In previous years, it’s been unclear whether NBC intended its ratings-busting “live musical events” to be true incarnations of theater or the televisual equivalent of that nightmare you sometimes have where you’re wearing an Alice in Wonderland costume and standing on a stage next to Big Bird and you can’t quite remember why. Carrie Underwood in a dirndl. Allison Williams in a boy-wig with a British accent, flying. A blue metallic crocodile. Christopher Walken. In some ways, they felt like the natural conclusion of television in the social-media era: an extraordinary pileup of visual spectacle, so-bad-it’s-good performances, and psychedelic WTF-iness, with plentiful advertising breaks in which to compose social-media commentary on the phenomenon unfolding.
But not anymore. If Thursday night’s The Wiz Live! shared the exuberant punctuation of 2013’s The Sound of Music Live! and last year’s Peter Pan Live!, it surpassed both of those previous efforts in terms of energy, spirit, and watchability. And if it wasn’t always entirely smooth, it was at least ambitious, due in large part to the fact that unlike the two musicals before it, it wasn’t just a one-night event: The production, directed by the theater veteran Kenny Leon and the choreographer Matthew Diamond, is scheduled for a Broadway run next year, with the same design elements, the same book, and the same cast of Cirque du Soleil performers in the backdrop. (There’s no word yet on which if any of the actors might be returning.)
And it’s about time for a revival. If the NBC production proved anything, it’s that the show is a gorgeous, vibrant musical that’s been sorely neglected in the U.S. in recent years. The Wiz premiered in Baltimore in 1974, moving to Broadway the following year where it won seven Tonys, including the award for Best Musical. Its modernized reframing of The Wizard of Oz as a parable about African American culture is best-known via the 1978 film adaptation starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, a critical and commercial failure that’s since become a cult classic. Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy, appeared in The Wiz Live! as Aunt Em to offer the first song of the night, and possibly the most compelling: “The Feeling We Once Had,” a moving testament of unstinting parental love.
In the past, NBC’s desire to find big-name stars with the space in their schedule for a 10-month commitment with such fleeting payoff has led to the casting of performers like Underwood, Walken, and Williams: able singers, and/or able actors with none of the stage presence to authoritatively take command of such an undertaking. So the casting of Queen Latifah (as the Wiz) and Mary J. Blige (as the Wicked Witch of the West) was inspired, in that both women decisively dominated their scenes. Blige’s rendition of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was especially stirring in its antiheroic profession of power, and the decision by Leon and the writer Harvey Fierstein to reinvent the Wiz as female also gave Latifah ample opportunity to opine on the frustrations of being a woman in a man’s world. If anyone knows impostor syndrome, it’s the lady in pajamas hiding behind a giant green robotic head.
The production was at its weakest when it tried to fuse theatrical tricks with TV magic, resulting in a tornado assisted by Cirque du Soleil performers in capes and special effects not seen since 1980s music videos. But its ensemble scenes were decisively inspired: a voguing dance sequence in the Emerald City; a trippy nightclub guarded by a surly bouncer (Common) that reminded where the inspiration for Panem’s Capitol really came from; a spirited “Ease on Down the Road” sung by the 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy, paired with the Broadway actor Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, the R&B singer Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, and the resplendent actor/comedian David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion. Who knew Ne-Yo could act? Or that screensaver images from Windows 98 could be converted into such magical backdrops for the Land of Oz?
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that presence matters. All the singing lessons and dance rehearsals in the world can’t turn a performer into a stage icon, but true star power can mask a wealth of sins (Blige perhaps isn’t the strongest actor, and at times Latifah’s first song was beyond her range, but it was really hard to care). But the decision to reconsider the show’s antagonist as a woman, and to empower Dorothy with the ability to forge her own destiny, proved that musical theater has far more to offer television than hate-tweets and neon reptiles. “Home is something got to be earned,” says Aunt Em at the beginning of The Wiz Live! You could say the same for live musical events.