The upcoming NBC live production of “The Wiz” has reportedly discovered its Dorothy.
Actress Shanice Williams will take on the role this December. Williams will be making her TV debut with “The Wiz.”
In addition to Williams, Queen Latifah of “Chicago” and singer Mary J. Blige will be part of the cast. News outlets reported that Latifah will be the Wiz, while Blige will take on the role of Evillene, as the Wicked Witch of the West is known in this incarnation of “The Wizard of Oz.” Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy on Broadway, is going to play Aunt Em.
In addition, actor David Alan Grier of “Bad Teacher” will reportedly play the Cowardly Lion. Grier has starred on Broadway in such productions as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
All of NBC’s recent live productions have been led by an actress. Country singer Carrie Underwood starred as Maria in the 2013 production “The Sound of Music Live!,” while Allison Williams of “Girls” portrayed Peter Pan in last year’s “Peter Pan Live!”
The casting of Williams is almost the reverse of the strategy taken by NBC in casting “The Sound of Music Live!” In “Music,” Underwood was the superstar who could draw audiences (Underwood has won multiple Grammy Awards, CMT Awards, and CMA Awards, among others), while the network surrounded her with Broadway veterans like Audra McDonald, Christian Borle, and Laura Benanti in the supporting roles. Meanwhile, last year’s live musical production “Peter Pan Live!” didn’t have a standout star. Williams is fairly well known for the HBO show “Girls” and audiences know actor Christopher Walken, who played Captain Hook, but there wasn’t an obvious star who would make viewers who wouldn’t otherwise have watched a musical tune in.
In contrast, Blige will no doubt woo viewers who would perhaps otherwise be uninterested in theater. In addition, the roles of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man seem to be as yet unfilled, and if a singer with many mainstream hits is cast in one of those roles, they could bring in even more non-musical theater fans.
NBC revived the live musical format in 2013 with “Sound” and other networks are now following suit, with Fox planning a live production of the musical “Grease” in January. What has the networks betting big on these shows? It’s all part of the “event programming” trend that sees networks trying to lure people back from cable to live TV. “Sound” was a smash ratings hit and NBC has no doubt learned from the enduring appeal of its program “Saturday Night Live,” which recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary. On live TV, there’s an atmosphere of suspense, which was brought up by “Sound” producer Neil Meron. “They have to keep going,” he said of the cast. “They can't stop. Somebody could trip and fall, somebody could forget their lines, somebody could hit a bad note when they are singing – anything could happen … That's all part of the excitement of doing it."
“Music” got people talking on Twitter, too – far more people tweeted about the program than the Syfy movie “Sharknado,” which is often credited with being a social media hit.
The combination of the live format and a star people will want to watch can be a great one. After the ratings slide NBC experienced with “Peter,” perhaps “Wiz” can be a ratings success for the network.
“The Wiz Live!” airs in December.