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.