The Wiz Live! producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan talk about the making of NBC’s latest live musical sensation.
When Neil Meron and Craig Zadan’s The Wiz Live! aired on NBC last December, it hauled in over 11.5 million viewers and was a huge hit on social media posting 1.37 million tweets during its East Coast airing. One publication wrote that it saved Christmas and critics love it. It currently holds at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
If you haven’t seen The Wiz Live!, set aside three hours to watch the genius musical production that is packed with plenty of high notes, stunning costumes and even vogueing. Watch as Shanice Williams slays her role as Dorothy. Her rendition of Home is enough to give you goosebumps in her breakout debut. The whole production is nothing short of enchantment, magic, and talent.
There is no doubt that The Wiz Live! was a great musical feat. It managed to do what no other televised musical production had done before – it got people who wouldn’t normally watch musicals watching. It converted fans. It aired at a time when racial violence was plaguing the airwaves. The Wiz Live! deserves to receive acting and directing nods from the Television Academy. It is a shoo-in for craft nominations for Best Production Design and Costume Design. Have you seen the stunning costumes? The Wiz Live! should also be seen in the Makeup and Hair categories as well as Best Original Music and Lyrics. Expect The Wiz Live! to be a strong contender when Emmy nominations are announced.
Of course, The Wiz Live! would be a faint memory without the dedicated brilliance of producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. It’s hard not to look at Neil and Craig’s body of work without having one “I loved that” moment after another. The Oscars – remember when Lady Gaga came on stage and performed that Sound of Music tribute? Chicago. Hairspray. The Sound Of Music Live!. Now we can add The Wiz Live! to that endless list. I recently caught up with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan to talk about bringing the musical extravaganza to live TV.
AwardsDaily TV: Hello you two!
Craig Zadan: How are you?
ADTV: You guys are my favorite people in the world.
Neil Meron: Oh, you say that to everybody.
ADTV: No, no! You did Chicago so much justice. It was my favorite show when I saw it on the West End and then, you did the movie. Now, we have The Wiz!
CZ: It’s true. But, Ruthie Henshall wasn’t in The Wiz.
ADTV: No, she wasn’t. Did you approach her?
NM: [Laughs] No, I think we forgot.
ADTV: Can you stick her in Hairspray?
NM: Maybe [laughs]. If it would make you happy.
ADTV: Ruthie is so sweet. I love her. I’m living in LA, so I haven’t seen her on stage in a while.
NM: I haven’t either.
ADTV: What is she up to?
CZ: I don’t know. She’s recovering.
ADTV: I do have to congratulate you on The Wiz. It’s another one of my favorites. And, I’m not saying this to everybody. I love musicals.
CZ: Well, obviously, so do we. Thank you. We appreciate that.
ADTV: There was so much negativity towards musicals.
NM: That’s so true. Musicals were like a dirty word for a long time.
ADTV: The Wiz was one of the main ones, on social media, that actually saw the shift from negative to positive reactions. What do you think was the cause for that?
NM: I think that The Wiz has some sort of undeniable power. It’s one of these classic stories that is so beloved and then when you put that together with this dream team of artists that were lucky enough to assemble, you get an embarrassment of riches that you would feel bad saying anything bad about it. They are so brilliant individually and collectively.
CZ: The thing about The Wiz for us is sort of that we had a feeling on the show that I don’t think we had on any other show. It felt like the Olympics. It was like each one of these people came out and they did their number and they killed. Then they left and the next person came out and killed. It was like one topping the next, topping the next, topping the next. It reminded me of the Olympics because they were like great athletes coming out. Each one in this cast was just astonishing. We haven’t had that ensemble in a long time. It was just unbelievable. We’re so proud of them because they loved it so much and it was a very interesting experience because they were in love with each other and they loved being there. When they had days off, they came in anyway. They just wanted to be around each other. It sounds corny when people talk about movie sets and stuff like that and say, “it was a love fest,” but in this case it really was. They were like a family. At the end, I’ve never seen actors so sad and they went, “wait a minute, we do one performance live and that’s it?”
CZ: Yes, we did! It was so much fun.
NM: It was pretty amazing. It was a great evening.
CZ: We said it at the time, but one of the other things about The Wiz is that in this moment of time, especially when it was airing, there was so much of a return to attitudes of the 50’s and 60’s in terms of race relations and all these horrible things that were going on in the country. We wanted to put everything on pause and have just a chance to appreciate the talent we assembled. Just to go back to what it’s all about which is just trying to appreciate the goodness in the world and that was one of the things that we were so happy about with The Wiz.
ADTV: I have to commend you on the casting. First of all, I loved her in Chicago, and she was phenomenal in this, Queen Latifah. When did you decide to make the Wiz female? In Wicked, you’ve got a male and, in The Wizard of Oz, it’s a male.
CZ: Yeah, it’s a traditionally male role.
NM: It’s one of those things that we have adopted her. We did Chicago with her and then we did Hairspray with her and then we did Steel Magnolias with her. Then, when it came time for The Wiz, of course she’s always on call. I must say that the phone call was very surprising because we started to say, “Hey, do you know the show well?” and she said, “Do I know the show well? It was the first Broadway show I ever saw! I sat there, as a little girl in the audience, watching Stephanie Mills and when she sang ‘Home,’ I decided that I wanted to become a performer.”
NM: So the emotional resonance of having someone who has that attachment to The Wiz was so remarkable.
CZ: It was Kenny Leon, our director, who came up with the notion that Queen Latifah be the Wiz because she is our go-to girl. We always think of her first, but we had to think about we fit her into this. We love her and want her to be a part of everything we do and we talked about her playing the Cowardly Lion. Then, Kenny Leon said that he thinks she should play the Wiz. There was nothing about that role that suggested any sort of gender so Kenny said, “Let’s make the Wiz a woman,” and we thought it was great. We approached Queen Latifah and she said, “Yes.” She got it immediately.
ADTV: Another great find is Shanice Williams as Dorothy. What were you looking for when you were casting the role and how did you know she was the one? It was another phenomenal performance.
NM: It’s very hard to find people like that because you do an open call and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people show up. You have to depend on them being the right age, the ability to sing those songs, somebody who can act, and somebody who can carry an entire show with no experience. None. When somebody like that shows up, they basically tell you, “This is my part.” They tell you that it belongs to them and it’s theirs and you just go, “Okay, you’ve claimed it, it’s yours.” Shanice showed up and she was able to do all those things brilliantly having had no experience whatsoever.
NM: It’s amazing. I think the day that it dawned on us what we were doing, was the day of the telecast. We were about to start the live telecast and we said to ourselves, “We never even thought about this before, but Shanice is going out there on live television doing the first lead in her life and, my God, we hope that it comes off.” It’s kind of a scary prospect to put somebody on live on network television. We sat there in the truck with the director and with Bob Greenblatt from NBC and were in awe. She just was flawless.
ADTV: So, I want to talk about your casting because you guys are so great at it. There’s never been something of yours I was watching where I thought, “Oh gosh, I wish they’d put someone else in there.” What is your process when it comes to casting?
NM: We look at the material and we think, “what could we bring to this just in terms of creating a sense of excitement and creating a sense for the actor doing something new that they haven’t done before or finding something that is so right that it just fits like a glove.” We just throw everything just up in the air while trying to be true to the material and then try to put a certain spin on it that seems right, but then will cause some sort of want to see to the whole enterprise. That’s what we do.
ADTV: You’ve worked together for so long, and you’re so good at it. What’s the secret to this long-term working relationship that you have that is hugely successful?
CZ: I don’t think that there is a secret. I think that everything in life is about chemistry, everything. It’s like what you were talking about, how you put a cast together. When you put them in one project, they become exciting together and great together. I think the same thing happens when Neil and I work on a project. We just make it happen because we know each other’s taste and we have had the same judgement that we’ve shared on projects for so many years.
NM: And we can also challenge each other too.
ADTV: On the subject of challenges, with The Wiz, what were your biggest challenges in bringing it to life as a live musical performance for NBC?
NM: The Wiz was a particular responsibility because it felt so near and dear to the black community, especially, but a lot of people wanted it to be good. Our particular responsibility was to make sure that we didn’t disappoint and so we just really had to make sure we were making the proper choices in what was right. It’s what we do for every project, but I think we felt a little bit of an extra special motivation to make sure that The Wiz can live for this next generation. It is such an important piece for so many people and has the right message and it is the right time for this message to be out there. We cared so much.
ADTV: Did you follow the reaction on social media? One thing I noticed, and you mentioned it earlier, was that so many people that I know who don’t like musicals were watching this and were so impressed. You turned them!
NM: I was watching Twitter.
CZ: I remember one of the most common things we heard when we did the movie of Chicago was that people would come up to us and say, “Now, mind you, I don’t really usually like musicals, but I loved Chicago.” And it’s sort of been one of those things that like how do you create something that those who love musicals love the project and those that maybe don’t necessarily seek out musicals to watch love the project too. It’s sort of a challenge, but we try to appeal to everybody.
ADTV: Where are you in terms of going to Broadway? How far along are you with that?
NM: There’s a particular problem, which is a great thing for the theater on Broadway, just in terms of the availability of theaters. We’re in the process now where all the planes have lined on the airstrip and are ready to take off. We’re a part of that runway group looking for the right theater.
ADTV: It is all about the theater sometimes.
NM: Yeah, you don’t want to do The Wiz unless it has it’s proper environment.
ADTV: It’s like when they brought back Miss Saigon to London, they needed the right theater for the helicopter scene.
NM: We only have a yellow brick road [laughs].
ADTV: No landing things. What is left out there that you would love to do? Is there anything left? You’ve done the Oscars, and you’ve done great adaptations.
CZ: That’s an interesting question because we always think that there has to be something else because in the musical field. We started by doing TV musicals with Bette Midler in Gypsy and Whitney Houston and Brandi in Cinderella and those musicals on TV. There hadn’t been musicals on TV at that time and we did those and they were really successful, thank God. After that, we said “It’s time for a big screen musical,” and we moved away from the TV musicals and did Chicago and then Hairspray. We did the big screen musicals and then we thought, “Well, there’s room for musicals on TV.” We always wanted to do a series with music in it so we did Smash.
The very next thing we thought was, “What do we do now? Do we go back and TV musicals again?” And we knew that we had done that already and then we thought about the fact that it had been probably around 50 years since they had done live musicals on TV. We thought, “Why not?” It’s been 50 years, it’s time to make it fresh again and so we went to Bob Greenblatt and, to make a long story short, he basically said to us, “You know, if you think of something or find something that we can do together that is unique and special and something that’s not on television right now that we can pull off together, call me.” We told him that we didn’t have to call him because we had been thinking about it and decided we wanted to do a live musical and we had found out that the rights to the show, not the movie, of Sound of Music were available. The Rogers and Hammerstein foundation told us that if we wanted to do a live Sound of Music, they would give us the rights.
We told Bob that we had the rights to The Sound of Music and, on the spot, he said, “Let’s do it.” He didn’t think about it. He didn’t pause. He didn’t need to talk to people. And so we did it. I think that the one thing that we knew was that it was special and unique and hadn’t been done in such a long time, but we never expected 22 million viewers [laughs]. We just never expected it and it was shocking. That was quite a surprise. We even went back and rechecked and rechecked the ratings because we thought they were wrong. We thought that it couldn’t be 22 million viewers, but it was. It was like, “Oh my God!” We’ve tapped into something that people really wanted to see.
ADTV: Then you brought it to the Oscars the following year when you produced it with Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews which was just indelible. That is just a forever moment. There is an audience out there for musicals and Hollywood didn’t think so until you came along.
NM: We turned a dirty word into a beloved word.
ADTV: Next, you’re doing Hairspray.
NM: We’re bringing Hairspray to the next iteration of our live musicals.
ADTV: So you’ve got the casting of Tracy, but what else can you tell us?
NM: We’re currently casting the other roles and hope to have announcements int he next couple of weeks as to who else is joining us. I’m hoping for some very exciting names. We have a kickass cast already.
ADTV: Are we going to see Queen Latifah in Hairspray?
NM: We already did Queen Latifah in Hairspray [laughs], so that’s one thing we won’t go to her for because she’s already done it.
CZ: We have Jennifer Hudson. Let’s review the cast.
NM: Harvey Fierstein is going to be recreating his Tony award winning role as Edna, which we are so happy to do because he created it and he has the particular ownership of it. And we found him an amazing daughter. She is next in line for our discoveries. Martin Short is playing his husband. We have always wanted to work with Marty, and he’s been a long time friend. This seems to be like the perfect role for him. And, of course, Jennifer Hudson, who we’ve worked with several times. She was in Smash, and we worked with her in two Oscars. She’ll be joining us as reinventing the role of Motormouth. Another person that we’ve always loved is Derek Hough and I think we’re just beginning to see his abilities blossom into more than just a dancing star. He’s like a triple threat and he’s going to be able to strut his stuff in Hairspray live.
ADTV: I’m looking forward to that. I saw that on Broadway.
NM: It’s another show just about pure joy and also has a message which, I think, is maybe even more relevant now than when it first opened.
CZ: Going back to your question earlier about when we’ve accomplished something and we feel “okay what’s next, what do we want to do now,” one of the things that Neil and I have privately said to one another is that if musicals work and they last and happen each year, we’d love to do a drama. We decided to do Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. We’re doing that right after Hairspray. It’ll be the first time there’s been a drama done live in a very, very, very, long time. It’ll be on network television with an incredible cast that we’re in the process of casting right now. We’re very excited about it. Working with Aaron Sorkin has been a dream because we’ve always admired him and wanted to work with him. It’s been a joyous experience