"The Wizard of Oz" was first broadcast on television 59 years ago, kicking off a string of (more or less) annual network TV showings of the classic 1939 movie musical. That initial playing came in the Tinkerbell-lit wake of NBC's successful live renderings of the musical version of "Peter Pan."
Nearly 60 years later, the Yellow Brick Road winds almost full circle Thursday with a live TV performance of "The Wiz," the 1975 Broadway reimagining of the film and L. Frank Baum’s books. "The Wiz Live!" is set to become part of a new annual tradition, following 2013’s “The Sound of Music Live!” and last year’s “Peter Pan Live!” as beloved musicals staged on NBC in early December.
"The Wiz Live!" arrives some 40 years after the show launched on Broadway with an all-black cast, winning a slew of Tonys, including the Best Musical award. The musical also propelled its Dorothy, teenager Stephanie Mills, to stardom. “Ease on Down the Road” may have been the show’s hit number, but Mills transformed “Home” into her signature ballad.
"Wiz" purists weren't thrilled by the 1978 movie version, which reworked the story to fit Diana Ross, then in her early 30s. The film, while flawed, preserved vintage performances by Ross, along with Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Lena Horne as Glinda and Richard Pryor in title role.
The new live version boasts a strong lineup of stars, among them David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Mary J. Blige, Common and Uzo Aduba, with Queen Latifah as The Wiz and Mills graduating to the role of Auntie Em. But all eyes will be on 19-year-old newcomer Shanice Williams, who is no doubt hoping playing Dorothy will do for her what the role did for Mills and Judy Garland.
The cast also includes Amber Riley, who helped make “Glee” a smash six years ago, showing the appetite for youth-friendly musical-tinged fare on the small screen. Fox, which gave us “Glee,” also is turning to Broadway (and the movies) with plans to broadcast a live version of “Grease” on Jan. 31.
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The Wiz Live!” lands as the enduring allure of the Oz story can be seen on Broadway with “Wizard”-inspired “Wicked,” sitting near the top of the box office more than 12 years into its run. Meanwhile, “Finding Neverland,” a musical based on the story of “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie, is playing just five blocks away.
“The Wizard of Oz” and its offshoots, as well as “Peter Pan,” transport us to other worlds, while reminding us, in different ways, that there’s no place like home. NBC is betting “The Wiz Live!” will prove there’s no place like TV. As the show prepares to ease on down to its primetime debut, check out a promo pairing Williams and Mills on “Home.”
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.