Prior to Thursday night’s airing of The Wiz, NBC’s annual staging of a live musical looked to be a very short-lived holiday tradition. Its first and second attempts, a highly rated Carrie Underwood-starring version of The Sound of Music and a much less highly rated Allison Williams-starring version of Peter Pan, were novelty items, mediocre productions with a cozy kitsch appeal ripe for hate-tweeting that made Broadway productions, any Broadway production, look unfathomably accomplished. Enter Thursday night’s excellent The Wiz, a staging of the 1975 musical (turned into a 1978 movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson) that is an all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz. The Wiz single-handedly revived the live-musical concept, making the first two times out look like dress rehearsals—or, really, early rehearsal days when no one knows their lines or the choreography yet. As much as Dorothy wants to go home, the Scarecrow needs a brain, the Tin-Man desires a heart, or the Cowardly Lion longs for a spine, NBC coveted a hit: The Wizard delivered.
And all of this almost wasn’t so. At this time last year, NBC seemed like its next musical was going to be The Music Man. In mid-January, Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC, said The Wiz was also in development. That month bears mentioning, because at the beginning of it, the all-black ratings juggernaut Empire premiered. There are, as ever, cynical ways to view the network’s embrace of diversity: Only in a moment of ratings-crisis did they finally do so. But, boy, have they. If that’s a boon to NBC’s bottom-line—the advertising during The Wiz was aimed so squarely at black audiences that when an ad aired for Wicked, another Wizard of Oz–inspired entertainment, it seemed like this—it’s also a boon to its audience. The Wiz was wonderful. Whatever its ratings out to be, this production was a huge win for quality—proof, which had not previously existed, that one can stage a live TV musical and have it be excellent, not just an event.
The Wiz, some version of which is headed to Broadway next year, took the inspired tack of casting people who could really sing and dance and act. Shanice Williams, the 19-year-old playing Dorothy, was cast from a talent search and you could tell: She has it. As does her more famous supporting cast, which included a gloriously incensed Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of West, an ethereal Uzo Aduba as Glinda, and Amber Riley as Addaperle, who set the tone early on not just with her pipes, but with her dedicated dance moves. As for Dorothy’s friends, one was better than the next, from Elijah Kelley’s sweet, jittery Scarecrow, to Ne-Yo’s soulful Tin Man, to David Alan Grier’s terrific Cowardly Lion.
And the talent extended behind the scenes. You could see it in the make-up, in the Wizard’s (Queen Latifah) green contouring, the purple swoops flaring off Blige’s eyes, the rusting silver on the Tin Man’s face. You could see it in the hair, from the Cowardly Lion’s camel and grey dreadlocks to the Scarecrow’s Basquiat-inspired ’do of twigs. You could see it in the costumes, in the Tin Man’s snazzy silver vest, the Scarecrow’s friendly Freddie Kruger face mask, the gleaming red eyes of the eerie flying monkeys, in every fabulous get-up the voguing denizens of Emerald City.
Unlike last year’s Peter Pan, The Wiz is a satisfyingly straightforward tale: A girl on a quest to get home, no psychedelic, phallic alligators or digressions to watch a bunch of pirates dance. The propulsive narrative helps an audiences over the speed bump at the very beginning of these live musicals, the rhythm of which takes a little getting used to. It’s not the normal rhythm of television, despite the dozens of commercial breaks. The world it drops us into asks us to do some imagining of our own. It’s best viewed in wide shot, when we’re accustomed, on TV, to the close-up. There’s not all the introductory hand-holding television usually provides. At the start, this feels strange. It seems odd there’s not a live audience, responding to all these song and dance numbers, until, suddenly it doesn’t: We’ve become the audience. By the end of the show, when Toto, too dangerous for live TV, finally reappeared, bounding into Dorothy’s arms, maybe you were beaming.