Friday, April 3, 2015

Why I'm Excited to Ease on Down the Road

Clockwise: Ted Ross, Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, and Tiger Haynes in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. 

After months of speculation, NBC has officially announced that their next live musical broadcast will be The Wiz rather than The Music Man, which they had been seriously considering. But because the producers like to keep things interesting, they've announced that not only will this year's broadcast include a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil's newly created Theatrical Division, but that they are also planning a stage revival inspired by the broadcast for the 2016/2017 Broadway season.

I have to say, I think NBC made the right choice in The Wiz. Even setting aside from my well documented dislike of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, The Wiz just works better with NBC's stated goal of "highly rated family entertainment." After having a ratings smash two years ago with Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music, they chose a significantly less beloved property (Peter Pan) and lower profile star (Girls' Alison Williams) for their follow-up broadcast, something that resulted in significantly less ratings despite Williams being a far better actress. In the days following Pan NBC executives were complimentary of Williams but made it clear they attributed the decline to the lack of an Underwood-level star, and whatever your personal feelings on celebrity casting its hard to argue with that sentiment. While NBC didn't explicitly state they would be looking for a bigger name next year, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that's their intention.

Which is why The Wiz is a brilliant choice for the 2015 broadcast. Although the film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson isn't nearly as ubiquitous as the Julie Andrews-led Sound of Music, it is probably more familiar to the general population than the Robert Preston Music Man (anyone who knows the Matthew Broderick Music Man is probably too traumatized to watch any version of the show ever again). More importantly, The Wiz is a much better vehicle for celebrity casting, whereas Harold Hill's River City shenanigans demand truly talented musical theatre actors for the principal roles. You can't cast an untested name as Harold Hill and just hope it works out, but it is much easier to cast a pop star with personality as Dorothy or any of her friends. Yes, it would certainly be preferable to have a really great actress in the lead role, but a well sung rendition of "Home" will go a long way towards erasing memories of any clunky line readings in the book scenes.

Everything else about the live broadcast is just icing on the cake. There are very few musical bookwriters as dependable as Harvey Fierstein, so hiring him to rework the show's somewhat dated book will help to update it without clashing with the original authors' intentions. Tony winning director Kenny Leon has plenty of experience working with celebrity performers, so if anyone will be able to coax good performances out of untested names it will be him. And the Cirque elements will add the visual "wow" factor some people felt was missing during Peter Pan, who weren't too impressed with the visible wires and CGI Tinkerbell. All of this has me actively looking forward to The Wiz, which is more than I can say about the past two broadcasts (which were watched out of a sense of duty and morbid curiosity).

On the flip side, I am hesitant about the proposed Broadway transfer, if that's even the right word. Aside from being skeptical it will even happen (a lot can change between now and 2017), my biggest question is will the cast of the live broadcast also be signed for Broadway? Because convincing a successful pop star to give up that much of their free time will be a problem. Rumor has it Alison Williams was cast in Peter Pan partly due to her willingness to make the 4 month commitment required to rehearse and perform the show, something other actresses balked at. The cast of The Wiz will need to devote a minimum of twice that to do both the broadcast and even a limited Broadway run (and for a "major Broadway revival" of a large cast musical to be profitable, it will need to run significantly longer). Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing at least some of The Wiz stunt cast, and if a lengthy Broadway commitment scares away the bigger names that will be a shame.

I also have staging concerns, as what works well on TV most likely will not work well on stage. I can't imagine they plan on exactly duplicating the live broadcast in the theatre, but if the staging is too different then it raises the question of why bother having the two connected in the first place. The last thing you want is someone who paid $140 to see The Wiz on Broadway to leave thinking the version they saw for free on TV was better/more impressive, so all of this will need to be addressed if the revival has any aspirations towards financial success.

Of course, all of this fretting over the transfer is premature. Other shows have been farther along the road to Broadway before being cancelled (Rebecca anyone?), and if the TV broadcast flops the producers wouldn't lose too much face by scuttling the planned revival. It wouldn't even be the first time an announced revival of this specific show failed to materialize, as the 2009 City Center Encores! production was very publically advertised as a precursor to Broadway until the transfer was cancelled due to negative reviews. Right now, I'm sure the producers' main focus is on the live broadcast, which has a firm date (December 3rd) and complicated logistics that are more than enough to occupy anyone's immediate attention. So I will focus on that, and hope that the third time's a charm for NBC.

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