'The Wiz': Why NBC's Live Version Introduces "Empowered" Female Characters

Game-changing backstories are revealed for Shanice Williams and Queen Latifah's characters. Says director Kenny Leon: "Men are not speaking for them, and that’s the way it should be anyway."
Paul Gilmore/NBC
From left: Common as The Bouncer, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Amber Riley as Addapearle, Uzo Aduba as Glinda, Stephanie Mills as Auntie Em, Toto, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, David Alan Grier as The Cowardly Lion

Kenny Leon honestly wasn’t trying to make a statement when he suggested Queen Latifah play the title role in The Wiz Live! The director, fresh off a Tony win for Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun, simply believed she was the best actor — male or female — for the part.

"There’s no reason she can’t be a woman — it’s a dream!" he laughed, as he told The Hollywood Reporter during a New York City press day for the NBC musical. Seizing the opportunity to say something "about the treatment of women," he and Harvey Fierstein, who revised the book for this version, included a new backstory for Latifah’s character. "She didn’t have the greatest relationship with her husband and that’s how she ended up here. All of the women in this story, they make their own decisions in collaboration with men, but the men are not speaking for them, and that’s the way it should be anyway."

NBC’s three-hour, live version of the beloved 1975 Broadway production puts an updated spin on The Wizard of Oz while maintaining an African-American cast, including Ne-Yo, Common, Mary J. Blige, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, Elijah Kelley, David Alan Grier and Stephanie Mills, who originally played Dorothy onstage.

This time, newcomer Shanice Williams stars as an empowered Dorothy who sets out on a journey driven by her own desires, rather than a victim merely reacting to strong tornadoes and flying houses, or a very helpful friend to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Oz.

"In the movie, her dog gets in trouble by going in the garden, remember? So she wants to go somewhere where there isn't any trouble. That's not really a journey, not the kind of journey that the other characters have. I felt, why shouldn't she have as important a journey?" Fierstein told reporters when asked by THR. "And she's living with her aunt and uncle, and nobody ever asks why. Where are your parents?"

So though screenplays of previous Wizard of Oz versions were "trying to do just enough to set up the musical numbers," said Leon, NBC’s update has Dorothy begrudgingly yanked out of Omaha after her parents suddenly pass away, and having trouble adjusting to a new school, new friends and a new life under her aunt’s roof.

"Her aunt says, 'Maybe if I could do magic and put your parents back in that house for you, I would do it, but that's not the way it works,' " Fierstein explained. "I have her want to go home, and her aunt says, 'There's nothing but an empty house there, baby. This is your home. But there's a storm coming, and as much as I love you, and as much as I know what's right for you, I can't stop you the rest of your life. You're gonna have to figure this out for yourself.' "

While Williams simply described the update as the story of "a girl trying to find out who she is and where she belongs in 2015," executive producer Neil Meron, alongside Craig Zadan, paralleled their newly proactive heroine in The Wiz to that of their 1997 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston. "We made sure that Brandy was not a victim either," he told reporters. "We know that it’s going to touch people, especially if you let them be role models and show they’re empowered."

In the end, "when the Wiz offers to take her back to Omaha in the balloon, you remember in the movie, she misses the balloon by accident? Again, she's just a victim. And I said no. I have her just about to get into the balloon and say, 'No, my home is in Kansas with my Aunt Em, and I gotta get there," Fierstein revealed. "She becomes the hero of her own story in this version, which I'm very proud of."

Amidst all the newness — including Cirque du Soleil acrobatics, street dance and hip-hop choreography, internationally specific sets throughout Oz, an original song for the Oz foursome, and plans for a Broadway revival — Leon hopes Dorothy’s realized journey is what resonates most with viewers.

"She learns the lesson that home is where the love is. The political side of me, I wanted those in the country who have been raised by their grandmother like me, or who have been raised in foster care, or who have gay parents, whatever nontraditional way of family, to understand, you are just as good as anybody else, you just need love," the director told THR. "We as an older generation, we need to give all our young people love, and the possibility of realizing their dreams. For instance, if I get really political, the fact that some people can’t go to college, can’t even think about college, that’s not American, that’s not right."

Though both Dorothy and The Wiz give the story a sense of female empowerment, NBC’s third live musical — following The Sound of Music and Peter Pan — isn’t necessarily a feminist one for all viewers. "It’s an equality version of The Wiz," Ne-Yo told THR. "It’s universal, and this is a story that has a lesson in it that the world needs to learn."

Otherwise, Latifah laughed, "If not, hey, just enjoy the ride and having your kids quiet for [three] hours!"

The Wiz Live! airs Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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