The Wiz Live! premiered on December 3rd to critical acclaim, drawing 11.5 million viewers and becoming the most live tweeted special program on record. Fans expressed their love for all aspects of the production, most notably the musical performances.
Producer Harvey Mason Jr. was tasked with modernizing — while preserving a classic. The highly regarded Grammy and American Music Award winning producer ("Straight Outta Compton", "Pitch Perfect", "Dream Girls" and artists from Aretha to Bieber), worked tirelessly with cast, director and crew to produce and deliver a cohesive body of songs.
As Sony Music Masterworks and Broadway Records prepare to release the original soundtrack for “The Wiz LIVE!”, NBCBLK spoke with Producer Harvey Mason Jr. to discuss converting a timeless classic to a modern hit.
NBCBLK: The Wiz, both on Broadway and on film were revered for their musical selections and performances. How do you modernize that soundtrack without losing its classic appeal?
Harvey Mason Jr.: That was the whole objective, in every step we took, was to try to make sure it remained authentic to what it originally was and the songs were still recognizable and anyone who loved the original would still love what we did. As a secondary goal we wanted to to make the music relevant and sound cool and fresh to somebody who wasn't as familiar.
Some of the steps we took to accomplish that were obviously starting from the original arrangement and paying attention to the instrumentation and vocal use on the original songs and cases where it worked, use the similar instrumentation.
The way we varied that was adding [the new contemporary style] to that original instrumentation, with different drum machines, rhythmic loops, synthesizers sounds, and just the way that we played the instruments themselves. Different rhythmic approaches and also the way we recorded it and mixed it sonically to make it sound totally contemporary to what you hear on the radio and what’s popular today.
Technology in 2015 has evolved the way musicians make music. In the past there was a warmth and organic feel, and now some music is more digitized. Were you adverse to using the latest production equipment at the risk of modernizing the soundtrack too much?
We tried to use modern technology and all the positive upside to that technology we could. All the stuff we didn’t like about the technology we didn’t use. The warmth heard in the music of earlier eras was based on recording analog and using tape. We didn’t use tape, we created everything digitally.
Nowadays, there’s different things you can do digitally to make it sound warm. There used to be a discrepancy between digital and analog, but it’s a lot less now. Using instrumentation and technology from the time time period is not what we did for [The Wiz Live! soundtrack]. I did it on Dreamgirls, and Get On Up, but for this, we wanted it to sound as high quality as we could. The tribute to the 70s was done with live instrumentation. The drums, the bass, the guitar. Things like that.
You added a new song “We Got It” to the soundtrack. How does this song complement the current ensemble of songs? Take us through your thought process for this track.
It was actually the Director Kenny Leon’s idea. He felt there was a little bit of a down moment in the show at the end of an act, and he wanted to end on an upbeat note. Also, he didn’t think the story was complete. The Wiz had just told four friends that they were going to have to kill another witch, and then they just went away. At that point in the story, Kenny felt like they needed to explore the emotions that the characters were going through and we didn’t have a song to do that. So, he says “Let’s put a new song there!”. Kenny spoke to myself and to Ne-Yo and the idea for putting a song together started there.
We worked with Elijah [Kelley] early on and brought Stephen Oremus in to perfect certain things. Ne-Yo had most of the ideas for the lyrics and how to tell the story because he was already a few weeks into rehearsals and was really familiar with the production at that point. He had great insights. Musically, I’d been doing all of the music throughout the show so I knew where we needed to land so that it would sound authentic and fit in with the other pieces. So hopefully it was a seamless insertion into the soundtrack.
Were you apprehensive at all about how fans would receive the music prior to The Wiz Live, and how did you feel after the critical acclaim?
I was nervous for about one second that was it [laughs]. I was nervous doing the music and once I got really immersed in the production I wasn’t nervous because I knew what we were doing wasn’t out of bounds. it wasn’t out of line. We weren’t doing anything where people would say, “that’s disrespectful to the original.” I was very comfortable with what we were doing with the songs and to the music. I knew the production on the record and the sonics were right. I knew the songs were working for the artists.
We try to make the songs make sense for the artists. When Mary J. Blige makes a song, we want it to sound like something that you would expect Mary J. to sing. Same for Ne-Yo, it goes across the board. When the show came on, I was more nervous that someone was going to forget a lyric, or trip on a stair or do something like that [laughs], but I wasn’t nervous about the music.
You worked with seasoned vets, Broadway mainstays and newcomers alike on this record. How was it meshing all the different backgrounds and talents to make the updated soundtrack work?
It was really a fun opportunity! It was like a science project, trying to piece it all together. I will say that the way in which we approached it was really cool because Stephen Oremus was the Musical Director for the show, and he was really involved in pulling both worlds together.
You know, I do what I do; I make music and records for artists to have hits with and Stephen does a lot of work on Broadway so the two of us smacked our heads together and came up with what we thought would work on the soundtrack.
Working with the different artists from both the music side and the Broadway side was the same thing. We smashed them together and they all came out with what we finished with. I think this soundtrack is a great representation of the collaboration between Stephen and I, the artists and the Broadway artists.
What was your favorite song off the original Wiz soundtrack and what’s your favorite now on this version?
Originally my favorite was probably "Ease On Down The Road". That’s something you grew up singing anyways and I was most familiar with that. One of my favorites from the new production is either "We Got It" or Ne-Yo’s song "If I Could Feel". I also think Elijah Kelley’s Scarecrow song was one of my favorites.
What can we expect from this new Wiz Soundtrack?
You can expect to be listening to some really good production. On every song we took so much care and took a lot of time to make sure it was perfect. We tried not to compromise on anything. We spent a lot of time to make sure the songs sounded great, felt great and also told the story that the Director was trying to tell.
So as a listener, you should expect to hear some great music and really feel the music. It’s not shallow or disposable in any way. It’s real production. You’re going to hear some amazing singing, and the singing you’re going to hear is live.
We did the tracks obviously as pre-production but all the vocals are from the show. The only thing we did was record the show five days previously in rehearsals. All the vocals are the performers singing live on stage in either pre rehearsal or from the December 3rd broadcast.
The Wiz Live! Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event is available for purchase at all music retailers today.
The Feeling We Once Had (Stephanie Mills, Ensemble)
Tornado (Orchestra, Ensemble)
He’s the Wizard (Amber Riley, Shanice Williams, Ensemble)
Soon As I Get Home (Shanice Williams)
You Can’t Win (Elijah Kelley, Male Ensemble)
Ease On Down the Road (Shanice Williams, Elijah Kelley, David Alan Grier, NE-YO)
Slide Some Oil to Me (NE-YO)
Mean Ole Lion (David Alan Grier)
Be a Lion (Shanice Williams, David Alan Grier, Ensemble)
So You Wanted to See the Wizard (Queen Latifah)
What Would I Do If I Could Feel (NE-YO, Shanice Williams, Elijah Kelley, David Alan Grier, Ensemble)
We Got It (Shanice Williams, NE-YO, Elijah Kelley, David Alan Grier, Ensemble)
Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News (Mary J. Blige, Ensemble)
A Brand New Day (Shanice Williams, NE-YO, Elijah Kelley, David Alan Grier, Ensemble)
Y’all Got It (Queen Latifah)
Believe in Yourself (Uzo Aduba)
Home (Shanice Williams)