Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Today, we throw it back to the Girls discussion of NBC’s third attempt at a live musical: the 2015 broadcast of Smalls & Brown’s The Wiz (1974). Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Dania was shook. Fully and fundamentally, she had not been prepared for what she just saw. She had been nervous with excited anticipation, for sure. After the delightful trainwrecks that were NBC’s previous specials, The Sound Of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live!, it only made sense that she would expect nothing less of the third iteration of the newly-revived live musical trend. The Wiz was not exactly a household name the way the other two were – premiering in 1975, after the era where Broadway musicals dictated the popular songbook, and perhaps most famous today for its film adaptation, which not even Diana Ross and Michael Jackson could save.
Thus, all signs pointed towards The Wiz Live! following the trajectory of its live musical predecessors, straight into the territory of campy goodness that Dania needed around the Holidays. But as the evening went on, Dania watched as Dorothy – vibrant newcomer Shanice Williams – learn how to travel back to Kansas, killing two witches and befriending a trio of misfits along the way. And by the time Glinda The Good Witch, played by the unfairly talented Uzo Aduba appeared (“Oh, of course she literally descends from Heaven to be here,” Eleanor had commented), Dania had made a shattering discovery.
“Good!” Eleanor said, almost as soon as the credits began.
“It was actually good!” Dania said.
“It was certainly better than last year,” Gwen said. “Better talent behind it, you can see that immediately.”
“But also, it’s just…” Eleanor said, grasping for words. “Like, it actually seemed like a rehearsed musical, rather than some kind of weird live TV event. I forgot it was happening live!”
“I could tell,” Gwen said. “There were a couple of moments when the camera went askew.”
“But, like,” Eleanor said. “There weren’t really any moments when it was super bad. Like you look at something like Sound of Music, that had flat-out bad stuff in it.”
“Production values are certainly higher here,” Gwen said. “I was hesitant about the computer-generated backdrops, but you hardly register them with everyone else in front of them.”
“I want to know why it was all in one location,” Dania said. “I mean, I didn’t hate that. But with the other two musicals, part of the campiness was that it was all on soundstages. And they had to run between them. This was a much more, like, flowing.”
“Oh, I know that,” Gwen said. “Kenny Leon wants to bring it to Broadway after this.”
“Broadway!” Eleanor said.
“With all the pop stars in it?” Dania asked. The mere idea of fitting all the names on the marquee was daunting.
“Probably not,” Gwen answered. “But you could tell it was all shot from one side, the sets were mobile, even the Cirque Du Soleil effects were replicable on stage.”
“Okay, gonna be honest,” Eleanor said. “When you mentioned that Cirque Du Soleil was working on this, I was kinda expecting more than some jumping and flying effects.”
“They didn’t exactly bring their A-game,” Gwen conceded.
“I don’t know,” Dania said, rising. “That tornado was kinda dope.”
“Eh,” Eleanor said. She waggled a hand, signaling ambivalence. “So-so. The tornado dancers were cool, but Dorothy getting swung around like a doll – ”
“I was afraid her harness had broken!” Gwen said. “It wasn’t a graceful flight at all!”
“Because tornadoes are always so graceful,” Dania said. She walked to the kitchen to empty the popcorn bowl of its kernels.
“Well,” Gwen said, indicating the screen. “If it’s going to Broadway.”
“How much do you think that’s really going to happen?” Eleanor asked. “It feels like a weirdly expensive production to bring.”
“There have been more expensive flops,” Gwen said. “But I don’t know. One of the things that surprised me was how well it was shot.”
“You literally just mentioned a camera error as your very first impression.”
“As an error made because it was live,” Gwen clarified. “But considering all the transitions they had to do, the camera work always obscured the set changes, while still staying focused on the actors. The crow dance in particular, really well shot.”
“I liked that,” Eleanor said. “Plus, did you listen to the lyrics? That is one hot bop about systemic injustice. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
“Was it?” Dania said. “I thought it was more about the crows holding the Scarecrow down.”
“Well, it is,” Eleanor said. “But, you know. It’s metaphorical.”
Dania considered this. “Maybe. What I liked the most about it was…well, I dunno how to phrase it…”
“That it didn’t have that many modern parallels like that?” Gwen questioned. “Because I’ve be glad to start listing them off.”
“Well, kind of,” Dania said. “I guess it’d be something like…you could kind of…”
Dania ran a hand through her hair, evasively. “Ugh, this is gonna sound racist, I know it.”
“What?” Eleanor said.
“You could always tell they were black?” Gwen said. “Is that it, because I think that’s the point.”
“No,” Dania said. “It was that I could almost forget it.”
Gwen looked at her, confusedly.
“It’s an all-black cast,” Gwen said. “It’s literally the black version of The Wizard of Oz.”
“But that’s the thing, see,” Dania said. “I wasn’t thinking about the original version of Wizard of Oz the whole time. Like, I expected they’d fill the show with callbacks to the original movie. There’d be some kind of ‘and your little dog, too’ parody, or something.”
“Where was Toto?” Eleanor asked. “He was there at the very beginning, and then…”
“Wait!” Gwen said, realizing Toto’s absence for the first time. “You’re right! Wait, is Toto in the original The Wiz? I can’t remember…”
“Well, yeah, that’s the point,” Dania said. “I kind of forgot that Toto was in the story originally. Or that the Wicked Witch has green skin, or the Munchkins were small, or that anyone was originally white, or anything.”
“They’re not originally white,” Eleanor said. “The book doesn’t specify anyone’s race. Dorothy might as well be black in the OG Wizard of Oz, too.”
“Okay, sure, but you know what people know,” Dania said. “The Judy Garland movie. I forgot that there was another version of this story that wasn’t written for black performers. It was, you know, self-sustaining.”
“I see what you mean,” Gwen said. “But I don’t think that means you’re forgetting they’re black. It just means you’re seeing the production rather than it’s source material.”
“But what’s the source material?” Eleanor said. “The L. Frank Baum book, or the 1939 movie?”
“Both, I’d say. The movie has enough cultural capital to expect audiences will walk in having seen it.”
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said. “It wasn’t making references to it. Like, nothing in the costumes even resembled the other film.”
“Those costumes!” Dania said. “They were all incredible except ––”
“I know right?” Gwen interrupted. “Whoever did the costume design for this better get an Emmy nom, at least. Did you see Uzo Aduba at the end there? And Mary J. Blige looked ––”
“I wasn’t done,” Dania said, glaring. “They were all great, except Dorothy. And the Munchkins – I’m not saying they have to be tiny, but I didn’t get what was up with the weird spring-looking things they were wearing…”
“Eh, just another artist’s interpretation,” Eleanor said. “That’s what I mean, if you watched this knowing nothing about the original Wizard of Oz, or even having just read the book, you’d be like, ‘oh, okay, I guess that’s what this world looks like.”
“Precisely,” Gwen agreed. “And what I’m saying is, in addition to that, they’ve also woven black culture all through it. The scarecrow’s hair is a reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Emerald City becomes a reference to the 1970s club scene. Bits of the choreography for “Ease On Down The Road” are taken from Motown groups like The Temptations. You can’t say that it’s racially neutral in the way the original was.”
“But was the original even racially neutral?” Eleanor said. “You might just as well say that The Wiz is the black version of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book, while the 1939 film is the “white” adaptation.”
Gwen didn’t answer immediately, giving Dania time to jump in.
“Anyway, I just took it on a first glance. Whatever mixture of culture and adaptation it is, the end product is super entertaining. And fairly empowering to women of color, I gotta say. Making the Wizard a woman was a really smart move.”
“Even if that one line from Dorothy pointing it out was a little unnecessary,” Eleanor added.
“Maybe,” Dania said. “I’m just glad the whole thing wasn’t just Christopher Walken barking in a pirate outfit for three hours.”
“Cheers to that,” Gwen agreed.
There was a moment’s pause, before Dania added.
“Then again: I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t the equivalent of Christopher Walken barking in a pirate outfit for three hours. I was expecting camp and got something slightly better.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “I’d take two hours of Walken camp, I draw the line at three.”
Image Credit: Film Takeout