Friday, December 04, 2015

The Wiz Live!

It's taken me a bit to sit down and write this one. Just, wow!

Back in 2012, when they announced a live TV version of The Sound of Music, I hoped that it would lead to a televised version of The Wiz. Why? Because most people don't know The Wiz as it originated on Broadway. They mostly know it from the movie, which literally tossed out the original script and wrote a new one around a different adaptation concept. And unlike some other musicals (Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Rent, Victor/Victoria, The Phantom of the Opera), there's no filmed version of the play on home video for people to see and become familiar with. (Aside from some bootlegs...)

And then, after last year's Peter Pan Live!, people were asking "what will be NBC's next live musical?" I automatically said, "They should do The Wiz!" Some felt it unlikely, but a year later, here we are.

NBC announced a great cast to lead the musical, but some news was met with trepidation, such as going for "You Can't Win" instead of "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday" for the Scarecrow, a number of songs not appearing on the soundtrack track listing, a female take on the title character, and when the details of script revision by Harvey Fierstein were divulged, more than a few eyebrows were raised. One friend who was at a press event even told me the book had wholly been rewritten.

Well, last night, I pulled up Twitter and watched on TV to see how it was.

Overall... After having expectations lowered, I was impressed!

I'm not going to walk you through the story as it is, of course, the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. William F. Brown's original script for The Wiz is largely adhered to, although several items are omitted, generally for pacing, though the loss of some nice jokes make me still recommend that anyone interested in The Wiz pick up a copy of the script book.

Fierstein attempts to strengthen Dorothy's character by introducing the idea that she has recently come to live with Aunt Em (Uncle Henry is not mentioned in this version at all, but we do have some farmhands ala MGM, which has been done in productions of The Wiz before). It's established that Dorothy's parents died (they note that previous versions gloss over this detail, but Baum's original book says she's an orphan) and that Dorothy misses her old life in Omaha, Nebraska. This is something Harvey returns to.

One thing brought over from the musical is that Toto doesn't go to Oz. This actually spurred a trend on Twitter, asking where Toto was. Quite simply, having to deal with a dog onstage is tricky, particularly in a show like The Wiz where there is also a lot of dancing. So, for this take on the story, Toto stays behind in Kansas. (In the original play, he reappears in the final moments of the show, signifying that Dorothy got home.)

The Tornado was depicted by camera effects, some wire-flying, and Cirque Du Soleil dancers. I'm going to have to admit that for all we saw of those famous performers (the Tornado, the Kalidahs, people of the Emerald City(?), the Winged Warriors and Glinda's handmaidens), there was nothing that stood out so much as to convince me that they needed someone of that talent.

The transformations onstage (moving from scene to scene) were performed by some changing scenery and some projected backdrops, which allowed  for some nice visuals that didn't really detract from the acting. The Wiz was originally staged with minimal set design, and this allowed for them to repeat that, but also have more.

So, as Dorothy heads down the yellow brick road, her aim is not to head back to Aunt Em and Toto, but to go back to her old life in Omaha, even though Aunt Em pointed out that there's nothing for her back there but an empty apartment. During the Kalidah scene (after the Lion joins the party), a Kalidah almost tempts Dorothy into giving her the Silver Shoes by appearing as her mother before the Tin Man stops her. Later, the Lion sneakily defeats the Poppies in the Poppy Fields (instead of falling asleep, anyone caught there becomes their slave until winter). The Emerald City now looks more like a dance club, and the gatekeeper has even been renamed the Bouncer, and most of his dialogue rewritten to reflect that.

The Wiz uses a big, mechanical head to talk to the four friends at first before the Wiz appears in person, singing "So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard," and after they are tasked with killing Evilene, the other friends decide they can't do it, launching into the new song "We Got It," which now feels a little forced at that moment and doesn't feel like a Wiz song, although it's not bad.

Evilene has taken over a boiler factory and it's here that her scenes are played out. The "Funky Monkeys" sequence was far too short, being over in just a minute as the "Winged Warriors" drop a net over Dorothy and her friends. (Apparently, a few things were changed out of concerns of racial connections...) Evilene's exit felt a little too quick as she disappears in a burst of steam with nothing left behind. The Winkies remove their work clothes, revealing yellow clothes underneath as they sing "Brand New Day."

Back in the Emerald City, the Wiz is unmasked as a woman from Omaha who was a magician's assistant but ran off in the balloon after he "pushed her too far." She then tells Dorothy's friends that they have the qualities they seek all along, and then Scarecrow and Dorothy convince the Wiz to use the balloon to go back home. At the last minute, Dorothy realizes she should go back to Kansas, not Omaha and refuses to go with the Wiz. (Although, you know, Omaha is a lot closer to Kansas, so... It'd still be a step in the right direction...)

The script stayed pretty faithful to Brown's original script throughout Act 1, largely changing in Act 2 with Evilene. Harvey updated a good bit of dialogue, though he brushed out some other funny moments. ("A pox on your house!" "A pox on my house?" "A pox on both your houses!" "My summer place, too?")

Although I'm sure the most critical could point out problems, I had few issues with the cast. I loved Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em, Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Elijah Kelley, Ne-Yo and David Alan Grier as her friends, and Amber Riley as Addaperle "The Feel Good Girl!" Common as the Bouncer nicely filled the role, but honestly, I'd rather just like to get a copy of his costume...

Mary J. Blige as Evilene was quite mean, and while she did a great rendition of "No Bad News," I would have preferred it to be sung by someone who could really belt it out. Uzo Aduba's Glinda was lovely, but I felt her time onstage was even more abbreviated without her singing "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind" and some of the jokes present in the original Brown script.

This brings us to Queen Latifah as The Wiz. This is—to my knowledge—the first time the character of the Wizard of Oz has been genderbent, but Queen did such a fine job, I was actually hoping they would not have done that to the character, but just had Queen play a male role. To be honest, though, I'm not sure why genderbending the character required a backstory change. Couldn't the Wizard's original backstory work for a female version just as well? Overall, I'm fine with how it ended up, however.

And now for music. Four songs from the original musical lineup were dropped: "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday" (the Scarecrow's original song, which actually makes a nice foil to "You Can't Win), "Who Do You Think You Are?" (a song sung by the four friends when they discover the Wiz is a phony),  "Believe in Yourself #1" (sung by the Wiz as he or she assures Dorothy's friends they had what they sought all along), and "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind" (sung by Glinda as she makes her entrance). As mentioned in other blogs, "Who Do You Think You Are" and "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind" have never had a commercially released recording. In addition, several instrumental only pieces are cut quite short, particularly "Overture" and "Funky Monkeys."

Perhaps if plans to bring this version to Broadway don't fall through, some of these songs could be reinstated. I know I'm not alone in the hope that such a revival could produce its own cast recording album.

Seems like it all came together all right, right? Well... No... Some of the camera work was off. You could still follow the story quite well, but as I noted above, if Cirque Du Soleil did something truly spectacular, I missed it. Some closeups should have been wide shots and vice versa. Most criminally of all, we only got to see Dorothy clicking her heels one and a half times instead of three.

Although people who'll see this on home video will not see this, the timeslot was certainly overstuffed with commercials. Without them, The Wiz Live ran for a little less than two hours, but the timeslot was about two hours and forty-five minutes. On my end, we had some abrupt resuming of the show, including losing the first thirty seconds of the scene where Dorothy and company return to the Emerald City after Evilene's death. It was nice to see some ads for Wicked, though, and be reminded that I'll be seeing that next year at last.

Even though there were several quibbles I had, I'd definitely suggest people check out this version of The Wiz for an enjoyable production that hews much closer to the original play than the 1978 film.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Yeah, I'm not sure why Queen Latifah's cross-dressing was necessary either, and surprise at her being female doesn't make a lot of sense in a country already ruled by four women. (Then again, that's pretty much the reaction the people of the Emerald City have to Jinjur.) I guess you could say Baum had the first genderbent Wizard, as he dresses up as a woman to talk to the Scarecrow.