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The Wiz Live! producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron talk musical

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NBC

Thursday marks the highly anticipated airing of NBC’s latest musical event The Wiz Live! featuring an all-star cast including Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Common, and Ne-Yo.

Like The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live!, this production is shepherded by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, Hairspray). The pair sat down on the Long Island set of The Wiz to talk about this star-studded trip to Oz. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go back to Peter Pan Live!. Looking back what are your thoughts on it?

NEIL MERON: Our goal with doing these live musicals is to try something different with every iteration. So we tried to distinguish Peter Pan from the presentation we had with Sound of Music. So the conception, the whole way it was shot and the way it was designed, it was another way of looking at these live musicals. Whether or not it was successful, critically or not, doing these live events is always kind of an arena sport to begin with. So we really can’t take any sort of criticism very seriously. It’s whether or not we were proud of the work we did and what we took away from it. We were proud of the presentation and we were proud of everyone’s work.

CRAIG ZADAN: It seems that Peter Pan as a story is not welcome in everyone’s homes at the moment. We didn’t know that then. We couldn’t have known it but we thought it’s a great story and it’s a classic. But we sure learned as did several other people with their own Peter Pans that it really was not welcome. What we’ve learned is we wanted to do something that was cooler and hipper and contemporary. And something that had a lot of stars.

You debated between doing The Wiz or The Music Man right?

MERON: Yes. Again, as we were discussing a lot of it is so star-dependent. Unless you had the correct star there’s no point in going forward with The Music Man. What we discovered on our discovery to do The Wiz is how beloved this was by the African-American community.

When we had our conversation with Queen Latifah, she immediately said to us this was the first show she saw on Broadway. She said when Stephanie Mills sang “Home” she decided she wanted to be a performer. So she said her career took shape that night in the theater. When we were staging the Oscars with Common, he said, “What are you doing next?” We said we’re doing The Wiz and he like, freaked out. He said, “You don’t know what that movie meant to me.”

This will also lead to a new Broadway revival of The Wiz, right?

ZADAN: It serves almost as a commercial in a way. By having a 3-hour version of The Wiz on TV, should you see it and love it, you can see it live. It almost works the way when Chicago was on Broadway, it was tapering off. We came out with our movie and they went to capacity. Now all these years later it’s still running. The movie was a commercial for the show. This is sorta like if you see it on TV and you love it, you’ll want to see it live.

Does the fact that there’s a Broadway production put more pressure on this performance?

MERON: No, our first priority is doing the show and doing the best job we can with it. Then, in success, the Broadway show is the beneficiary of what we’ve done.

ZADAN: If today, they said, “We’ve decided not to go to Broadway,” it changes nothing as to what we’re doing. We’re doing our show.

It’s a great sign of progress that a major network is doing an all-black musical.

ZADAN: You have to remember that The Wiz on Broadway was the first black musical that won the Tony for best musical; it was a landmark Broadway show. So on TV it’s a landmark television musical.

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Did you always think of Queen Latifah to play The Wiz?

MERON: No it was [director] Kenny Leon’s idea. It really makes this iteration of The Wiz its own too, having Latifah play the Wiz. There’s no reason in the world that the Wiz can’t be a woman.

You cast a newcomer, Shanice Williams, as Dorothy. Why choose an unknown?

MERON: We decided we would cast an unknown because there is no star we could think of who could handle vocally the demands of this show.

Shanice has this undeniable charisma. It’s hard to explain what a star is — they kinda tell you. Kenny was in the room and felt it and texted us right from the open call and said, “I think I found our Dorothy.”

ZADAN: Every single person in that audition would have to sing “Home.” A lot of them could sing 3 quarters of it. Then when they got to the last part of the song when it goes higher, people just crumbled. She came in and she hit the notes. She was one of the few who got through the entire song, effortlessly hitting those notes.

Will she hopefully do the stage version?

MERON: That is the plan. In a perfect world, what we’d love to see happen is for Shanice to open on Broadway playing Dorothy.

Is there a timetable for if the stage show?

MERON: Yeah, it’s a year from now. About a year from now.

Do you know what the next musical would be? Are you thinking?

MERON: Yes. We haven’t locked into anything. Bob Greenblatt and Craig and I have batted around some ideas.

ZADAN: It’s very hard to come up with the next one. When you have something that’s contemporary and something that’s fresh and cool like this is, it’s hard to go back and do something real period and old-fashioned.

Will you pay attention to social media the night of the show?

MERON: Oh sure. I read everything. It’s more amusement. I don’t take it seriously. The haters are gonna hate. And if they’re writing, they’re watching!

You would normally be in the midst planning the Oscars while doing this. Is not producing the Oscars this year helpful?

MERON: It’s fantastic. As much as you can say that you can totally focus on thing like Sound of Music or Peter Pan Live!, it was always there in the back, a looming giant in the back. To not have that looming giant is so liberating

ZADAN: We would air the musical live and the very next day we’d get on a plane, go back to LA and start the Oscars. The next day. The idea that we’ll be able to air this and not go back and do the Oscars … three years was so much more than we needed to do.

What’s going on with the Smash musical, Bombshell?

MERON: We’re currently putting together the creative team.

ZADAN: I would say that Bombshell slowed down a tiny bit because Bob Greenblatt asked us to focus on The Wiz and the moment The Wiz is up and running, to go back and focus on Bombshell. So once this airs, we’ll be jumping in on Bombshell. You can’t do two huge things at the same time. You can but you’ll also have a nervous breakdown.