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Essay: ‘The Wiz Live’ is Black Theater History in the (Re)Making

When “The Wiz Live” debuted on December 3, it was Black Theatre history in the (re)making. The production value was unparalleled and extremely rare for Black Theatre when it comes to resources and investment.

While it’s understandable that most people may know and appreciate the film version of “The Wiz,” starring Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, one reason why #TheWizLive is so spectacular is because this production returned, well, “home” to its stage roots.

The cultural lineage of “The Wiz” actually begins on the stage, with live theatre, first in Baltimore (1974), then on Broadway (1975) and on to a national tour during which many of us fell in love with the musical.

What many audience members saw for the first time in #TheWizLive was the legacy of the Broadway stage version, as it remained largely similar to the original theatre production in sequence, style and performance.

For example, the wonderful instrumentation of the tornado was created by Timothy Graphenreed and the legendary, Harold Wheeler, who went on to serve as the musical director for the Winter Olympics in Atlanta. Geoffrey Holder’s original costuming was clearly inspired by Trinidad’s carnival celebrations. And even the late, great, Luther Vandross wrote “Everybody Rejoice / A Brand New Day,” the celebratory liberation song which was only minimally recreated in the television production.

And it's no wonder we love it so much! This was not “The Wiz” on film. This was Theatre; and in Theatre, once it’s live, there are no “cuts,” “rewinds,” “retakes” or “do-overs.”

The intergenerational and intergalactic connection between Dorothy 1975 and Dorothy 2015 was powerful. When Stephanie Mills debuted her Dorothy, she was only 17 years old. Now, much older and playing an elder, Auntie Em, it was beautiful to see the new Dorothy being played by 19-year-old Shanice Williams.

Flashback: The Original Dorothy of ‘The Wiz’ 1:45

The love and joy shared between the two characters onstage was also an act of poetic justice for Stephanie Mills, who blew away audiences on Broadway’s stage but was (rumored to have been) edged out of her rising stardom in the film due to a last minute power move by Diana Ross to play Dorothy. Thus, a full circle moment felt like a victory for the stage version of #TheWiz, which first enticed audiences with the magic of Black Theatre as a “Super Soul” musical version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

The excitement surrounding #TheWiz as a live theater production beckoned the question—what will “The Wiz Live” do for Black Theatre?

One immediate result is that Director, Kenny Leon, is taking it to Broadway for the 2016-2017 season. Certainly, cast members will change but we all hope Shanice Williams will still be our Dorothy, as even Audra McDonald acknowledged that a new star has been born.

Fab choreographer, Fatima Robinson's life story and fiery dances straight outta hip-hop culture will be hitting the mainstream in a new, NBC dance drama, in partnership with "The Wiz Live" producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Robinson's new show will be set in the 1990's Los Angeles and chronicle her rise to stardom in the dance world.

This fantastic news is, undoubtedly, a result of the celebration of Fatima's magnificent choreography upon the tornado, crows, poppies, laborers and angels and those sultry poppies, who gave us Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Beyonce realness!

Thus, already, we have a Broadway run, a new television show based on a real, Black artisan, and NBC just released "The Wiz Live" soundtrack!

Theatre is a team effort and collaboration of an entire cast and crew are necessary for this type of success to occur. American audiences are used to Black performing artists but not having Black executives and crews behind them. Thus, having Director, Kenny Leon, Costume designer Paul Tazewell. music producer, Harvey Mason, Jr., and choreographer, Fatima Robinson is extremely important to telling a great story rooted in Black cultural literacy.

Much of the “The Wiz Live” is what W.E.B. DuBois imagined when he stated that Black Theatre should be “for us, by us, about us and near us.”

In the 21st century, white artisans such as producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, Live Television Director, Matthew Diamond, set designer, Derek McLane and music director, Stephen Oremus, have been just as dedicated to making “The Wiz Live” the best Black Theatre it can be, as the rest, thus proving that you do not have to be Black to support Black Theatre; but you do need to honor the culture, heritage and people from which it was originally produced.

'The Wiz' Star Talks About What Was Happening Behind the Scenes 1:31

I have only personally seen three musicals—“The Lion King,” "Fela" and “The Color Purple on Broadway” with such staunch dedication to cultural authenticity, costuming, hair, makeup and artistry with an all-Black or mostly Black cast.

It is my fervent hope and prayer that Black Theatre companies and productions all across America (and the world) will be given greater support to make their already wonderful productions even greater!

Audience reception to #TheWizLive was yet another reminder that Black culture has mainstream appeal beyond common stereotypes and even campy musicals oozing with innocence, love, laughter and modern-themed wit are more than worthy of great investment—and will sell. Watching live theatre, on television, while we live-tweet, is a new experiment in social television, for which “The Wiz Live” proved a massive success.

Not only did “The Wiz Live” sell, it broke nearly every record NBC has had in just over a decade and made Social TV History. With 11.5 million viewers for the East Coast airing, alone, it was the highest-rated non-sports Thursday for ANY network in more than a year, since Shonda Rhimes’ star-studded presentation of #BlackGirlMagic in the form of Kerry Washington in #Scandal and Viola Davis in “How to Get Away With Murder.”

Among children, ages 2-11, “The Wiz Live!” generated NBC’s highest-rated night for any night of the week, excluding sports, in 11 years! NBC even superseded its own previous “Peter Pan Live!” audience by two million new viewers for “The Wiz Live.”

“The Wiz Live” has not only set a new standard for the performing arts; but with its emphasis upon supporting the production as much as the performance, "The Wiz Live" made Black Theatre History and American History.

So listen to the newly released soundtrack, check out the new songs and absorb the history! Catch the re-run and live-tweet with again @NBCBLK on Saturday, December 19th, 8pm EST!

Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D. is a thespian, scholar and champion of Black Theatre. She is working on her own musical entitled, “Community Meeting." Ease on down the road and follow her @drgoddess.

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