David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion), Shanice Williams (Dorothy), Ne-Yo (the Tin Man) and Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow) from the cast of The Wiz Live!
NBC.com

As far as iconic black-cast plays and musicals go, few are as universally loved as The Wiz. The initial soulful production of the American classic on Broadway in 1975 won seven Tonys and made Stephanie Mills a star. Her rendition of “Home” is still a classic. In 1978 the film version from Motown and Universal Pictures, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, flopped, but eventually, through continual television airings, it also became beloved. And now, in 2015, The Wiz is back again. On Thursday, Dec. 3, The Wiz Live! will air on NBC.

Since the production was announced earlier this spring, the anticipation has been building. The all-star cast includes Queen Latifah (the Wiz), Mary J. Blige (Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West), David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion), Uzo Aduba (Glinda the Good Witch), Ne-Yo (the Tin Man), Amber Riley (Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North), Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow) and Common (the Bouncer in Oz). Newcomer Shanice Williams plays Dorothy, and Stephanie Mills plays Auntie Em.

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The Root caught up with The Wiz Live! director Kenny Leon—who marks his third time working with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, with whom he did Steel Magnolias for Lifetime and his first film, A Raisin in the Sun, on ABC—to chat about why The Wiz works now, updating the story, all-star casting and the pressure of it all.

The Root: Why do you think now is a good time to bring The Wiz to this medium?

Kenny Leon: Well, number one, I don’t think there’s any other musical quite like this. It’s so iconic. It’s so perfect. So many people were introduced to it in different ways. You had people 40 years ago introduced to Geoffrey Holder [who directed the iconic play] and Stephanie Mills [Dorothy] in that production for Broadway, which was wonderful and exciting. And then you have another generation introduced to it by the film with Michael Jackson [as the Scarecrow] and Diana Ross [as Dorothy], and then another generation that saw that film version on television. And then you got another group of people who love the way we’re casting this production; they are fans of Ne-Yo and Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige. So The Wiz has a lot of windows and a lot of doors for people to enter the story through.

TR: What’s one of the main differences with this production storywise?

KL: [Writer] Harvey Fierstein has adapted the book to specifically explore the emotional journey of Dorothy [played by newcomer Shanice Williams, selected from an open casting call]. So you have an African-American girl who is going on a search for the definition of home and love and to understand how important it is and how important community is.

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One of the things that we do with this—because The Wiz never had it in the past—at the beginning of the story, she’s confused about what home is, so she sort of wants to go to Omaha, Neb., where her birth mother was, but her birth mother has passed away now, and she’s been raised by her aunt. And there are so many African-American girls and people of color who were raised by their grandmother [or other relatives], and they feel like they are lesser than because they don’t have traditional family surroundings. And this story is saying, “No, no, home is where the love is!”

Many of us have been raised in a lot of different ways, and we still are just as important and as equal as everyone else. To tell this story in this way and to cast it the way that we cast it, I think it could really say a lot to America about the importance of black lives and, of course, our dreams realized.

TR: Because this is a project you didn’t generate yourself, did it take much for you to get into it?

KL: I run a theater company in Atlanta called True Colors Theatre, and I had a vision for it. So even though the executive producers hired me to do it, I articulated a vision for it that worked, that included the acrobatics from Cirque [du Soleil], that included the addition of a new song that Ne-Yo has written, that included a visual way of looking at the story in a way that had not happened before, that included taking the sound of 1975 and sort of updating the music so it’s more 2015. So even though a director has been hired for a certain project, as always, we have to paint a vision and a way of telling the story, and I think that’s what I’ve done, and I think the actors from Queen Latifah on down have bought into that.

TR: People really seem to approve of the casting.

KL: That’s great because they’re perfect. David Alan Grier and Elijah Kelley together, and Ne-Yo is the Tin Man. It’s a very good cast.

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TR: Now, is this the first time Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige have worked together?

KL: I think so. They have known each other for a while. I did Steel Magnolias with Queen Latifah, so this is our second time working together, and I know she’s known Mary J. for a while, but I don’t know if they’ve actually done anything together. But when you see them, they don’t have a scene together, but it is amazing, it is exciting.

I think that each one of them will take you to a place that you will be surprised. For instance, you know Mary J. from her singing, but when you see Mary J. play Evillene and you see her sing that song and, of course, act and sing and then dance, it’s a whole different thing. And then you see Queen Latifah—she just transforms right in front of your eyes. It’s truly exciting.

TR: Stephanie Mills is involved as well.

KL: She is playing Aunt Em. To see her 40 years later [playing] the “mother” of this young girl from New Jersey, at our first rehearsal, there was not a dry eye in the room. And she’s very special. She has a golden, silky voice. Still today, she’s an amazing singer-actor. So I’m excited to work with Stephanie, and she’s kind of the glue that bridges the original inspiration and what we’re trying to do in 2015.

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As African-American artists, I think it’s always important for us to revisit our work and make it fresh for a new generation, and too often we don’t do enough with our material. Sometimes our material is presented for whatever time it was created and then it goes away. As artists, our responsibility is to have our work last longer and be reinterpreted for each generation.

TR: NBC has only done two of these live musicals before: The Sound of Music and Peter Pan.

KL: This will be the first one with a predominantly African-American cast, so I think it’s important that we deliver the story. I think many people will watch this one sitting down with their entire family because there are young kids who love, love our casting. And then there’s another generation who love the fact that it’s something that they saw on television years ago. And then there are older folks that saw it on the stage many years ago, so I think this can be something for the entire family.

TR: The pressure is on. Are you ready?

KL: I’m excited. I think people will be very pleased. I understand that there are a lot of people saying, “Let’s see. They’re going to mess this up.” But I’m telling you, I think we are delivering something that’s very different, very exciting, very unusual, and, I think, something that the people who are in love with The Wiz will be proud of.  

Editor’s note: The Wiz Live! airs Thursday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.

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