How Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, and an unknown singer from New Jersey made this musical impossible to hate-watch.
Can you feel a brand new day? Well, kind of. They’re using iPads and eating sushi in Munchkinland. The Scarecrow’s doing the stanky legg. The Tin Man is dabbing. Dorothy’s got squad goals. Emerald City looks like a fabulous gay club from Paris Is Burning. The Wiz is a woman, or maybe she’s just gender fluid — all we know is that she doesn’t correct anyone who calls her “sir.” And the best live NBC musical yet has an all-black cast.
A lot has changed since The Wiz first premiered on Broadway in 1975. Although, judging by all the earnest excitement on Twitter tonight, very little has changed for the superfans. For many who grew up with the original musical, or the 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, it feels just as uplifting to hear today’s Dorothy (Shanice Williams), Tin Man (Ne-Yo), Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), and Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier) launch into the production’s hallelujah moment, “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day),” calling out, “Hello, world! / It’s like a different way of living now!” You might feel that way even if you can’t help but wonder just how different our way of living really is.
When Luther Vandross first wrote the lyrics for “Everybody Rejoice (A Brand New Day)” decades ago, he was essentially writing a Civil Rights anthem. In the musical, Dorothy has just killed Evillene, the wicked witch of the West. To celebrate, Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow sing the song with the Winkies, who’ve just been released after a lifetime of being enslaved by Evillene. This was a groundbreaking scene for the time: a song about freedom and new opportunities, paying tribute to black Americans’ struggles and triumphs, demanding access to the American dream they’d been denied for so long. The fact that The Wiz ended up winning seven Tonys, a breakthrough for a production with an all-black cast, must’ve made it seem as if change wasn’t just happening to the Winkies — it was happening in the real world, too.
And yet, 40 years later, our way of living is both different and the same. With shows like Empire and Black-ish, black showrunners and black casts are telling stories that network television has ignored for too long. The idea that NBC believed it could boost the disappointing ratings of its last live musical, Peter Pan Live!, by banking on the star power of Queen Latifah (who plays The Wiz) and Mary J. Blige (who plays Evelline) in The Wiz Live! suggests that executives are finally catching onto the fact that viewers want to see more than just white faces on TV. But The Wiz Live! also arrives amidst a wave of forehead-slappingly clueless and racist complaints about its all-black cast. It’s a hard time to remain as wide-eyed and hopeful as Dorothy.
If any classic musical can speak about race and social justice in 2015, though, it’s The Wiz. This is a story about finding your people, fighting against tyranny, being brave, and having a heart. It’s a story about a young woman who feels powerless in the world, finding why she still matters, even though she’s just an ordinary girl from the Midwest. Because of that, NBC was extremely smart to cast Williams to play Dorothy. Like Stephanie Mills, who played the original Dorothy and appears as Auntie Em here, the 19-year-old actress was an unknown when she beat out hundreds of others for the role. She’s from Rahway, N.J., but as far as Broadway’s concerned, that might as well be Kansas. And she has the perfect mix of street smarts and childlike wonder for the role. “This was my first real audition!” she squeals in NBC’s behind-the-scenes special about The Wiz Live! “I auditioned the day after I stepped off the airplane!”
Of course, the most important thing about Williams is that she can really sing. She can belt out lyrics in that soul-stirring, lung-scorching way that suggests singing isn’t so much an art as an Olympic sport. And she’s not even the best performer in the cast. When Stephanie Mills roared her way through “The Feeling We Once Had,” it was hard to believe such a massive voice came out of such a tiny woman. As the Good Witch of the North, Amber Riley hit notes on “He’s the Wiz” that practically required her to open her mouth wide enough for us to see her molars. Ne-Yo earned all the feels with his smoldering version of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” and the new song he wrote for the musical, “We Got It,” might be the most uplifting tune ever written about plotting to kill someone. Best of all, Mary J. Blige growled the wicked gospel of “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” Everyone served as a good reminder that, after the aerial dance numbers of Peter Pan Live! and the elaborate sets of The Sound of Music Live!, no flashy TV musical gimmicks can match the power of raw talent.
That’s not to say The Wiz wasn’t ambitious. Directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), it featured Cirque du Soleil acrobats posing as winged warriors on pogo stilts. It staged a tornado with spectacularly caped dancers twirling up a storm like a scene from Kanye West’s fashion show. It made Munchkinland look like a Technicolor playground where Russian Oompa Loompas live. The costumes were both imaginative and funny, especially for Blige, who marched out on stage in a steampunk gown with a silhouette that suggested she was hiding a little extra evil in the bustle, and Grier, who looked like the George Clinton of the animal kingdom in his leonine dreadlocks. But it was the basics — the singing and the dancing — that made it shine. Choreographer Fatima Robinson was the biggest revelation, whether she was having the crows to do the nae nae, getting Emerald City to vogue, or leading a group of mesmerizing poppy flowers in a routine fit for Beyoncé’s back-up dancers. And the best surprise was how little this vintage musical needed to be updated. By the time Williams launched into the grand finale, “Home,” people on Twitter were earnestly quoting the lyrics about how even if the world is changing, it’s important to remember that you still know where you’re going. You can blame nostalgia for the original musical. But even if you don’t believe it’s a brand new day, it’s nice to still love the old one.