Some Thoughts on NBC’s The Wiz Live!

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Apparently the third time is the charm.

To date, NBC’s experimentation with live musicals has been spotty at best; most people were tuning in to hate watch rather than from a genuine enjoyment of the product that the network was putting out. Sound of Music Live! starred Carrie Underwood who is musically very gifted but who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag; Peter Pan Live! was just kind of a mess – Walken was all over the place and the production lacked any sort of personality whatsoever. But NBC doesn’t care why people re tuning in; ratings count the same if you are watching out of sheer admiration of what they are doing or because you want to laugh at it. So they went back to the well one more time this year, this time for a live production of the The Wiz.

Now on paper, The Wiz seemed like a smart selection. Part of the problems with these live musicals in the past has been the production selected. The Sound of Music movie is so ubiquitous and beloved that there was no way that their live telecast was ever going to live up to the standard set by Julie Andrews and company. Even if they had nailed it – which they didn’t – it was probably going to feel like a disappointment. Plus the stage musical is just slightly different enough from the movie that it was slightly disorienting to watch; viewers want the familiar beats that they are used to. I’m guessing no one watched the Sound of Music film adaptation and walked away thinking that was good, but it needed more of the Baroness. In regards to Peter Pan, it turns out that a lot of the thrill of that musical was seeing the actors fly, which ain’t going to cut it in today’s modern world. The added landmine of the racial and gender politics in Peter Pan made it problematic from the start. The Wiz, however, is familiar enough to people both because of the movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and because of its source material (The Wizard of Oz, duh), but it is new enough to a large enough segment of the population to also seem a little fresh and different. It also brought some much needed diversity to the network landscape with its predominantly African American cast. I wasn’t 100% convinced based on past results that The Wiz was going to be good, but it at least had the best potential to be something other than a train wreck.

NBC also put a lot more effort into making sure that The Wiz Live! had a stronger all-around cast. While previous productions had featured a handful of stars, The Wiz Live! was stacked with talented people. The burden for the success of the show was more evenly distributed; where a lot of the responsibility of The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! fell on Carrie Underwood and Allison Williams, respectively, this time out there was less pressure on one main character. That allowed NBC to cast newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy without putting too much on the 19 year-old’s shoulders since she was backed up by Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Common, Elijah Kelley, Amber Riley and Uzo Aduba. That’s an embarrassment of riches and while I firmly believe in NBC’s ability to mess up just about anything, the odds that The Wiz Live! would at least be tolerable were in their favor.

Turns out that The Wiz Live! was not merely tolerable, but it was also a whole lot of fun. The production was chock full of great songs and catchy choreography that the talented cast handled with ease. While in previous years the live musicals felt like something of a slog, The Wiz Live! flew by; the nearly three hour show felt like it was over almost as soon as it began. It helps that there is not a lot of fat in The Wiz; the time spent on songs greatly outnumbers the amount of spoken dialogue, so that it all hums along like a well-oiled machine. This also minimized the possibility of “the Underwood Effect,” as it played to the overall strength of the cast and provided few opportunities for wooden delivery of lines. Ne-Yo completely exceeded my expectations and was fantastic as The Tin Man; I was unfamiliar with his acting background prior to watching, but I thought he was just a whole lot of fun. Almost everything about the show was on fleek – not only were the performances great, but the costuming and make-up were fantastic as well (notable exception – I was not really digging whatever it was that they created for the Scarecrow’s costume). This time out, it just all fell into place. Part of the fun of these productions is watching live with Twitter, but even the online snark was hard to come by. People simply were digging The Wiz Live!. The stumbles of the previous attempts at live musicals were worth it to get to this point.

Of course, there were a few areas that could have stood some improvement. I stand by my contention that these productions would all benefit from being performed in front of a live audience; the actors would be able to feed off the energy of the crowd and musical numbers wouldn’t be greeted with silence. This logistically shouldn’t be that hard for NBC to pull off and I think it would only bolster these musicals going forward. The camera work continues to be a problem as well; they couldn’t quite figure out when to use a wide shot or a close-up and the cameras were occasionally focused on the less visually stimulating action. Whether this was a fault with the camerawork itself or the control booth I don’t know, but it was perhaps the weakest part of the musical. Perhaps they could bring in the Sunday Night Football crew for the next production, since they are more versed in the delicate dance of covering a live event. There were also a few errant notes here and there, but that is getting very nitpicky. The performances overall were great and occasionally you just aren’t going to hit the note that you thought you were. That’s part of live theater. There was also a noticeable lack of Toto, which got a lot of people on Twitter riled up. Just a guess, but live television and animals were probably a combination that they were trying to minimize.

Some other random thoughts:

  • There were some changes made to the musical in storyline and some of the references were updated for a modern audience. I had to chuckle when Queen Latifah dropped Spice Girls’ lyrics.

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  • I’m honestly impressed that they worked a Molly wop reference into a network program. I’m sure that sent plenty of people to Urban Dictionary.
  • You know, I never really thought about it before, but Dorothy is a little presumptuous in all these promises that she makes to The Tin Man, The Scarecrow and The Lion. She didn’t even know that The Wiz existed 24 hours ago and now she’s assuring everyone that he’ll give them whatever they want.
  • In a surprise twist, I indirectly knew people involved with dressing the performers and the make-up team. Who knew that there were so many talented people within two degrees of separation of me.
  • In a nice nod to history, Aunt Em was played Stephanie Mills, who originated the role of Dorothy in the Broadway production. #Fullcircle
  • There was so much great dancing in The Wiz Live!; Ne-Yo got down….

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  • And the Emerald City is apparently the hottest club in town:

 

  • Uzo Aduba knows how to make an entrance:

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My only major complaint about The Wiz Live! is that it is a hell of a lot easier to write these blog posts when these productions are terrible. Those posts write themselves. About twenty minutes into The Wiz Live! I realized that this was not going to be the case; I would have to put my sarcasm aside for this one. I am somewhat optimistic about these live musicals going forward; hopefully NBC and everyone involved has learned how to successfully pull these shows off and how to cast and select the right musical. Fox will try their hand at the live musical game with Grease Live!, which I don’t have a ton of faith in based on the learning curve for pulling these shows off as well as the fact that I have a special place in my heart for Grease and I’m sure they will fall short of my expectations. But for now, these live musicals have finally emerged as something that can be watched unironically. Congrats to the cast and crew of The Wiz Live!; you did it!

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