PAVING A NEW ROAD: Sprucing up the story
Over dinner, writer Harvey Fierstein gave director Kenny Leon a lecture on how important The Wiz was to him as a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn — as important as seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time — which is why he could not be the person to rework The Wiz's material for the NBC live musical event.
When Leon first offered Fierstein the opportunity, "I said, 'I am so flattered, but I don't think you need this little Jew to write this. You need some African-American — the way it was written originally,' And he said, 'Harvey, [original book writer] William Brown was white!' I said, 'Kenny, his name was Brown.' So, after he shot me down, then we started talking about what could be accomplished, and it was beautifully exciting. He had some really gorgeous ideas."
The pair started by addressing long-felt sticking points. Fierstein admits to always taking issue with certain plot points in "The Wizard of Oz," and Leon finds the act break of The Wiz problematic. So, both got to work on a new incarnation of The Wiz (adjusting aspects of the classic L. Frank Baum story, adding to the Charlie Smalls-William F. Brown musical and keeping in mind that the NBC musical presentation is planning to transfer to Broadway next season). Leon's initial questions included: "Who is Aunt Em? Who is Uncle? Why?"
"Let's give it a context," he says. "There are so many [children], especially kids of color, who live in foster homes or live with their uncles or with their aunts or are raised by their grandmother… Home is just where the love is. So I think we all have gotten together to drive that home, specifically from an African-American point of view, but to make sure it has a universal appeal for all of us."
For Fierstein, he also had questions. "What happened to Dorothy's parents? And what is her journey? And is she just a victim? Because she didn't [purposefully] kill the witch — the house gets picked up," he says. "And so I made her not a victim. I made her in charge of her own life. And, I made it about a real journey to figure something out…. the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow always had something to figure out, but Dorothy didn't, so we gave her something to figure out. I took my childhood questions, and I got to play with it. It was a dream."
Rather than Dorothy being helplessly swept up into the tornado (against her will), Fierstein imagines her as more of a stubborn runaway, who wishes the whole thing upon herself — "It's her dream after all," he says.
"It has to come in that mind of what a kid wants," he explains, "and so I started there. I wanted to say her parents are dead — it never said that. I wanted to say, 'I hate living with you' to her aunt. It's never said, right? In the movie, [she wants to leave] because her dog gets in trouble in [Miss Gulch's] garden, but I wanted to [say], 'I hate this school. I hate these kids. I hate living in Kansas. I want to go back to Omaha. That's where I was born; that's where I belong.'"
Fierstein explains that having The Wiz's original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, as his Auntie Em helped in creating the new dynamic with Dorothy — a full-circle moment for the musical itself. Mills' Auntie Em could say (with meaning in more ways than one), "I know in my mind what your journey is, but you have to take your journey yourself."
With more backstory and purpose behind Dorothy and Auntie Em, Fierstein also aimed to fill out Oz's characters, including Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (played by hip-hop and R&B icon Mary J. Blige in the NBC production), and the Gatekeeper (who is known in this production as "Bouncer" and played by Common).
"The way the show is originally written," he explains, "Evillene just walks in singing '[Don't] Nobody Give Me No Bad News.' [You think], 'Who the f*ck is that, and why is she in a bad mood?' It's never explained — the thing about her and the water and all that. I said, 'I have to fix all the sh*t that has been bothering me for all these years,' so I gave Evillene an opening scene before she sings. I have her living in a boiler room with leaking pipes. Now, if you hate water, why the f*ck would you live in a boiler room with leaking pipes? But, don't we all? Isn't that the way we run our lives. We can just open the door and walk out and make our lives better, but we don't. We live in that boiler room with the leaky pipes and b*tch at everybody about it, and it turns us mean and ornery. You become mean and ornery, even though she could open that door and walk out of there and live somewhere else. Instead, she just hates on everybody."
As for the Gatekeeper, who lets Dorothy and her friends into the Emerald City, Fierstein thought, "That's not of this generation." So, he made him a bouncer — like the ones in front of a red-velvet rope — complete with "the clipboard and the headphones," he says.
He's also adjusting the show's jokes, but making sure the script could be easily adjusted if and when this version transfers to Broadway.
"We don't have a live audience here, [and] a lot of the jokes in the original show were written for a live audience. They're very vaudeville-kind of jokes, and they would just be standing there with egg on their face, so it had to be rewritten to be funny…so hopefully they're still funny — not like Seinfeld, but like Larry David."
With all that in mind, will this Wiz be the definitive version and the property that takes shape on Broadway? That's "out of my pay range," Fierstein answers. "I just don't know. I assume!"
"WE GOT IT": Creating the Act I closer
Another important point that Leon brought up in the gestation process for The Wiz Live! (and its subsequent, planned Broadway outing) was a proper Act I finale or — in television's case — a midpoint.
"I directed three or four [amateur] productions of The Wiz with young kids, so I learned something over the years of exactly what I wanted to do," says Leon, "so when the producers approached me — Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan] — I already knew that there needed to be a song at the end of the first act that the four friends would do."
After enlisting Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Ne-Yo to play the Tin Man, Leon thought he'd put the R&B artist to work in more ways than one.
"I said, 'Ne-Yo does a lot of things great, but he is a better writer than anything… Let's give him a shot.' I told him what [the new song] needed to be about — bonding. [The four main characters are] getting together; they don't want to kill this witch. He did it in like two weeks. Then I looked and said, 'But it's not Broadway enough — it's not theatre enough.' He said, 'Oh, I was thinking about when I do radio stuff, I have to make it two minutes for the radio.' I said, 'No, forget about time. Tell the story.' He took another week, came back and delivered that song. When we got it, I started crying. I was listening to it on my phone in Manhattan, walking down 51st Street, and I was just crying because I was like, 'F*ck! He's got it!'"
But, Ne-Yo wasn't on his own in the creation of "We Got It." He had the help of his friend and co-star Elijah Kelley (who will play the Scarecrow and, unbeknownst to Leon, was a longtime friend before working together in The Wiz), music director Stephen Oremus (the Tony-winning orchestrator of Kinky Boots and The Book of Mormon) and music producer Harvey Mason, Jr. (a six-time Grammy Award winner, who has worked with artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Beyoncé).
When The Wiz tells Dorothy and the gang to kill the Wicked Witch for their wishes to be granted, "Dorothy rallies the troops and lets them know that: 'In order for us to make this happen, we've got to work together, and as long as we work together, there's nothing that we can't do,'" Ne-Yo explains. "There was never a song that put that idea together in the original Broadway production, so Kenny Leon came to me, came to Harvey [Mason, Jr.], came to Elijah and was like, 'We need that song,' so we all got together and basically went in there and did what we love.
"Nothing that you write is going to be good enough to work in[to] The Wiz, so you kind of have to take that off, and you go, 'Let's just do a great song. Let's just do our best and do a great song,' and I feel like that's what we did. For the song to go from what it was to what it is now, I still get chills in rehearsals when I see the whole thing come together with what's happening with the set. It's a moment now; it's not just a song. So I'm beyond honored to be a part of this whole thing — beyond honored to have a piece of my work incorporated in this classic."
Mason Jr. says that each of the four co-writers had an even hand in the creation of "We Got It," and Oremus adds that it was the perfect spot where the creative team thought, "Wow! Our main characters have the opportunity to sing something, and they're embarking on a journey and doing it together."
A WIZ FIT FOR A QUEEN: Finding the great and powerful
Speaking of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who sets the foursome out to kill the Witch, only one actor could do the job — Queen Latifah.
"The first call we always make on a project is to Queen Latifah," admits producer Zadan, who has previously enlisted her for the film adaptations of Chicago (Matron "Mama" Morton), Hairspray (Motormouth Maybelle) and Steel Magnolias (M'Lynn). "When we called her about it, she said, 'You know, when I was a girl, I was in the theatre and I watched The Wiz. And, when Stephanie Mills sang 'Home,' I wept, and I decided that night I was going to become a performer… so the answer is, 'Yes, I want to do The Wiz.'"
Leon also had her in mind: "Early on, the question [was], 'Who do you think for The Wiz?' And, I just said Queen Latifah. First thing out of my mouth. I wasn't thinking about gender. I said Queen Latifah. The Wiz can be anything, can do anything. They said, 'We'd love Queen Latifah,' and we went after her right away. But there was no other name… And, today when I looked at that image of her that they sent out, I said, 'That's it. That's the realization of the first time we spoke about it.'"
Producer Neil Meron adds, "Then you spoke to Harvey about how to integrate it into the script."
Fierstein interjects: "And, of course, their lovely ideas are my problems!"
But, the issue of gender was neither here nor there to the creatives and the Queen (more so just a task for Oremus and Mason Jr. to find the proper keys and styles for her songs and music — as well as updating the overall sound of the show to a more contemporary feel).
At first, Queen Latifah thought, "Why me? What's the catch?" But, as it was explained in full detail how they wanted to proceed with The Wiz Live! she "trusted" herself in their hands.
"You're going to have to feel very, very strong about the project — at least about the people you work with — to put yourself out there when you don't have to," Queen Latifah says. "But, it's The Wiz. I wanted to be a part of it from the moment I heard that they were doing this. I called my agent to find out what was the deal: 'Is this going? What's happening? What's going on?' I just didn't want this to pass without me being some part of it in some sort of way. I could have been the guy sweeping the floors in the background…but I wanted to be a part of this because this is part of who I am. This is part of why I am who I am. I was pleasingly surprised to find out I was the first person [they called] and that it would be The Wiz. [I thought], 'Who would I be?' I thought The Wiz was a cool idea, but when they actually came back and asked for me to be that particular character, I said, 'You guys [must] have guessed! You're learning!'"
FINDING HOME (AND DOROTHY): Searching for the star
Although producer Craig Zadan is making it clear that there was no "stunt casting" for The Wiz Live! (because, as he says, "stunt casting is when you cast somebody who maybe can't do it, but you're casting them for the name"), him and Neil Meron have rounded up quite the starry list of artists for Oz.
All were obvious choices except one — the pivotal role of Dorothy — so an open call was held for a new young girl to fill out the silver slippers. And, "Home" was in the eyes of Shancie Williams.
At the open call of approximately 700 girls, Leon decided to "drop by," as Meron says, and that's when he found his Dorothy.
"He decided to stay, and when he stayed, Shanice walked into the room," Meron says. "Kenny instantly identified her, and we got a text saying, 'I think I found our Dorothy.'"
Leon simply adds, "Her eyes."
"It's kind of thrilling," says Zadan. "We had this experience once before. We did the movie of Hairspray, and we found Nikki Blonsky. When you go into it, you don't think about the fact that if you don't find that person, you're screwed because you have no show, and the thing is that, to be honest, if there was not Nikki Blonsky, there was no one else, and the same thing happened here. We saw hundreds and hundreds of girls, but Shanice was the only one who could sing, dance, act and be the character, and you think, 'Well, what happens if that day she decided not to go in for the open call? Where would we be right now?' It's kind of terrifying if you think about it. You can't think about it, you have to just hope for the best and know that somebody is going to come in and claim the role."
And, claim the role she did. The 19-year-old actress hails from New Jersey and is already taking the Internet by storm with her preview of "Home" alongside original Dorothy Stephanie Mills.
"Everything moves so quickly," Williams says, sounding almost like Judy Garland's Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" when she says, "People come and go so quickly here!" (but not noticing it). "And, I'm just like, 'Wow!' … The pace is super fast, but by the end of the week, you're like, 'Okay, we got all that done.' It's cool. And, with this cast, everyone's really chill, really comfortable. We're like family."
Although she'll be taking flight in the tornado sequence (yes, director Leon spills the beans), Williams is not too nervous about making her television debut Dec. 3.
"Kenny always says, 'If you're going to pray, don't worry; and if you're going to worry, don't pray,' and I'm going to be praying the whole [time]," says Williams. "I've been praying so far, and that whole night I'm going to pray, and I'm just going to leave it on the table. My emotions are going to be everywhere, but there's nothing that I'm specifically nervous about… I'm excited."
A CHANGE IN WEATHER (AND THE WINGED WARRIORS): Adding special effects and acrobatics
"Dorothy flies away in the tornado — I call that a cirque moment," Leon reveals, "even though the cirque acrobats are just doing a dance, but Dorothy actually flies."
Leon says there are six "cirque moments" in the show. This re-envisioning of The Wiz is co-produced with Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, which is also set to be part of the 2016-17 Broadway remounting. Along with the producing title comes Cirque acrobats.
"That was a part of my original concept," Leon explains. "I said, 'You're repainting the way people see this, so you need to shake them up because if not, they're going to want you to do what was done 40 years ago,' and then I was like, 'Okay! Cirque.' And, Scott Ziegler is a great head of their division. I was like, 'That's a natural fit as long as you don't let that overtake the production.' You have singers, dancers, actors and acrobats — I call them all my actors."
Leon explains that the tornado sequence is a hybrid of theatricality and Cirque. "In the film, you didn't see that, and in the play, you didn't see that," he says. "You see her in the air flying, and we learn that through cirque. We have another cirque moment — we call it 'The Winged Warriors' — when the Winged Warriors, these flying animals, fly. Some of them dance, and some of them are on those bionic legs that [they] can flip [on] and land on their legs."
So, what exactly are the "Winged Warriors," and why are they not called "Winged Monkeys"?
In 1975, "They [wrote] a lot of things [with] racial connotations, like the crows and the monkeys, because those were political [statements]," says Leon. "I think our world is different now, so flying monkeys, in my way of thinking, takes you out of the story because you're thinking about something negative. So it's like, 'You've got a bunch of black people, and they're flying around, and you call them monkeys,' and that's not the mess I want to get in, so Harvey came up with the term Winged Warriors. They look kind of like they could be monkeys, they could be gargoyles… But they're her army, and that's what needs to be said; they don't need a political statement in there. That's her army."
GETTING BACK TO BROADWAY: Taking the journey "Home"
When The Wiz was announced to hit television screens across the country, it was also announced that the production would transfer to Broadway the following season.
But, will it transfer with all the elements — cast, creative team, script and score changes and cirque moments? Most of those questions remain unanswered, but Leon and his team are hopeful for the "dream team" to reunite.
"I'm working that out now," Leon says of the Broadway plans. "Cirque Theatricals is producing it for Broadway, and they're partners on this, so after I leave here at night, I might go home and write something down, like, 'Okay, on Broadway, the lights have to be more of that, and it has to be less of this.'
"For instance, the Yellow Brick Road can be more theatrical on Broadway. When they did it 40 years ago, it was dancers. I don't want that, but maybe there's a way to use light — a seeing light, the light source. So [I'm thinking about] things like that — like how to tell a story. I'm always working on [the cast and creative team], trying to find out which ones on my team are going to be able to go to Broadway. So I'm like, 'Ne-Yo, I know you've never done it before, but I've worked with actors who haven't done it before.' But, I'm just in the beginning stages of that."
What's the dream? "Ideally, if I could get [our] dream cast!" Leon replies. "But, I know that with schedules like Latifah… I know that schedule will be crazy, but that won't mean I won't try. I think that I start with the four friends. I think that would be my goal. If I could get those four [actors] — Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Man — that would be a great thing."
When asked about a Broadway home, Leon says that any theatre will do and that he's always trying to engage theatre owners in conversations about booking a "Home" for The Wiz.
"The goal is to start rehearsals sometime in July/August," he adds.
As for The Wiz herself, Queen Latifah laughs and says, "Let me get through Dec. 3, and then we can discuss!"
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)