The Wiz Live! finally aired last night after long weeks of anticipation, and it was Off. The. Hook. After a couple of duds, NBC got a live musical so right, even Black Twitter couldn’t find much wrong with it. You just know they were warming up to destroy it and instead they started crying: with joy.
Last night we all had the privilege of watching a star as she was born. Shanice Williams, in her first role, stood toe to with the likes Queen Latifah, Amber Riley, Mary J Bilge and Uzo Aduba and she shined. Sit down Allison Williams and Carrie Underwood, you got owned. Shanice, when does you first album drop, girl? I’m there for it.
However, Shanice doesn’t get all the credit, the entire cast brought their A-game. After Christopher Walken’s lame-ass Captain Hook in the disaster known as Peter Pan, we all know that big names does not automatically equal big performances. Last night there was not a single weak performance. Tony Award Winner Director Kenny Leon wrung every ounce of perfection humanly possible out the his stars by building a espirit de corps among his cast that the US Marine Corps would envy. Not impressed by the names he had to work with, he made everyone do push-ups when anyone was late. Yes, he made Queen Latifah do push-ups!!!!! I bow to you sir.
The other thing that distinguished this production from NBC’s previous live musicals was the fact that they were not afraid to modernize The Wiz. It didn’t need a lot of updating, the updates were pretty small details unless you count the new song, but those small things like having The Good Witch of the North whip out her iPad helped bring the show into this century. Peter Pan and The Sound of Music were left pretty much in their original stage forms and they came across as stale and tired (though that could partially be blamed on the limp performances from key members of their casts). They were nostalgia pieces instead of vibrant musicals.
The Wiz Live! was nothing if not vibrant. The makeup, costumes and sets colorfully set you in a fairy tale land, harking back to the original Wizard of Oz’s Technicolor dream world. It was beautiful, fanciful, and perfect. Slapping fiber optics on Glinda was genius, and putting Evillene in steam-punk was inspired. I swear I will never look at a poppy the same way again after the sequence with the Cowardly Lion and the naughty flowers.
If I have any complaints, it would be that they didn’t use enough wide shots so the TV audience could take in the whole stage at once. There were a few times during big production numbers where they zoomed in tight on an individual performer and I was screaming “Pan out! Pan out!” As frustrating as I found it, that was a minor quibble.
I think probably the biggest criticism the audience has, by my admittedly unscientific survey on Twitter, was the lack of Toto. In the original stage production Toto stayed in Kansas, and the creative team decided to go the route, so we only saw Toto during the very beginning and the very end of the show, even though he was in many of the publicity photos. From a logistical point of view I can certainly see why the producers and director chose to cut a tiny bit of risk by not adding a dog into their already risky live broadcast. But I’m telling you, do not mess with people’s dog love, Toto was missed.
The Wiz Live! was a lavish spectacle staged by highly talented professionals who poured their hearts and souls into this production. As I was reading interviews with the cast and crew during the run up, I was struck by how important this show was to everyone involved. They WANTED this show to succeed in the worst, they wanted to show the world that a “black show” that wasn’t named Empire could kick ratings butt. Everyone was on point last night and it showed.
Hopefully this is a new day for musicals and black TV. (sorrynotsorry, had to)