chords and words:
"If you're list'ning God/ Please don't make it hard to know/ If we should believe in the things that we see/ Tell us, should we run away/ Should we try and stay/ Or would it be better just to let things be?"
Many have covered (Barbra Streisand, famously) but Mills pretty much owns this classic . She's performed it countless times, and the deep emotional bond between song and artist is palpable, and palpable with audiences too.
But the movie’s Diana Ross is (also) Dorothy. Emotionally fragile, her Dorothy desperately yearned for her comfort zone (above 125th Street) until she learned the true meaning of “home.” She also sang two versions of 'Home" — the first tentative, fearful, and the second towering, triumphant. Ross’ Dorothy cried real tears as she sang; fans still do.
SCARECROW Elijah Kelley. Not a big TV footprint, but he did play “Seaweed” in Adam Shankman’s 2007 screen version of “Hairspray.” Speaking of shoes, Broadway legend (and three-time Tony winner) Hinton Battle originated the role but Michael Jackson — who was about to release his first studio album in three years (“Off the Wall”) and become the world’s biggest star, music or otherwise — was Scarecrow in the movie. Lumet’s “Wiz” was about aspiration but also oppression — the African-American experience threaded through a story that most people had grown up assuming was about Dorothy and her ruby slippers. Jackson’s Scarecrow was the symbol of that oppression: Hung from a pole, mocked by crows, his fear had turned to self-loathing, until he sang that other showstopper, “Ease on Down the Road.”
TIN MAN Ne-Yo. One of the major stars on board, and an R&B career dating back nearly 20 years. Tiger Haynes originated the role on stage, while veteran comic (and TV game show habitue) Nipsey Russell (who died in 2005) was Tinman — AKA Fleetwood Coupe DeVille — in the movie, singing, “If you don’t have STP, Crisco will do just fine ... ”
COWARDLY LION David Alan Grier. Almost needs no introduction, but just in case: Fox’s “In Living Color,” also “Race,” “Porgy and Bess,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on Broadway, and (lest we forget) the movie “Baadasssss!” Ted Ross (who died in 2002) was the Lion on stage and on screen — a standout both places.
THE WIZ Queen Latifah. From the early rapping career, to the big screen (Mama Morton, in “Chicago), and talk show fame, she’s one of the most versatile stars in this version. André De Shields originated the role, and Richard Pryor hammed it up in the movie as a mousy dogcatcher from Atlantic City, Herman Smith.
THE WITCHES Mary J. Blige as Evillene, Wicked Witch of the West, who enslaved the Winkies. Mabel King commanded this role on both stage and movie. The question here: Can Blige’s big, beautiful voice match King’s? Uzo Aduba as Glinda; shoes again! Lena Horne played her on screen. Finally, “Glee’s” Amber Riley will play Addaperle, Good Witch of the North. Clarice Taylor played her on stage. Taylor, who died in 2011, was Anna Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.”
THE BOUNCER (or Royal Gatekeeper): Common. The other big star here (currently in “Hell on Wheels”) in a role that was minor in the movie, played by Danny Beard on stage.