11:33am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'The Wiz' Producers on How the Oscars Turned NBC's Live Musical Into a Hit — and Why 'Peter Pan' Was a "Mistake"
For NBC, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the third time was the charm.
The Wiz, Zadan and Meron's third live staged musical for NBC, changed the narrative for the network and — at least for now — ended the practice of "hate watching." The production, starring newcomer Shanice Williams, was a hit with critics and spiked from 2014's Peter Pan — though falling short ratings-wise of The Sound of Music Live.
Here, Zadan and Meron open up to The Hollywood Reporter about why The Wiz worked, how producing the past three Oscar telecasts helped change the production and what's next. Additionally, the longtime Broadway, film and TV producing partners look back on why Peter Pan wasn't the right choice.
How are you feeling this morning now that "hate watching" these live musicals has come to an end (for now, at least)?
Meron: We're well aware of the critical response of the other two, so to wake up and read the response online and from critics and to actually have them embrace what we were doing for the first time in three years is really gratifying and a deeply emotional feeling. We did have a mission set up in our minds to bring theater to a big audience and that's one of the reasons why we got into this and wanted to do it live. To have it all pay off after this three-year learning curve has been sensational.
The Wiz did something that Sound of Music and Peter Pan didn't: Get great reviews. Why do you think this broke out in ways that the others didn’t?
Zadan: We did the show very differently than we did the other shows. The material is more contemporary. We set out to give it a more authentic feel so we hired Harvey Mason Jr., who is the music producer who did the soundtrack for Dreamgirls and has worked with a lot of black R&B artists and won a zillion Grammys. It didn't have a Broadway pit band sound; it had an authentic, black R&B sound. We addressed the music in that way.
We also hired Fatima Robinson, who is not a Broadway choreographer, to do authentic black dancing. She comes from hip-hop and a lot of her point of view on dance is very gritty and authentic and raw. And we hired Kenny Leon, who doesn't really direct musicals; he's a Tony-winning director of plays. He gets performances out of actors that are deeper and more real; he doesn't let anybody give a performance that's a musical comedy performance. He makes them give a real, honest performance — almost like you'd see in a play.
We worked over the last three years on the Academy Awards shows with set designer Derek McLane and Lee Lodge, who is the content designer, and we decided to do a different kind of set than we've ever done before. It's based on the kind of work we started developing at the Oscars. At the Oscars, we did them in bits and pieces but we were very excited and encouraged by the technology and decided to do a whole show that's digital and has this kind of content. We set out to design something that would look completely original and fresh. I don't think anyone has seen anything like, for example, the tornado. There are moments in the show that you can't do if you just build a set because there's so much digital, animated material. We approached it differently and knew we were doing something that was not like the other two.
How much would you credit the diversity factor here to the show's success? The Wiz combined two of the biggest moments on television in the past few years — live plus diversity.
Meron: Diversity is something Craig and I have always believed in, starting with Cinderella that we did with Whitney Houston and Brandy and a multicultural cast at the time. And that has followed through in our work up until The Wiz. It seems that the audience has finally caught up to something that we believed should be represented on TV; now it's become very buzzy when the fact is that there was always an audience for programming with diverse characters and it took so much time for everybody to catch to it that it now seems to be a trend when it shouldn't be a trend. It should be a reflection of the world we live in. The Wiz is a perfect example of that.
The ratings were up this year from Peter Pan and you've gotten major support from the black community — Tyler Perry, Kerry Washington and more who aren't involved with NBC at all.
Zadan: Oprah, too. We had everybody. We felt like everybody rallied to the show and said they believed in it and wanted to support it and have it be a success. It's one of the reasons we got the cast we got. People had an emotional attachment to The Wiz. They wanted to play the parts but also felt a commitment to do The Wiz. People like Tyler Perry and others said The Wiz is cultural phenomenon for the black community and wanted it to succeed, and everybody rallied to make sure there was an audience who watched it.
How does diversity factor into the next musical you're considering?
Meron: Diversity factors into every aspect of what we do, in terms of the entertainment we put out there. We want to do things that reflect the world.
What was the number that had you most concerned going in?
Zadan: At end of the day if Shanice Williams had not delivered "Home" perfectly, there would have been a problem. That is the well-known song that people are waiting for all night and it has to be great. When we auditioned people to play Dorothy, as many as 98 percent of the people who came in couldn't sing "Home." It has so much range that when you get toward the end of the song, it keeps going up to the point where even trained and great singers couldn't sing it. It's a killer. We knew that she had to go out there and knock it out of the park and she did. There are always those numbers where you hold your breath and she nailed it.
There's growing talk of the need for a studio audience. Is that something you'd consider for the fourth production?
Meron: No. From Day 1, we wanted to harken back to way musicals were done live on TV in the '50s and wanted to update it with a contemporary technique. We still would like to honor the tradition where this genre was given birth and that's in the '50s. We know that it's taken a while for the audience to get used to it, but in the three years we've been doing it there's always been a cry for a live audience, but that's not special. What's special is do these on a soundstage and live in the moment without that audience and to allow cameras to come in and get up close and personal and have the audience at home be the live audience. The audience at home is the live audience.
Zadan: We grew up watching PBS and whenever they would do a musical, they did them in a theater and shot them in a performance. It felt like a museum piece and they were shooting them so they could keep them on file. We didn't want to do anything that resembled PBS. We've done all these movie musicals — Chicago and Hairspray — and they don't have a live audience. If you came to the set, there is no possibility of a live audience.
Which properties are you looking at for your next live musical?
Meron: That's the question of the hour. We have tossed many titles around and batted them around with NBC Entertainment president Bob Greenblatt but we haven't settled on what's next. We're also enjoying this moment. Next week when the dust has cleared, we will probably start focusing on what's next.
Will it be contemporary? What are some of the titles you're looking at?
Meron: Many titles have been discussed.
Zadan: It's not like we're close to a decision on anything. Every time someone brought it up, we'd say "let’s see how this one goes." Since we changed the playing field for ourselves this year in the way we did everything — and the whole technique of doing the show is different — we set out on a path that has changed the way we do them. That's going to inform what the next show is going to be. We don't want to go back to the way we did Peter Pan or The Sound of Music; we want to keep moving forward.
Meron: Each of these musicals has been a different type of presentation. Part of what excites us is being able to learn from the previous years and move it forward. That will inform the decision as to what the next one will be.
Will The Wiz production team be back?
Meron: It's hard to say; it depends on the piece.
Zadan: We're not so slaphappy to jump in and pick a title because that's what we did when we came off the success off Sound of Music and went into Peter Pan. What we didn't know about Peter Pan — and there was no way to know this — was that Peter Pan, as a piece, has overstayed its welcome. What we discovered, too late of course, is that people aren't interested in Peter Pan. As evidenced by the fact that the Peter Pan movie [Pan] that came out a couple months ago — that cost $150 million — disappeared after one weekend. Clearly, this idea of Peter Pan being a viable story right now is not the case. As a result of that, we made a mistake in choosing it and I don't think we should jump on something; we should think it through and figure out what the next choice should be in the progression of "what do you follow The Wiz with so we can keep moving forward and not backward?"
Meron: The Music Man is not off table. It does require a really big star to pull that off. If and when the right star does come along, it's something we'd consider doing again. As far as A Few Good Men goes, there are still some rights complications that are still in the process of being discussed.
What do you think about Fox doing Grease Live?
Meron: We wish them the best of luck because their success helps our success. The more, the merrier!
Fox is doing a Rocky Horror Picture Show TV movie. Do you have any interest in doing a TV musical that isn't live?
Meron: We did a bunch of those in the '90s with Gypsy and Bette Midler. Again?! Sure, depending on the property. … We're flattered by the fact that Fox is doing Grease Live and that ITV in England is doing Sound of Music Live. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Cirque du Soleil is a partner on The Wiz. Where are you with the plans to bring it to Broadway? How much of the NBC cast will participate?
Meron: Right now the plan is to have The Wiz on Broadway a year from now in partnership with Cirque. The entire cast of The Wiz Live knows about the Broadway plans but we didn't make it a prerequisite when casting them. But over the past couple of weeks, a lot of members of the cast have been sniffing around doing it in the theater.
Will Shanice Williams be involved?
Meron: We'd love for her to be on Broadway in The Wiz but that's to be worked out.
Zadan: Every person that was in the show last night has been invited to come to Broadway. It's a matter of if they want to and how much time they can give us.
Meron: And if we can work out a pay scale. Broadway pays differently than doing film, TV and concerts.
Would you bring Shanice Williams back for the next live production?
Meron: In a heartbeat.
This was the first time you weren't juggling Oscar prep while mounting a live musical. How did that change your approach?
Meron: Thank goodness!
Zadan: Focus. We were prepping the Oscars while doing the musical and we were always torn between Oscar business and prepping the musical.
Meron: As much as you can say that each project gets full attention, the Oscars always loomed in background … there was always a shadow.
Zadan: Our lives are better having done the Oscars because we met a lot of people when we staged the Oscars. We met Common when we staged Glory last year. We didn't know him and when we were in talks with him while prepping, he asked what we were doing next. When we told him The Wiz, he said he had to be in it. He wouldn't have been in it otherwise. [Choreographer] Fatima Robinson, we never knew. We worked with her on the Oscars and knew she was special. A lot of the people in our lives right now are because of meeting them and becoming friends during the Oscars. Even though we're done and have had our three years, it lives on in terms of our relationships.
Meron: We should have told Oprah we were doing The Wiz! (All laughing) She can play any part!
What advice do you have for Chris Rock and his team?
Zadan: He doesn't need advice because he's an independent spirit. I love the choice of Chris Rock. He will be himself and in doing that, he will be controversial and deal with the topics of racism in Hollywood and deal with stuff about the election. I think he'll be very contemporary and refreshing and will do a great job.