NBC announced that The Wiz would be the network’s annual live musical broadcast back in March. But in ways that the network couldn’t have known, it was a timely choice. The Wiz is by far NBC’s most sophisticated live musical broadcast yet; it’s also one that felt, movingly, of its time.
The past two of NBC’s musicals, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, worked assiduously at feeling like nostalgia acts; a viewer who didn’t know they were live broadcasts, and who didn’t recognize Carrie Underwood as Maria von Trapp or Allison Williams as Peter Pan, might have thought she were watching something from the early days of television. By contrast, The Wiz was adorned with subtle nods to contemporary culture, from the trap music beats playing as the flying monkeys danced to Dorothy beginning a story, slangily, with “What had happened was…”
These contemporary-feeling moments might be eye-roll-worthy if The Wiz didn’t feel quite so necessary. The year that’s ending was one in which black people fought, in public, to be recognized as worthy of recognition, respect, and basic rights—to be seen, as it were, as mattering. Against this troubling backdrop, an entirely black cast being granted three hours of airtime on a major network feels meaningful. That this cast’s talents, speaking frankly, blew Peter Pan and the majority of The Sound of Music out of the water is gratifying on top of being very good TV.
The Wiz can’t be untangled from the politics of its day, whichever that day may be: The original show opened on Broadway in 1975 at a uniquely low point for New York City. Its vision of a Dorothy stripped of her bourgeoise pretensions and placed in an Oz that looked a lot like, well, the real New York City made it a multiple-Tony-winning hit. The movie, a rare miss for director Sidney Lumet, fell short of the mark; it has virtues as camp, particularly in Diana Ross’s performance, but ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions.
No such problems plagued NBC’s Wiz, which was as brash and big-hearted as our own times demand. The cast, from newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy to Mary J. Blige as witch Evillene to Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good, was at once visibly trying hard and as-visibly unstressed; several commercial breaks came a moment after the cast seemed to think they were off-camera, breaking into unrehearsed grins and hugs.
Small gaps like that are winning, especially when the bulk of the show is as well-executed as was The Wiz. It’s similar to how hard-earned the victory for Dorothy and company felt after an often-dispiriting journey. “Why do we even try / that’s what we get for letting our hopes get too high” asked the Scarecrow in one scene; it echoed far beyond the soundstage as a question too many viewers surely ask themselves. A single broadcast can hardly redress such concerns, and a simple good musical is not such a minor thing to be. But The Wiz, to its and to NBC’s credit, felt like far more than itself.