Exclusive: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How The Wiz Live! Got Its New Sound

News   Exclusive: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How The Wiz Live! Got Its New Sound
 
The Tony-winning Broadway musical The Wiz blew back into town Dec. 3 on NBC with an all-star cast and a fresh new contemporary sound. Stephen Oremus, the show's Tony-winning music director, takes us behind the scenes.

The company of <i>The Wiz Live! </i>
The company of The Wiz Live! Photo by Paul Gilmore/NBC

In contrast to NBC's two previous live broadcasts of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, both of which had their highs and lows, The Wiz Live! was a pure adrenaline rush from the get-go. Even the Twittersphere, which read like an endless scroll of snarky comments in previous years, could barely lob a criticism in Oz's direction. Critics, along with 11.5 million viewers, fell under its charms. The Wiz Live! also scored as the most-tweeted live special program (excluding award shows and political events) in the four-year history of Nielsen's tracking of such numbers.

Oremus, a Tony and Grammy winner who counts among his projects Wicked, The Book of Mormon, 9 to 5, Kinky Boots and "Frozen" — not to mention this past year's Academy Awards where he guided Lady Gaga through a triumphant "Sound of Music" medley, served as the music director, music co-producer and co-orchestrator on The Wiz Live! It's a tricky task since all of the orchestrations and instrumentals are pre-recorded for the cast to then sing live  to during the broadcast.

With the show's anticipated live soundtrack — full music and vocals from the original air date — released digitally Dec. 11, Oremus gives an insider's look into the musical world of The Wiz Live! from collaborating with Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah and the discovery of newly-minted star Shanice Williams, to honoring the 1975 Broadway original and that jaw-dropping vogue sequence that ushered in The Emerald City.

The Wiz was a major win for NBC. It felt like all the exploration and risks taken in the first two years really gelled and paid off in this broadcast. The team had to feel that way, too.
SO: Thank you. It's such a celebratory piece, and it hasn't really been done; other than the movie all those years ago, no one has really taken a stab at it in this way. It's such great material, and we had such a phenomenal cast.

The score sounded marvelous. It was The Wiz people knew and loved, but it had this rich, current sound. How did you start to map that out?
SO: A main part of it was our music producer Harvey Mason, Jr. He has multiple Grammy Awards, done records for Beyoncé and also worked on the "Dreamgirls" and "Pitch Perfect" movies. Harvey and I, as producers of the music, worked as a team to start piecing these new versions together. We wanted to keep it contemporary, but still pay tribute to the original version and to really honor the songs and the characters. That was really important to us.

We worked both on the West Coast and the East Coast. We did demos, and worked off the demos with the cast and the creative team. We really built the show piece by piece and song by song. Then we went into the studio in Los Angeles and recorded all of the rhythm sections. We brought in Jerry Hey, who did the horn arrangements. He's legendary. He worked with Earth Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson on their albums. He actually did some of the arrangements for the original movie of "The Wiz." So we recorded that, and I came back to New York and recorded a 25-piece orchestra on top of that.

On Twitter you also thanked some Broadway orchestrators, Christopher Jahnke, Bruce Coughlin and Brian Usifer, who had a hand in some of the incidental (scene change and commercial break) music.
SO: Yes, we had additional orchestrators come on board. There were so many additional cues... All of the "outs" to commercial and coming back in. We were just running out of time, so I called in some friends and had them do some charts for me. It takes a village to make it all happen. We had to have all of this done before we even hit the sound stage. So we had to have final versions and mixes of all the tracks (which we were still tweaking down to the last minute), because once you're on the sound stage [for rehearsal], you're just hitting play because the cast has to start getting used to exactly what it's going to be and the timing and everything.

Ne-Yo, Shanice Williams and Elijah Kelley
Ne-Yo, Shanice Williams and Elijah Kelley

For people who know The Wiz, it was clearly fresh, but it still felt organic to the piece.
SO: So much of it really was to honor the characters and to also highlight the skills and brilliance of these performers. For instance, on "He's The Wiz," I had to do something that was going to really show off Amber Riley — be fun, quirky and honor the song — but also show off her amazing voice. Doing "Slide Some Oil to Me" for Ne-Yo, we couldn't do the Nipsey Russell version [from the 1978 film version], which is that old-timey-sounding song. We wanted to make it something that really felt organic for Ne-Yo as a performer and his amazing skill-set.

Wiz die-hard fans, I know, were thrilled to hear references to cut songs from the original.
SO: That's really deep! As we were piecing it together we realized we had to create new musical material for things like the Kalidahs, Glinda's entrance and the Emerald City, which was totally new. It was really important to me to incorporate aspects of the original score. I really wanted to connect it to what started it all.

For instance, the "Kalidah Attack" was one musical figure played over and over. I did variations on that figure, and by the end of it you hear the full figure of what the Kalidah originally was in 1975. So we brought it full circle back to 1975, but it was done in a really modern way with the orchestra and Harvey's beats behind it.

For The Emerald City, Fatima Robinson [the sought-after hip-hop choreographer of The Wiz Live! who has worked with Usher, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston Prince and Rihanna, not to mention choreographing the Oscars, the Super Bowl half-time show, the "Dreamgirls" film], gave Harvey and me reference tracks of the sound she wanted to do. She said, "This has to be really authentic vogue; really electronic and cool." In her pre-production she pieced together what would eventually make up "The Emerald City Ballet." Then, in the same vein of the tracks that she sent us, Harvey would do the programming and the beats. Then I layered musical elements on top of that that were chord progressions and music from the original "Emerald City Ballet" from 1975. I wanted to make sure there was a connection to the original score.

Stephen Oremus
Stephen Oremus Photo by Monica Simoes

The last one like that was Glinda's entrance. We cut the song "A Rested Body," which Glinda originally sang before she did the reprise of "Believe in Yourself." The character of The Wiz actually sings [the full] "Believe in Yourself." We wanted to do it only once because it's the song. So, for Glinda's entrance, I used the music from "A Rested Body" to make this big celestial moment happen for her. ["Believe in Yourself" was reconceived as a solo for Uzo Aduba as Glinda in The Wiz Live!]

You have to turn the soundtrack around pretty quickly to meet the Dec. 11 digital release, right?
SO: We have to deliver the final tracks Sunday [Dec. 6] from the event [which took place Thursday, Dec. 3]. The morning after the broadcast we start listening through and tweaking the mixes in to make sure it's perfect and sounds amazing.

How do you get the balance to sound so rich on live TV? Are you balancing and mixing it live, or is it basically set by the time of broadcast?
SO: We do that in the truck [the night of]. All the singing was live, but then we had additional backgrounds as well; the Broadway Inspirational Voices were with us for a few [pre-recorded orchestral] things. For something like "No Bad News" we didn't have everyone in the cast in that scene, so just like on Broadway, whoever is available offstage are still singing live offstage. We still had a 12-person gospel choir singing offstage while the cast was dancing that crazy choreography. It really helped solidify that ensemble sound.

Do you have any emergency fail-safes in place in case something with the tracks would go out during the broadcast?
SO: They have what they call a "Code Blue." They're running several backups to everything in the truck, but if everything failed because of some horrifying reason, our pianist was playing along the entire time on piano. So, if God forbid, something happened, they would immediately cut the truck and go to the live piano so that the piano would be playing with the cast and they'd have something under them.

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige

You collaborated with some huge talent on The Wiz, many of whom came to the project with their own distinct sounds and skill sets. What was the process like to arrive at an arrangement and sound that reflected who they were as performers, but still honored the show?
SO: With the four friends it was easy because we had them from the beginning of rehearsals. For someone like Mary J. Blige who was out in L.A., she got in a studio with Harvey and went through the song to learn it and make sure the key was right. We also let her know the shape of the song and the arrangement so we could build it with her. She loved it, and she just lived with it and came in and killed it.

We also met with Amber Riley, Queen Latifah, Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley in L.A. We sat down with each of them individually and said, "Here's the approach, and this is what we want to do with the song." For Queen Latifah's songs we wanted to really honor the style of the original numbers and just give them a more updated version. We had originally gone in a completely different direction with "So You Wanted to See the Wizard." Kenny Leon, our director, said, "You know, that Latin thing is just so much fun. You can do so much with it, and it shows variety in the score, and we should really do that." So we did that, and picked keys for her and kept building it.

When I got in the room with Amber Riley and had the actors sing the back-up vocals, it really fueled her. It also helped shape her ad-libs, which, by the way, were unbelievably consistent. She sang exactly the same thing every time. She was killer. And Stephanie Mills, same thing. She lives in Atlanta. I sent her a piano recording and said, "Let me know how it feels." Then we went through it in person, and she loved it. We did it like we would do any other show, it just happened in different pieces.

Tell me about working with Shanice Williams. A star was born during that broadcast. I felt like I was watching a Broadway pro, not a newcomer who was making her debut.
SO: She's amazingly talented. She's incredibly talented. When you have that much raw talent... She impressed us so much with how natural she was. She was the one girl that came in, and we were like, "She's Dorothy." She's not an actress trying to be Dorothy. She had such a sweet quality. Even vocally, she has almost a Stephanie Mills quality to her voice. We immediately fell in love with her.

Shanice Williams
Shanice Williams

It was really about keeping her up. It was like training for the Olympics for someone who hasn't had that experience. She really worked her butt off. I think what really helped is that it's such a joyous, celebratory piece. It really was a family. Everybody fell in love with each other. She and the three friends, it was like they were her big brothers. They'd all been through this before and are professionals in their own right, so she really took to it. She was so confident and it just kind of flowed. I'm so glad it came through, because that's what we loved about her to begin with.

Your career has a "Wizard of Oz" through line from Wicked in 2003 to The Wiz.
SO: I can't seem to get out of Oz, can I? They're completely different pieces and different stories. It's thrilling to get to create another incarnation of this kind of story. Wicked isn't "The Wizard of Oz," but much like Wicked, we were creating our own world musically with The Wiz. It was really thrilling to bring that to life.

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