When executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron decided on “The Wiz” as their next live holiday musical for NBC, they had no idea of the excitement the project would generate within the black music community. The duo just loved the Tony-winning 1975 Broadway show, which reconceives L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as an R&B tuner with an all-black cast.
Produced in association with Cirque du Soleil, “The Wiz Live!” premieres Dec. 3, with a cast that includes Queen Latifah in the title role, Ne-Yo as the Tin Woodman, Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West, David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion and newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy. The show also features Emmy winner Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Amber Riley (“Glee”) as the two good witches of Oz, Elijah Kelley (“Hairspray”) as the Scarecrow and Common as the Emerald City gatekeeper.
“This piece talks to people in a way that we didn’t even realize,” Zadan says. “It has an emotional resonance, and when we started calling people, everybody wanted to be in it. Everybody.”
The Broadway production nearly closed on opening night, before finding its audience, going on to win seven Tony Awards and running for more than four years. A polarizing 1978 movie adaptation with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson initially flopped but has since found a significant fan base.
“The Wiz Live!” — which airs from Grumman Studios in Bethpage — strives to recapture the joyous energy of the Broadway original, while blowing off the cobwebs of the past four decades. Grammy winner Harvey Mason Jr., who produced the “Dreamgirls” movie soundtrack, has been brought in to give the score a more contemporary sound.
“Instead of having a Broadway pit-band sound, which is a bit generic, he’s made it very specific, very black R&B,” Zadan says. “It sounds authentic to the point where the songs just come alive.”
Tony-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein similarly has freshened up William F. Brown’s original stage script.
“Harvey blew the dust off of it and set it now,” Meron explains. “It’s still a young girl being swept away from Kansas to begin her journey in this world of Oz, but he has enhanced the emotional connections between the characters and connected the dots between all of the plot points, which were a little bit looser in 1975. He also has made it funnier, and it’s real character humor.’’
Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy on Broadway in 1975, appears as Aunt Em in this telecast, for which Williams, 19, won the lead over hundreds of other contenders.
“We saw about a thousand girls,” Meron says. “To say that it was between several girls is simply not true. There was only one, and that was Shanice. Besides being a really great singer and young actress, she’s just real. She walks into a room and you just love her. You need that with Dorothy, to go on this journey with her, to root for her. She was the only one that we collectively felt could do the job.”