The Wiz Live!
12 January 2016
I was excited right away by the idea of The Wiz as the now-annual live TV musical. It’s a family show with great songs and plenty of great visual and dance potential, and the Oz setting should be familiar to pretty much anyone in the US who’s been a kid. I was especially happy to hear that they were going to use an all-black cast as per the original rather than the multi-racial version done in New York, which by all accounts was bland – an ironic but broadly true comment on multicultural shows in general, I think. They gathered an impressive all-star cast of singers and rappers and actors, which makes a lot of sense for a name that doesn’t resonate like The Sound of Music. They’re also using new staging, choreography and orchestrations, which could go either way – I loved the funky 70s sound of the original, and dance pieces like the cyclone number were pretty hard to beat. But an update could work well if done right, a big if. One disappointment was that they’re using a single proscenium set rather than the innovative sound-stage treatment that made The Sound of Music so interesting. Apparently they’re already planning a Broadway run and are designing this with a normal theater in mind – something similar to my experience with Funny Girl a few weeks back. What a copout. I would have loved to have seen the fantasy world they could have created on various stages. It used to be that the Broadway show came first and then the movie; this turns that process on its head. This is like a glorified Boston tryout. Anyway, the word on the show, which was broadcast in December, was very good, so in contrast with last year’s Peter Pan (which has been sitting on my PC unwatched for a year), I was looking forward to this one.
It was a perfectly enjoyable show for the most part. The book is appallingly bad, simply playing on the audience’s knowledge of the movie without trying to make any sense on its own. Didn’t they learn anything from Wicked? There was no sign of any intelligent life form in the script. It had some good scattered ideas, like the Tin Man’s appealing story of how he lost his heart. But those moments were hung on a pretty sad frame that sapped all the feeling from the story in exchange for banalities and jokes based on a vague black vernacular. I imagine the original writer, who was white, may have been afraid to venture too far in fear of being called racist. He really needed some brains, heart and courage of his own. Harvey Fierstein was supposedly called in for rewrites (as in Funny Girl), and again I had to wonder what the heck he added. I’m sure the part about “And why can’t the Wiz be a woman?” was his, since it sounds so 2000s. But this needed much more than just better shtick; it needed a major overhaul. Why are they calling an old white gay Jewish writer for a hip black show anyway? The right book, preferably by a black comedy writer not afraid to go for broke, could substantially improve this show’s long-term prospects.
Fortunately it has those songs, which remain tuneful and bright and give the actors (and audience) plenty of room for fun. The songs are doled out to way too many characters – why does Auntie Em have a number?? – but no complaints about the quality of the songs themselves. The new orchestrations couldn’t disguise the great period sound of the music, including one addition for the scarecrow that was apparently cut from the original stage show (though Michael Jackson evidently sang it in the movie). There was a jarring contrast with a brand new number written for the production by rap stars for the four Wiz seekers. The lyrics were pretty standard radio fluff and don’t compare to the cheeky “I’m a Mean Old Lion” or “Slide Some Oil to Me” or more heartfelt “Home” and others. Still, it was pleasant enough and, more importantly, felt right for the moment. So musically, this production was right on.
The cast was wonderful all around. Shanice Williams, who played Dorothy, was plucked from obscurity and amazingly given, as her debut, a lead role in a live national broadcast – i.e., no second takes – with bona fide singing and acting stars. Given those circumstances, she did a credible job throughout. Acting-wise, she was a blah or less; she had a constant pouting or even angry look that didn’t convey even the limited range of emotions provided for in what passed for a script. But she came through big time in the singing and dancing. I was surprised and super impressed by her lack of the clueless melisma-filled wailing that’s so common in popular music these days. Without resorting to any such gimmicks, she was in total control in all songs, delivering them with great conviction from the beginning to the key late-show ballad “Home”. So overall she was a big asset. Let’s hope she gets some acting lessons before the Broadway run.
Others were excellent or better. My favorites were David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, Amber Riley as Addaperle (Good Witch of the North), and Queen Latifah as the Wiz, who became a female in this version (they really should adjust the key up accordingly for “Y’all Got It”). But the quality was high all around. Special kudos to Stephanie Mills, who not only was a natural on the acting front but set a high standard for the show with a knockout version of the opening song. The choreography was energetic if little more in most cases. I wasn’t crazy about the storm, though that might have been partly a limitation of the camerawork. I did enjoy the Cirque du Soleil acrobatics, and “A Brand New Day” was lots of fun.
The vivid costumes were nicely over-the-top, though I hope they rethink those horrible Munchkin outfits for Broadway. The sets relied significantly on video projections and commercials. The former was an effective device for creating various effects and locations (in the sad absence of different sound stages), while the latter let the director lazily throw new characters or props on stage without having to worry about the piece’s flow. I guess we’ll have to wait for the stage show to see how it’s done in real time. The camerawork was not as sharp this time, failing in many cases to show how sets were shifted on and off, how characters reacted, how the overall show looked, and more. At one point, a camera could be seen in the frame, though that much can be written off as a slight live glitch. The rest seems more like bad planning. They only have one chance to get this right, so I would think they’d have this worked this out in great detail. It fell between two stools, neither a unique live/film hybrid nor a good filmed version of a stage show like the Met Live broadcasts. I really hope they return to the previous method in future shows.
All in all, they didn’t make much of a case for this as a show, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be better as a concert. Chuck the galling book, let the singers go overboard with the songs, and keep this cast. Even so, I can’t imagine spending a Broadway-sized $150 to see this.
P.S. I just noticed today (1/14) that they’ve opted for Hairspray as their next choice. Great idea, but isn’t that a bit too recent for reinvention? I hope they’ll do something more than just a film of the previous staging. Looking forward to it – fingers crossed that they’ll get Harvey Fierstein as the lead.
So many other options come to mind. If they need a star, how about Reba McIntyre repeating her awesome performance in Annie Get Your Gun? Bette Midler in Mame (she’s ruled out an eight-show-a-week Broadway run, but maybe she’d go for a one-shot TV deal)? Hugh Jackman in Carousel (or whatever he’d like)? The mind boggles.