For generations The Wiz has been a fixture in African-American culture. And 40 years since its introduction to the world, this sentiment still rings true. The Wiz Live!, the highly anticipated rendition of the 1975 play, airs Thursday at 8 p.m. EST on NBC. Directed by Tony Award-winning Kenny Leon, this event marks the network’s third recent live television performance—preceded by The Sound of Music and Peter Pan—and the genre is becoming something of a holiday tradition on NBC.
Live. Television. Theater.
So, what you’re thinking is true. Every misstep, flubbed line and unforeseen theatrical snafu will be witnessed (and live-tweeted—black Twitter, stand up!) by millions of viewers nationwide. But no pressure. With a star-studded cast that wields names like Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Uzo Aduba and Common, the production will most certainly ease on down the road and into the audience’s hearts. Well, at least, this is their well-intentioned desire.
But seriously, the 40th anniversary of The Wiz is a momentous occasion. To say that the three-hour live-television debut has created buzz would be a gross understatement. In its day, the Broadway production was a theatrical depiction of #BlackExcellence at its best, and The Wiz has seven Tony Awards to show for it. In 2015 we expect its live-TV rendition—with time to work, rework and innovate—to be nothing short of amazing. But before you tune in this evening, check out The Root’s The Wiz Live! cheat sheet.
Queen Latifah (the Wiz)
The Queen has taken on a new moniker, “the Wiz,” and we are very much looking forward to bearing witness to her wizardry. Being a part of The Wiz Live! has a bit of a sentimental value for Queen Latifah, since The Wiz was the very first Broadway play the actress attended years ago. And according to the New York Times, Queen Latifah was one of three Dorothys in a seventh-grade production of The Wiz. As Dorothy, the young Latifah sang “Home,” but this go-round, Queen Latifah calls the shots in Oz and is the first woman to fill the Wiz’s boots.
Mary J. Blige (Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West)
Oz is where “No More Drama” and “No Bad News” will conjoin. Well, sort of. Mary J. Blige told the New York Times that she lobbied to be super-meanie Evillene in The Wiz Live! The “No More Drama” singer has an affinity for The Wiz’s “No Bad News” because of her no-B.S. stance toward work. So, yes, the multiplatinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning artist is a huge fan of the song. But will the famed R&B singer be able to channel her dark side? Cue the super-dramatic music. Tune in to see.
Common (Bouncer, the Gatekeeper)
The Gatekeeper, played by Common, sees to it that no riffraff sets foot in Emerald City. But given his real-life good-guy persona, we hope that he can do the job. The rapper-cum-actor has amassed quite a few film credits, including Selma, Just Wright (in which he co-starred with Queen Latifah) and Smokin Aces. As a rapper, he’s performed in front of live audiences, but he’s never done so as an actor. Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the 43-year-old was fond of The Wiz (the 1978 film) and says that “You Can’t Win” was one of his favorite numbers.
Ne-Yo (the Tin Man)
Singer-songwriter Ne-Yo has signed on to take on the role of the Tin Man. A jack-of-all-trades, the Grammy Award-winning artist has also accumulated acting credits for his work in Red Tails, Save the Last Dance 2 and Stomp the Yard. A singer-songwriter first, aside from playing the Tin Man, Ne-Yo used his talents for The Wiz Live! in other ways: The artist wrote an original song for the production.
Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow)
Elijah Kelley will also ease on down the road as a member of team Dorothy in Oz, playing the Scarecrow. We can’t wait to see the talented actor and singer—best known for his work in Hairspray (in which he co-starred with Queen Latifah), Red Tails and The Butler—take on this role. Rumor has it that as the Scarecrow, Kelley will be doing the popular dance the “stanky leg.” Bring it on!
Uzo Aduba (Glinda the Good Witch)
Before Uzo Aduba made her name as Orange Is the New Black’s Crazy Eyes, or had the opportunity to sashay across the stage as Glinda the Good Witch, she was a “play kid” (read: Back in the day, Aduba was involved in school plays). On Late Night With Seth Meyers, the actress—who has also worked on Broadway—said that her breakout performance was in the second grade. Aduba played a dog in Rip Van Winkle. And believe it or not, the two-time Emmy Award-winning actress only barked twice in this role. But she allegedly shut. It. Down.
David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion)
David Alan Grier built his career by making people laugh beginning three decades ago, and on Thursday, audiences will see if he’s still got it. We’d venture to guess that for the In Living Color comedian, the answer is yes. We foresee Grier’s performance as something like the Cowardly Lion doing stand-up comedy. Please and thank you!
Amber Riley (Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North)
Glee alum Amber Riley will be channeling her “good witch” within. As you may be aware, the Good Witch welcomes Dorothy into Oz and sends her on her way down the Yellow Brick Road. As evidenced by Riley’s portrayal of Mercedes Jones in Fox’s Glee, the girl can sing. And lest we forget, Riley also won season 17 of Dancing With the Stars. Our guess is that Riley will be serving up all kinds of talent in The Wiz Live!
Stephanie Mills (Auntie Em)
Stephanie Mills became a part of theatrical history with her portrayal of Dorothy in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. And 40 years later, Mills has passed down the ruby slippers and become an aunt—Auntie Em, to be exact. Mills was a tactical pick for the role, since her presence gives a sense of continuity and demonstrates the strength of The Wiz’s legacy.
Shanice Williams (Dorothy)
An unassuming Shanice Williams went into her very first professional audition as a learning experience. During a summer break from college, she attended an open-call audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wiz Live! After a series of auditions, Williams landed her very first professional role. What a role to land! In an earlier interview, the doe-eyed 19-year-old told Broadway.com that she was most psyched to meet Stephanie Mills out of all her cast mates. Dreams do come true.
Can’t wait to see the live show? Check out The Wiz Live! preview here:
Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.