The Cast Of 'The Wiz Live!' Is Bringing The Old School To The New School

Here's what the cast of 'The Wiz Live!' had to say about the upcoming show. 

Tucked away in a parking lot in Bethpage, Long Island on this brisk fall morning, Grumman Studios is bustling with journalists, make-up artists, publicists and everyone in between. We’re all here for The Wiz Live!’s  press junket, which airs on Thursday, December 3 at 8pm on NBC. The Live! show is a remake of the 1975 version of the famed Broadway Play The Wizard of Oz, titled The Wiz. In the Playbill remake, Stephanie Mills starred as Dorothy, and after that, a 1978 film adaption of the play came out with a star-studded African-American cast featuring Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (Scarecrow) and Richard Pryor (The Wiz).

Today, The Wiz Live! is taking cues from some of Generation Y’s contributions to African-American urban culture; still, not forgetting to pay homage to those who paved the way before them. Ne-Yo—sporting his signature fedora, paired with a cream sweater— (Tinman), Queen Latifah (The Wiz), Mary J Blige, (Evillene, Wicked Witch of the West), newcomer Shanice Williams (Dorothy) and veteran Stephanie Mills (Aunt Em), among others are floating around the room table-to-table meeting the press, and making their way down the Yellow Carpet on the other side of the venue for on-camera interviews.

You might find it interesting that a woman was casted as The Wiz. But for executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan casting Queen was a no brainer. “I just have to tell this one thing that fascinated us…the first call we always make on a project is to Queen Latifah,” Zadan explains, perched on a stage during a panel discussion with the creative team of the production. “That's always the first call. As evidenced we did Chicago with her, we did Hairspray, we did Steel Magnolias, and now this.” Director Kenny Leon echoes these sentiments expressing how for him, The Wiz's phenotype or sex wasn’t a concern. “I wasn't thinking about gender. I said Queen Latifah. The Wiz can be anything; can do anything. They said we'd love Queen Latifah. And we went after her right away,” he adds.

It might have been hard to believe when she first got the call, but now Queen Latifah feels right at home jumping into character as The Wiz. She credits her outlandish avant-garde costume for doing the trick. “I love it when I put it on, it takes me there,” she gushes. “My posture and my attitude changes. I start feeling a little bossier. I just want to tell somebody to do something that they don’t even deserve to be told to do. Like I got ignorance coming on from my pores.”

Besides its captivating costumes and magical story line, it’s safe to say that for most of the cast The Wiz means something a lot deeper. In hindsight, it was one of the first times African Americans saw themselves in a major Broadway production, which then featured some of the greatest entertainers of our time the movie version. “The Wiz means so much to me,” professes Mary J Blige. “It changed my life, as a kid in the inner cities it’s hard to believe so when you see Michael Jackson and Diana Ross who are the untouchable entertainers of our time—it kind of makes you believe you can do it too because it’s Michael Jackson—so it just gave me hope; it inspired me; it encouraged me. So to be apart of something that can do the same thing for another generation I couldn’t ask for more in my life.”

It was important for Meron and Zadan to authentically encompass black culture from its dance to its music. They made it their mission to have creatives like famed choreographer Fatima Robinson and stellar music producer Harvey Mason Jr. as apart of their team. Expect to see a mix of old and contemporary dance moves paired with Cirque du Soleil infused sets. In the mix of all this, Robinson says she stayed true to her hip-hop roots. “I always call myself a hip-hop choreographer at heart, although I do different styles of dance,” she notes. ”We're hitting the Quan, we're hitting the nae-nae. We have every fun street dance that's out there, we've incorporated in the choreography. And it's so much fun.”

Musically, producers Stephen Oremus and Mason Jr. wanted to infuse both old and new influences in the show.“We were trying to pay respects to the era that it was written in but understand that kids are going to watch this show.,” Oremus says. “Let’s make the original but make it sound more contemporary or traditional rather.” Besides songs like “Ease on Down the Road,” you’ll hear a new one titled, “We Got It,” created by Ne-Yo and the production team.“I kind of had to rake off the concept of writing for The Wiz,” Ne-Yo says. “You take that away and you just write a song, and it’s been a ride for me to watch where the song started from to where it is now. It’s literally not a song anymore it’s a moment.”

One special moment in particular is the return of Stephanie Mills to the stage as Aunt Em. She says the whole process for her has been an emotional one filled with gratitude since she played Dorothy 40 years ago. As for her protégé on set newcomer Shanice Williams, Mills says she gives her affection every step of the way. “I give her love [because] she got this,” says Mills of Shanice. “She really has this. She is going to be a super duper star. “

When Williams is asked what she has learned so far in this process she offers this: “I’ve learned a lot about myself definitely. You have to be focused all the time,” she says."It’s all about the work. And being with this cast they teach me so much. Living in the moment in the work process. Sometimes I just watch them."

The Wiz Live!’ airs on Thursday, December 3 at 8pm only on NBC.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Bob Levey

A Tekashi 6ix9ine Documentary Series Is In The Works

Showtime is set to debut a new project about Tekashi 6ix9ine.  Supervillain, a three-part limited docuseries produced by Imagine Documentaries, Rolling Stone  and Lightbox, will explore the rise of the New York native.

“The bizarre and complicated rise of Tekashi 6six9ine is a story of our times,” said Vinnie Malhotra, EVP, Nonfiction Programming, Showtime Networks. “Beyond becoming one of the most notorious hip hop artists of this generation, his story speaks volumes of the impact of social media and manufactured celebrity in our society. We’re excited to be partnering with such heavy hitters in the world of music and documentary to bring Supervillain to life.”

The series is inspired by the Rolling Stone article, Tekashi 6ix9ine: The Rise and Fall of a Hip Hop Supervillain, released earlier in the year.

“Tekashi 6ix9ine is one of the most enigmatic music artists of a generation,” said Gus Wenner, President and COO of Rolling Stone. “Rolling Stone is thrilled to work with Showtime and our other partners to bring the gripping story of Tekashi’s meteoric rise to stardom and infamy to viewers around the world.”

Supervillain isn't the only Tekashi-inspired project on the way. Snapchat is working on a doc about the 23-year-old recording artist, and 50 Cent is reportedly producing a biopic about him.

Tekashi, whose birth name is Daniel Hernandez, testified against former gang affiliates in federal court last month in exchange for a lowered prison sentence.  Though it’s unclear when he will be freed, the “FeFe” rapper -- who was facing up to life in prison -- recently signed a record deal worth a reported $10 million.

Continue Reading
Daniel Kaluuya attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Daniel Kaluuya To Produce Live-Action ‘Barney’ Movie

Daniel Kaluuya is taking a step away from in front of the cameras to stand on the other side of the lens. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Get Out star’s 59% company will produce a live-action film on the beloved children's television character Barney. The movie will be produced alongside Mattel Films.

“Barney was a ubiquitous figure in many of our childhoods, then he disappeared into the shadows, left misunderstood," Kaluuya said via statement. "We’re excited to explore this compelling modern-day hero and see if his message of ‘I love you, you love me’ can stand the test of time.”

Given this new take on the jolly purple dinosaur, Mattel Films’ executive Robbie Brenner believes audiences will appreciate a new approach to telling Barney’s story and “subvert expectations.” Brenner continued to state the film will not only resonate and entertain this generation’s youth but “the project will speak to the nostalgia of the brand in a way that will resonate with adults.”

In 1992, Barney & Friends premiered on PBS, launching a decades-long run (1992-2009) of kid-friendly programming. Sheryl Leach first came up with the concept of Barney when she desired programming crucial to the social development of her son. Along with a team that helped to shape the premise of the show and its characters (B.J., Baby Bop), Leach’s creation made its way to PBS’ developers and the rest is history. The show also produced resounding melodies like "I Love You" written by Lee Bernstein. The song was a staple to the end of most episodes and promoted the show's message of compassion, consideration, and optimism.

Kaluuya is gearing up for the release of Queen & Slim directed by Melina Matsoukas and co-starring Jodie Turner-Smith.

Continue Reading
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Jada Pinkett Smith In Talks To Reprise 'Matrix' Role

Earlier this year, it was announced that The Matrix would return for a fourth storyline. Although a release date has yet to be announced, box office names like Keanu Reeves, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Carrie-Anne Moss, and now Jada Pinkett Smith have been attached to the franchise's upcoming installment.

According to Deadline, Pinkett Smith may step into her previous role of Niobe from the films The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions. Her agent is allegedly in negotiations with the movie's producers so it's not set in stone as of yet, but fans of the franchise hope to witness Pinkett Smith's appearance on screen. The Matrix premiered in 1999, depicting a sci-fi story of a battle between humans and machines.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pinkett Smith said her husband and fellow actor, Will Smith, auditioned for the lead role of Neo (played by Reeves). “I knew it would be revolutionary,” she said. He ultimately passed on the character, stating "I probably would have messed The Matrix up. I would have ruined it, so I did y’all a favor.”

The mother-of-two auditioned for Trinity but the role ended up going to Moss. However, the movie's visionaries Lana and Lilly Wachowski wrote Niobe with Pinkett Smith in mind. “I thought Carrie-Anne was the perfect Trinity, and there was no way I could do what she did,” she said. “And that’s the only time in my career I’ve said that about losing a role.”

Continue Reading

Top Stories