ByKen Anderson, writer at
Ken Anderson

Following in the dancesteps of the live broadcasts of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, NBC has announced The Wiz for its next live musical production. The Wiz, a musical retelling of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from an African-American cultural perspective, premiered on Broadway back in 1975 with the sub-heading: “The Super-Soul Musical ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’” and went on to win 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

With music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls and book by William F. Brown, The Wiz ran on Broadway for 4 years; made a star out of then-unknown Stephanie Mills; introduced the popular songs “Ease on Down the Road” and “Home”; and spawned the big-budget 1978 movie musical starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

NBC is setting The Wiz for a December 3rd airdate and is upping the ante of its annual live musical broadcast by mounting this production as a precursor to a genuine opening on Broadway in 2016.

No doubt taking a cue from the popular use of acrobatics in the recent Broadway revival of Pippin, this production of The Wiz will team with the new “stage division” of Cirque du Soleil, promising to bring something new and exciting to the perhaps dated 70s show - a safe guess being that OZ and Munchkinland are going to be populated with a lot of aerialists, jugglers, and tumblers. Also, that dancing tornado (the highlight of the Broadway show) is sure to be a showstopper.

1975 Broadway poster depicting the dancing tornado
1975 Broadway poster depicting the dancing tornado

The Wiz was created at a time when vehicles with all-black casts were almost the only way African-Americans were afforded significant roles in theater, but NBC’s version is to be made with an eye towards fashioning a more multicultural take on the material.

To be produced by Craig Zadan & Neil Meron (the men behind both The Sound of Music & Peter Pan), The Wiz will be helmed by Tony Award winning director, Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun - 2014) with new material by writer/actor Harvey Fierstein (the man behind Kinky Boots and Tony winner for La Cage Aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy, and Hairspray).

Broadway’s historical reputation for recognition of diversity not being much better than Hollywood’s, NBC had earlier announced the possibility of of two more traditionally all-white shows for broadcast: Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man or Aaron Sorkin’s military drama, A Few Good Men for its live-broadcast follow-up to last year’s Peter Pan. But this week’s announcement of The Wiz as its choice is a surprise - one likely to strike the business savvy and show-biz cynical as an artistic decision motivated (even if just in part) by network execs taking a look at the phenomenal ratings and commercial revenue of recent multiethnic programming hits like Empire, Fresh off the Boat, Cristela, Black-ish, Scandal, et al. Perhaps, but having seen the original production of The Wiz (a terrific show and very, very different from the 1978 film) and knowing that nothing succeeds in Hollywood like following a trend someone else started; I think the decision is a combination of The Wiz being a marvelous show long overdue for revival, and the time being just right for NBC to do what Hollywood does best – take a safe risk. With so many talented people already assigned, I'm really looking forward to it. Let’s just hope they cast a little girl this time and leave the full-grown actresses for Glenda the Good.

Again, The Wiz -Live! is set for a December 3, 2014 airdate, and the Broadway revival is slated for the 2016-2017 theater season.

The Wiz - 1978
The Wiz - 1978

Click here for a look at the 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz


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