7:15pm PT by Chris Gardner
10 Fun Facts From 'The Wiz Live!' Panel Event
The stars and brains behind NBC's The Wiz Live! went live once again, this time on Wednesday night at the Directors Guild of America's main theater in Los Angeles a special panel and performance for Emmy voters and fans.
Just about everyone was there, including Queen Latifah (the Wiz), Mary J. Blige (Evillene), Shanice Williams (Dorothy), Ne-Yo (Tin-Man), David Alan Grier (the Cowardly Lion), Elijah Kelley (the Scarecrow), Amber Riley (Addapearle), executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, director Kenny Leon, choreographer Fatima Robinson, music producer Harvey Mason Jr., and director Matthew Diamond. But not quite everyone: Absent cast members included Stephanie Mills, Common and Uzo Aduba.
NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt showed up though to kick off the night's program by joking that he would be the least interesting part of the evening. He did, however, offer a few good notes about the network's recent history with live TV musicals. "A couple of years ago, we had this crazy idea to do a live musical for the holidays and we didn't know what we were doing or how we were going to do it," he recalled of previous stagings of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. "This is our third one and each one gets better. We learn a little bit more each time we do it. I'm so proud of these shows — they are enormous undertakings that involve hundreds of people behind the scenes."
They only needed 14 on stage for Wednesday's show (including affable and self-proclaimed Wiz fan Holly Robinson Peete, who moderated the panel discussion) and four of those stars for the night's two performances. Williams, Ne-Yo, Kelley and Grier performed the original track "We Got It," while Williams closed out the evening with the show-stopping ballad "Home."
1. When NBC executives first set out to tackle the musical, Greenblatt admitted they didn't know what they had on their hands. "I didn't realize quite the legacy this show has," he said. "Quickly we learned that not only was it the 40th anniversary of the show premiering on Broadway, but the show had never been revived on Broadway in all this time. We were looking back ... on an extraordinary show. ... Now the idea of a black musical isn't that groundbreaking ... but then it was."
2. Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original, Tony Award-winning Broadway production of The Wiz from 1975-1977, was the first person cast in the update (playing Auntie Em), but Latifah received the first phone call about the project. "The wonderful thing was that when I called Dana [Owens, Latifah's birth name] and I foolishly said, 'Do you know the material?'" recalled Craig Zadan, to which Latifah responded, "I pretty much told you that it was the reason that I'm doing what I'm doing now. What are we doing? Let's go!"
3. Playing the role of the Wiz could only happen for Latifah now because of her age, said the 46-year-old. "I finally got old enough to play the Wiz," she laughed, recalling how she played Dorothy and sang the ballad "Home" in a grade school production. "Now here I am and I've (aged) through the whole cast and I've arrived at the Wiz."
4. Williams still gets emotional when recalling the fortunate day when she landed the role of Dorothy — in front of TV cameras, no less. After Robinson Peete rolled the clip, Williams was seen dabbing the corner of her eyes. "It's all I've wanted for so long," she said after explaining how she always felt like an outsider until she found her place on stage. "And then that moment was like everything you've wanted, everything you've worked for is going to come true. It felt so amazing." The tears came again, but music producer Harvey Mason Jr. proved to be a true gentleman, removing a silk scarf from his vest and handing it to the 19-year-old.
5. Zadan and Meron are big fans of Greenblatt's power and quick decision-making abilities. "The idea of doing a live musical on network television for three hours was unheard of," Zadan recalled. "It hadn't been done since the '50s. When we went to Bob with the notion of doing this, he didn't say, 'Let me think about it.' He didn't say, 'Let me talk to people.' He said, 'Yeah — let's do it.' There's been no looking back. We've done one each year and I think that we've gotten better and better at it with the experience. And nothing compares to the quality and the emotion and the talent of this group of people on The Wiz."
6. "It was like family," Kelley explained of the cast's relationship status, which is remarkable considering that some of the stars originally wanted parts played by fellow performers seated next to them. Grier admitted that he really wanted to play the title role which went to Latifah, while Ne-Yo explained in detail his audition process for Kelley's part of the Scarecrow. He was so intent on playing Scarecrow that he "phoned in" the audition for the Tin Man minutes later when they asked him to read for that part instead.
7. He may better-known for his dance-inducing pop-tinged R&B hits, but Ne-Yo claimed he had never heard of the popular dance move "dabbing" born on the hip-hop scene until he learned the Fatima Robinson-choreographed dance routines during rehearsals. (For the record: He's a 36-year-old father of two.)
8. Grier's Cowardly Lion costume was a real work of art — and a sweaty mess. Because of the heavy makeup, costume and wig, Grier wound up sweating his way through most of the rehearsals, leaving pools of sweat on the floor that unintentionally caused some of the dancers to slip. Though no one mentioned injuries, Grier mentioned camping. "I felt like I was in a wet sleeping bag," he joked.
9. Riley had so much fun that she'd show up to set on her days off. "I just wanted to be there. I didn't want to sit in my apartment. I used to come on my days off just to be in that atmosphere. That's how amazing it was on that set everyday," she exclaimed.
10. Latifah snagged an opportunity near the end of the evening (before Williams belted out "Home," which was received by a giant cast hug), to sum up the entire experience of working on The Wiz Live!, offering that they don't care if people loved it or picked it apart. In her words: "We get the gravitas of this whole thing. We get how much people love this project and how much we have to bring to it, but this is bigger than us. It's now going out to a whole new group of people who get to find it. We wanted to pass this thing to a whole new group of people to enjoy. Having that in our hearts — from the top to the bottom — we all wanted to see each other win and I think that really came across. Most importantly, to the audience, that you enjoyed it, that you talked about it, that you tweeted about it, that you nitpicked it, that you liked this one better than that one. It didn't matter at the end of the day because you watched it."