Why NBC’s The Wiz Makes Sense Even As It Doesn’t Make Sense

April 10, 2015
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The Wiz Promotional PosterOn March 30, 2015, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people making sure that I knew The Wiz had been selected as the NBC’s next live musical following The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Initially, The Wiz seems an odd choice. While the Broadway adaptation was a modest hit when it opened on Broadway in 1975 (initially propped up by seed money from 20th Century Fox, who had pre-purchased the film rights), it is not heralded as one of the great musicals of the 20th century, although it won seven 1975 Tony Awards. The film adaptation, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, is historically and industrially maligned. Many scholars, including Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Ed Guerrero and Christopher Sieving briefly mention The Wiz in their books and articles, but only within a conversation about the film’s box office failure (with respect to its budget) and the suggestion that The Wiz’s financial failure contributed directly to Hollywood’s refusal to greenlight black-cast films thereafter. So, why would NBC turn to The Wiz over The Music Man as its next televised musical? I suggest that there are three broad reasons that The Wiz makes sense in this particular historical moment.

The Wiz Musical SoundtrackFirst, as it did in the 1990s (and will likely do again in the 2030s), television has “discovered” that black people watch television and that white people will watch some television when there are black and brown bodies on the screen. Call it the Scandal/Empire effect. With the television industry scrambling to blacken/brown their landscapes for the 2015-2016 season, The Wiz largely follows this trend to help diversify NBC’s screen – a network that lags behind ABC and Fox with respect to the representation of black and brown actors in leading roles. This also marks a departure from NBC’s previous broadcasts The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, which featured largely white casts. Audra McDonald was the only major black/brown actor in The Sound of Music – and even she received criticism in some circles for being cast despite her credentials as a then-five-time Tony Award Winner. In this (re)turn to blackness, The Wiz at turns lets NBC have it both ways: it can broadcast a musical that will feature a predominantly black cast, thus jumping on the “diversity” bandwagon, while at the same time, The Wiz is one of the few Broadway texts (or at least soundtracks) that multicultural audiences embrace, without the lure of “stars” to make it attractive. The potential for a cross-section of multicultural viewers likely proved far too attractive for NBC to resist. Which brings me to my second point…

The Wiz BroadwayThe Wiz, like NBC’s previous live musicals, is family-friendly fare. It continues to be a go-to musical for elementary and middle/junior high schools across the country (even ill-advised all-white schools have been known to tackle productions of The Wiz). I was in two productions while in junior high school (shout out to Mrs. Rowe and Mr. Nelson!). In this way, NBC is likely banking on a segment of the audience who can draw on the nostalgia of performing (or preparing to perform) The Wiz. In addition, unlike Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, The Wiz does not delve into “adult content” that might make it touch and go for parents wanting to watch the broadcast with their children. Much like NBC’s The Voice, The Wiz presents the potential to be a cross-racial, cross-generational television-watching experience.

This version of The Wiz also has to serve two gods. First, it has to serve the ratings machine, as any television show does. But, second, and more importantly, it has to serve the more fickle Broadway god. In this way, in an attempt to make The Wiz relevant, the production team will attempt to use the success of the recent Broadway revival of Pippin as its template. Pippin, like The Wiz, is a period piece. Pippin got around that “problem” by turning the production into a Cirque de Soleil-style event. The score remains fundamentally 1970s, as does The Wiz‘s score, but this novelty worked for Pippin (it ran for almost two years, won four Tony Awards and recouped its $8.5 million investment in eight months). Presumably, the conflation of an industrial interest in black viewers/audiences and the circus theme is expected to deliver on both fronts for NBC and Broadway producers.

The Wiz HeadlinesHowever, the reasons The Wiz looks good on paper also could present problems for NBC. Importantly, the Broadway and film adaptations of The Wiz are often conflated. Many/most of the stories I read on NBC’s version of The Wiz talked about the 1975 Broadway adaptation, but used imagery from the 1978 film version. While that may seem like a nit pick on its face, the two versions are different. The Broadway iteration maintains much of what we know from the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland – Dorothy is still a little girl from Kansas – while it updates the language to hew closer to 1970s black cultural dialect. But most importantly in its Broadway iteration, The Wiz used a completely new score, which gave us the beloved “Ease on Down the Road.” The film adaptation “ages” Dorothy to a 24-year old kindergarten school teacher (likely because of casting Diana Ross as Dorothy) and moves her to Harlem in an attempt to make it something that “might pass for a ghetto fairy tale” as The New York Times’ Vincent Canby suggested. But the film version also plays with the score a bit, adding the Scarecrow song “You Can’t Win,” which replaces “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” In addition, because the DVD (and television syndication) functions as what Paul Grainge calls “markets of memory” (10-11), the preserved and re-circulated version of The Wiz will likely be vastly different than what NBC presents. Aside from the ways that the Broadway version (which NBC is presumably presenting) and film version are fundamentally different, this version of The Wiz will add “new material” provided by Harvey Weinstein. In this way, making this new version of The Wiz is akin to a person who has had one too many facelifts – there’s something familiar, but also fundamentally different.

Of course, the jury is still out with respect to how this new The Wiz will perform, but I predict that it will deliver the ratings NBC needs to continue its engagement with live, televised Broadway musicals (particularly because hate-watchers are gonna hate). But as the industrial infatuation with black viewers undoubtedly wanes, don’t hold your breath for NBC’s next musical to be Sophisticated Ladies, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dreamgirls or any other black-cast musical. NBC selecting The Wiz as its next musical, I suggest, is not about its blackness per se, but about what televisual blackness means at this socio-historical moment.


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One Response to “ Why NBC’s The Wiz Makes Sense Even As It Doesn’t Make Sense ”

  1. Keith on April 10, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    That’s new material by Harvey FIERSTEIN, not Harvey Weinstein. The mind boggles at what Harvey W. might contribute to THE WIZ.