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Friday
Apr032015

Cast This: NBC's "The Wiz Live" 

Margaret here. Earlier this week, NBC announced that this December they will be following the surprise ratings smash that was The Sound of Music Live and the more modestly-rated Peter Pan Live with a third simulcast musical: The Wiz! Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (fresh off their third and likely final Oscar ceremony) are returning, with Harvey Fierstein on board to augment William F. Brown's original book. The team is also partnering with Cirque du Soleil for the production, with plans to later move it to Broadway.

The 1975 "Super Soul Musical" is, for many reasons, an excellent choice. Because it's a pop musical, the network heads' desire to stunt cast with big stars will actually serve the material. And it's become a staple in high school productions because of its generosity with its musical parts- it requires a deep cast, with 9 characters who have their own show-stoppable numbers.

Like with most pop music, the score to The Wiz is only as strong as the people performing it, and the right actor can take even the least crucial number and make it into a sensation. That makes casting especially crucial. We owe it to the good people of NBC to make their jobs easy!

Here's my dream cast:

Dorothy, Our Heroine: Not only does she fill the Top-40-star slot, but Janelle Monáe has real musical chops, plenty of experience with soulful pop, and is adorable. She's not exactly a teenager, but she reads much younger than her age (29) and she's four years younger than Diana Ross was when she put on the silver slippers for the 1978 movie. She's also an excellent dancer, and her stage presence is bananas.

Alternate: Keke Palmer, currently killing it as Cinderella on Broadway

Aunt Em: The perfect spot for a stunt-cast. Bringing in Stephanie Mills, who starred in the original Broadway production, would make for a lovely handoff to the new Dorothy.

Alternate: Diana Ross, though she would probably never agree to it

Addaperle: The Good Witch of the North is flamboyant, a little saucy, and the queen bee of the munchkins. Patti LaBelle is a diva for all time, and though she's been famous for 50+ years she's absolutely still got it. She could nail the crowd-pleasing number "He's the Wiz" without lifting a finger.

Alternate: the vivacious Jill Scott and that voice of hers

The Scarecrow: (Confining a non-human scarecrow to our rigid gender binary would be wrong!!!) Patina Miller recently pulled down a Tony for her role as the Leading Player in Pippin, where she got a lot of practice with acrobatic stunts. She's more than capable of delivering oversized loosey-goosey physicality, and her voice was just made for this style of music - see her rendition of Simple Joys for proof. Plus Michael Jackson comparisons will be chasing whoever lands in that role, and casting a woman might take off some of the pressure.

Alternate: Bruno Mars, since you know NBC will be tempted, plus if you put a Police-sounding track under "Born on the Day Before Yesterday" it's basically already a Bruno Mars song.

The Tin Man: Recently minted TV star Jussie Smollett can croon gorgeously even when the Empire producers aren't turning the auto-tune up to 11, and he knows how to move. Fox might not want to lend out any of the actors from its monster hit, but casting him could help pack on viewers. Just look at those sensitive eyes!

Alternate: Wayne Brady, a skilled singer and dancer who hasn't gotten to show it off in a while

The Cowardly Lion: Anyone who recently mainlined Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix knows that Broadway veteran Tituss Burgess is gut-bustingly hilarious and has the voice of an angel. (Pinoooooot Noo-AHHH!) He has been TV-famous for all of one month and he is already the subject of approximately 60% of Buzzfeed's gif-based listicles. The part of the Lion, the funniest in the show, deserves his absurd vocal flexibility and physical comedy chops.

Alternate: None. Accept no substitutes!

The Wizard: For the famous magical con man, why not stack the deck with another Tony Winner? Ben Vereen is an old school song-and-dance man with more charisma than is strictly fair. He's danced for Bob Fosse both on tour and in All That Jazz-- infinite musical theater points! Watch him perform "Mr. Cellophane" on The Muppet Show and you might just believe he's a wizard.

Alternate: Norm Lewis has one of the world's most beautiful voices but he's so refined and imposing that the wizard-as-fraud reveal might get confused

Evilene: Orange is the New Black's Uzo Aduba's been racking up statues left and right for her perfect balancing act of scary and funny as "Crazy Eyes", and that's just the combination needed for the Wicked Witch of the West. She can go big and almost cartoonish while maintaining complete dignity, and her rich, beautiful voice is a great fit for the super low-pitched diva rant "No Bad News".

Alternate: Vanessa Williams, who can bring down an army with an arch of her eyebrow

Glinda: The litmus test for whether or not one of these casting posts is worth taking seriously is simple: CTRL + F "Audra". Living goddess, Tony winner in every acting category, and the saving grace of The Sound of Music Live, Audra McDonald could play and slay any part in the show. Let's go with Glinda then, since she's supposed to embody regal serenity and project immense warmth which to Audra is like breathing.

Alternate: Anika Noni Rose, another Tony-winning queen who radiates grace


I trust that good readers of The Film Experience have plenty of opinions about this. Go forth (in the comments) and cast your ideal show!

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Reader Comments (58)

Wow, these were really inspired picks, Margaret. I especially love Monae as Dorothy and Miller as the Scarecrow. I would love to see Diana Ross as Glinda, though. I feel like Ross is great in The Wiz and got a barrage of undeserved criticism for being too old for the part, when the performance, especially her singing, is actually really good. Of course, you are very correct that she'd likely never agree to do it, so Audra makes for a stellar choice.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

I'm so excited for this live production. I love all your casting choices. I would go with Keke Palmer over Janelle Monáe because she's just perfect for the role. Patina Miller as The Scarecrow is such an inspired pick. And there's no one else but Audra to play Glinda, come on.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterV.

oh margaret, deadline is coming for you...

but seriously, what great choices.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpar

I love a lot of these picks but can't we get Lonette McKee in there somewhere. Great voice and she hasn't been seen much lately.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'd love to see Jennifer Hudson in the mix.

There's no way to say this without sounding patronizing, but I like to see her working. I root for her because whatever she lacks in acting ability she makes up for in warmth and goodness and courage. And that voice!

Also, obligatory plug for Lorraine Toussaint (but can she sing?).

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

I love the movie and your picks would do it proud. I would go with Palmer over Monae, though. That's just too perfect. If we want to skew even younger we could go with Quvenzhane Wallis. I'd also go with Brady over Smollett for the Tin Man. A show like this fits Brady's sensibilities perfectly. It would be a shame to leave him out. And if they do get Patti LaBelle or Jill Scott, it will become appointment viewing for me. They are both great.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWendell

Also, a winning curveball:

GRACE JONES.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

Monae is a great choice but a tricky prediction - I'd almost say she's not quite famous enough for NBC to go after her, but that also makes her a better candidate since she's not such a star as to be out of the question.

I would be surprised if Amber Riley doesn't get involved with this somehow.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Grace Jones as the Wizard. Bruno Mars as Dorothy (Danny). Lonette McKee as whomever she wants to play. Seriously, let her pick and then cast around her. Lilias White would be a good Evilene. Or LL Cool J. In full on drag.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Diana Ross should be GLINDA!!

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDO

can't we get Lonette McKee in there somewhere. Great voice and she hasn't been seen much lately

I know you have seen several Spike Lee joints, but I'm still surprised you even know who she is. She doesn't look the same anymore due to thyroids. And does appear on television every so often.

I'm very curious what Nick Davis thinks of her. Because she felt like a black Jessica Lange in Jungle Fever.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Grace Jones has done a production of The Wiz before as Evilene.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Living for this musical and Margaret's casting choices! Get it, hunty!

I've heard that Zendaya is the producers' top choice for Dorothy. SIGH.

Diana Ross as Glinda would be everything! Jennifer Hudson would be the same age as Diana Ross in "The Wiz" if she took this role (but she's not since she's doing "The Color Purple").

But then Goddess Audra kinda has to be in this too. Can she go evil as Evillene?

You just know Bruno Mars is going to be the Scarecrow. Continued comparisons to Michael Jackson continue. Yawn.

James Earl Jones as The Wiz?

The plot thickens . . .

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

I don't care what role he plays, any cast without Taye Diggs is just wrong.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Kim Kardashian should play The Horse of a Different Color

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKDBHWD

This is a great list, Margaret! I was ready to go all out for Keke Palmer as Dorothy, but the Janelle Monae suggestion is pretty inspired, especially considering her love of the original Wizard of Oz/Judy Garland. Im always happy to see that other people know of/appreciate Lonette McKee so Nathaniel's suggestion made me happy as well, she really should've been a star.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

A dissenting voice here. The Wiz was a successful Broadway musical before it was a bomb in movie theaters. We should be looking at the play for casting ideas, starting with Dorothy. As much as I love Miss Ross, she was miscast in a role originally played (and incredibly sung) by Stephanie Mills when she was 17. Who is the powerhouse soul soprano voice of today? Maybe she's an unknown (or barely known) who can be surrounded by a supporting cast of current stars and legends.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I normally am not a big fan of "cast this" type articles, but you had me from Janelle. I would not make once single change to your main picks; that is truly some inspired casting.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Marx

Jennifer Hudson! And Taye Diggs as anyone without a shirt!

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Patti LaBelle IS Addaperle! FANTASTIC casting selects! Furthermore: this will be the FIRST of NBC's live musical event that I will actually watch.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarley

I love the Tituss suggestion. If he gets cast, I am in.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I LOVE me some Audra McDonald, BUT her voice is not right for Glinda. She'd be a GREAT Aunt Em (she would SLAY "The Feeling We Once Had"). "Believe In Yourself" is all pop belt, and Audra sounds better on more operatic, lyrical songs. Diana Ross would be a PERFECT Glinda.

I'd also love to get Jill Scott in there somewhere... she'd make a great Addapearl. And if that happens, then Patti LaBelle would KILL IT as Glinda. Actually, strike Diana Ross from the record. All I want out of life now is to hear Patti LaBelle sing "Believe In Yourself"

Uzo Aduba as Evilene is INSPIRED. Also, either of the original Dreamgirls - Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine - would be great, ESPECIALLY Devine. Can we find a spot for the divine Anika Noni Rose? Oooooooooooooooh she'd be a great Addapearl too!

Just so long as there is neither hide nor hair of Beyonce, I'm good.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

ALSO: I feel like everyone needs to see this to be reminded of Tituss Burgess's musical theater chops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qoOtUMQ12k

And to say that Margaret's casting of the scarecrow, lion, and tin man are INSPIRED. Although Bruno Mars as the scarecrow would be HOT. And since they'd never do Jussie Smollett since he's on rival TV network Fox, Taye Diggs for the tin man.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Lotta good ideas here but please, no Jennifer Hudson. I'm sorry, I've just never forgiven her for that undeserved Oscar. She has a great voice and all but is not exactly a memorable thespian. The idea of Grace Jones as The Wiz or Evilene is fabulous! She's so otherworldly to begin with, so she'd be perfect.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Rob, in all fairness to us Jennifer Hudson fans, none of the roles in The Wiz require Streepian acting ability--just charisma to spare and vocal prowess.And that Jennifer does have.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Your choices are really exciting. Monae is also my choice for Dorothy and while she may not be the biggest star ever was Allison Williams that. Miller is a great choice but I would rather Bruno Mars even if people will backlash to the Jackson comparisons. I feel the combination of Monae and Mars will really pull in viewers. Bringing Mills back would be great but since you mention McDonald I think she's better for that role. LaBelle would be awesome and with her currently on DWTS she is well seen and announcing her would bring in viewers. Love the rest of your choices except Audra who will I bow down to does not have the right voice to give Glinda what she needs. Bring back Diana Ross and just make this such a great coming together of the music industry and this amazing musical.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

I want to watch this version right now! Love Uzo, need her in more anything.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

@Rob forgiven her? I'm sorry but the Academy awarded her not herself. Undeserved if she received the most votes them she deserved it. Gtfo.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Some of my casting choices:

Keke Palmer: Dorothy
Jenifer Lewis: Aunt Em
Jennifer Hudson: Glinda
Mo'Nique: Evillene
Cee-Lo: The Wiz
Elijah Kelley: Scarecrow

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Lillias White: Addaperle
James Monroe Iglehart: Lion
Keith Robinson: Tinman

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Guys. It's Zadan and Meron. There's no way Jennifer Hudson isn't getting the lead role.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Jennifer Hudson will be on Broadway doing Oprah's "The Color Purple" when this NBC musical airs, so she won't be involved most likely. One production would have to fall to spring of next year in that case. Keep up, people!

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRich

I think Vanessa Williams is going to be cast in this no matter what.
and both Ben Vereen and Patina Miller won their Tonys for playing The Leading Player!

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterfadhil

UGH.

First of all, all those choices are flawless and inspired. NBC needs to contact you for further musical casting projects from here on out, Margaret.

Second, The Wiz can be SO much fun and inventive when done right, like the original show. The score is there. The movie only had small glimmer of that magic (the majestic sets, costumes and some of the stunt casting worked very well) but this can be a good chance for a tv version to set the rights the movie went wrong on a la Rob Marshall's Annie from '99.

Let us pray to the musical gods they make this one a *~smash~*

OH. And we should already start possibly preparing for a colorblind casting methinks. Beyond the schematics of the show, I see no reason why they wouldn't want a famous white face or two in there. If they can get Cinderella-PC about it, they should go all the way but we have to brace ourselves now that we won't get an all-black show showcasing underused talent. I'm predicting right now, actually, that they get a non-black B'way diva for one of the witch roles.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

OH. And we should already start possibly preparing for a colorblind casting methinks. Beyond the schematics of the show, I see no reason why they wouldn't want a famous white face or two in there. If they can get Cinderella-PC about it, they should go all the way but we have to brace ourselves now that we won't get an all-black show showcasing underused talent. I'm predicting right now, actually, that they get a non-black B'way diva for one of the witch roles.

I rather they cancel the telecast than entertain nonsense.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I think Mark's right. It doesn't necessarily have to be all-black production just b/c that's the way it started out. It's not like that in high school productions. A few key roles could go colorblind and I'd be fine with it. And hasn't Harvey Fierstein pretty much said that he's writing himself into the production somehow? Maybe as The Wiz himself?

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFreddy

It's not like that in high school productions.

Umm...

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Tituss Burgess as the Cowardly Lion is the best casting idea I've ever heard.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I'm surprised you didn't choose Anika Noni Rose for any of the roles. I heart her.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Colorblind casting for The Wiz means white appropriation. And I am fully aware the film version was directed by a white guy. But in his defense he was married to a black woman. He had incentive to do his best with material that did not match his strengths.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Well according to you dumb worldview, it's already "white appropriated" with white producers and what's sure to be a white director at the helm. It's certainly not the end of the world if the cast went colorblind here. I'd actually prefer that.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKT

OMG, doing The Wiz without an all-black cast defeats the purpose of this musical's very existence. It doesn't matter who produces or directs it, just look at the material and the concept. If you want to do a color-blind cast version of this material, just do The Wizard of Oz.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

So? That isn't relevant to what's being done with this production. And since this is television and they will cast a wide net to grab as many viewers as possible, I'm not expecting an all-black cast in the first place. So there.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKT

@KT

Some things should remain what they are. To alter them would be to defeat the very point of the thing. The Wiz is meant to be a black appropriation of a white property. Keeping the cast entirely African-American is preserving and protecting the purpose of the piece. The insistence of colorblind casting is an excuse to hire white people for something that does not need their acceptance or participation in order for it to succeed.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@ 3rtful: Keep your racist shit to yourself. Not everyone is going to agree with your constantly bigoted and narrow minded POV.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKT

@KT

The Wiz is a black response to a white classic. By including whites in the ensemble the purpose of the piece is diluted for the sake of satisfying no one. Blacks would not want it because it turns their little bit of special into something it was never meant for. And whites who actually care about The Wiz would want a black property to sing as it was originally conceived.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Wow, KT, "racist"?

...with Harvey Fierstein on board to augment William F. Brown's original book...

That word "augment" does give me pause, if "revamp" is what is actually meant. The book of the Broadway production was by no means a high watermark in playwriting, but it was written for black characterizations and performers. (To say nothing of the musical vernacular in the score.) It would be ridiculous for white actors to play those parts...unless that's what this "augmentation" is about. No, Harvey, no.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@Paul Outlaw

The accusation of racism was directed at me. Since I am the hostile house guest whenever I say something contrary to popular belief.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@Paul Outlaw: all the press language I've seen has put it in terms of adding material, not changing it, but you never know..

@KT: dude, if the casting for this show was indeed colorblind, which is to say cast based on talent and fit over all other characteristics, this musical would still end up with an all-black cast. The roles were written for black artists. There are at least sixty black artists I could name off the top of my head in addition to the eighteen I've listed here who would be excellent, exciting choices. Casting white actors in this show wouldn't be colorblind, it would be intentional. There is no reason you should feel alienated by the prospect of an all-black cast. Examine your attitude.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

My view is just as valid as yours is. I'm not "examining" a damn thing.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKT

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