When producers (and frequent collaborators) Craig Zadan and Neil Meron called him earlier this spring about directing a holiday version of The Wiz for NBC, Kenny Leon didn’t have to double check his calendar or soul search to make up his mind. As a huge fan of the musical as well as someone who had staged multiple versions of it with his youth group at his Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company, he was empathetically in.
“I’ve always wanted to do a bigger production,” he says. “The Wiz has inspired me — it’s a universal story of love and courage. It has a hip factor that keeps it timely. I want to make it fresh for a new generation.”
The Wiz Live! airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC. It’s the network’s third live musical theater show, following The Sound of Music Live! with Carrie Underwood in 2013 and Peter Pan Live! last year. The Tony Award-winning 1975 Broadway musical — an urbanized version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — spawned the 1978 film with Diana Ross.
Leon’s version stars pretty much the dream cast he envisioned. When Zadan and Meron asked who he saw in the ensemble, he envisioned Queen Latifah as the titular Wiz. “I didn’t even think about it, of the gender,” he says.
The rest he pieced together with the producers, including Mary J. Blige as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West; David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion; Emmy winner Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch of the South and Amber Riley as Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North. He even found a way to incorporate Stephanie Mills from the original production into the mix as Auntie Em.
The role of Dorothy Gale is played by newcomer Shanice Williams. Leon felt he needed an unknown for the part. “I knew we needed to spread the net wide,” he says of a nationwide search that eventually landed Williams, a (then) 18-year-old in her first major gig.
Looking to give the production a distinctive slant, the director called actor and writer Harvey Fierstein and made a pitch to him to come aboard to work on the book. Fierstein came to dinner prepared to tell Leon he could not do it, yet eventually changed his mind. He’s made some tweaks, including conceptualizing the idea of Dorothy’s dilemma in living with her aunt and uncle.
Although this version is based on the original stage play, it incorporates some elements from the movie as well as a new song by Ne-Yo, who plays the Tin Man. Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical division, who approached Leon about the stage version, is also involved, bringing in acrobatic elements.
Both of the earlier NBC musicals had millions of viewers, yet they also had plenty of cynics and critics. The director watched both in order to prepare. “You learn the challenges of doing them,” he says. “We are a recipient of the growth of this kind of storytelling.”
A goal was to make it look different, to give audiences a perspective they can’t get from seeing it in a theater. “We are in one location and that transforms before your eyes,” he says. “It’s a unique way to tell a story.”
Leon’s varied background has helped him put this project together. “I’ve done opera, I’ve done musicals and drama, I have run a big theater company,” he says. “It all calls for that skill set to pull it off. It’s not a feature, a drama, a film; it’s a hybrid of all those. You cannot shoot it like a play, or a film. You take what is good about all those and put it into one.”
The director gives NBC a lot of credit for the new tradition of live theater. “Any new way of being able to tell a story is great and if you can get 25 million viewers in one night, it encourages them to go to the theater in their region,” he says. “The musical will head to Broadway next fall, where he hopes Williams and more of this cast will be part of the ensemble.
Leon, who worked with Zadan and Meron on the television versions of Steel Magnolias and A Raisin in the Sun, won a Tony Award in 2014 for directing a revival of Raisin. He continues to live in Atlanta and run True Colors Theatre Company. With what he deems a great staff at the company, however, he is only there when specifically needed, such as when he is directing or helping with fundraising.
Besides working on The Wiz for Broadway, Leon is prepping New York revivals of both Children of a Lesser God and Proof for next year. Time permitting, he also hopes to sneak in a feature film. True to his nature, Leon enjoys being home but is always ready for another challenge. “I love having my artistic home in Atlanta,” he says. “But I also love getting on the road and working on great art.”