Easing On Down The Live-Musical Road

Easing On Down The Live-Musical Road

NBC brought their third live musical to the screen in as many years with the highly-anticipated production of The Wiz. While the previous two, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, have been plagued by hateful online comments and negative reviews, The Wiz seems to have finally delivered a product which can be embraced by television audiences. So what was their secret?

The Wiz Live

They wrote for a television audience.

It is as simple as that. The audiences for these live-broadcast musical productions are not your traditional theatre audiences. They are the people who love pulling out the well-worn DVD of Grease. Tune into Glee every week. And this audience is driven by a markedly different experience.

A contemporary cast

Every television producer will tell you that if you want to get an immediate audience (which these shows do as they only have one night to get it right), then you need a cast with a strong following. Broadway or not, the names need to be big and they definitely were in The Wiz. The cast featured singers Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo, rapper Common, starring television and film actors Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, David Alan Grier and Elijah Kelley with Dorothy from the original The Wiz, Stephanie Mills.

Between these celebrities, they have an enormously diverse pull from pop music to rap, serious dramas to popular comedies. It would be difficult to find a star who didn’t appeal to any potential audience member. And this brought over eleven million people to NBC watching the broadcast live. But in addition to the on screen talent, the contemporary element extended behind the camera with a choreographer who had never worked on Broadway, a songwriter rewriting the Act One closing number who had never written for the theatre and a set design that was inspired by recent Oscars Ceremonies.

A contemporary musical

There is nothing wrong with musical classics The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, but they come across rather old when compared to other entertainment offerings on the television. The Wiz, on the other hand, is much more contemporary. Only written in the 1970s, it came about as an all-black version of the all-white The Wizard of Oz infused with black American themes and a significantly updated catalogue of songs. The story of The Wizard of Oz is timeless but it isn’t really relatable for today’s audiences whereas this updated version sits much better in the contemporary market.

Then there is the music. The reason Glee captured such a diverse audience compared to traditional musical theatre was because its music could easily have appeared on radios and in the music charts. And this is a trend we are seeing with certain new shows appearing around the world that are bringing an incredibly diverse crowd into the theatre. Their music is relatable. And that is exactly what The Wiz contains compared to the previous two offerings of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan.

A contemporary following

The Wiz is a musical of great significance to many Americans. It symbolised a change in the theatre landscape. Breaking away from a traditionally white entertainment form into a much more diverse offering showcasing talents incredible talents from different segments of society. And these issues haven’t changed today. Breaking the traditions of skin colour in the theatre is still something which is news worthy today with Les Miserablés recently introducing a black Eponine and Fantine in the recent revival and box office winner Hamilton representing a huge range of ethnicities on the stage.

And this unique quality of The Wiz was just as significant to its contemporary following as it was when originally released in the 1970s. This not only earned the production a lot of news coverage, but created a network of ambassadors ranging from Scandal star Kerry Washington to Oprah who actively promoted this musical out to their networks.

Are you getting the theme?

The Wiz wasn’t a traditional musical. And it shouldn’t have been as it wasn’t targeted at a theatre audience. Its target was a television audience. People who would watch Glee instead of buying a ticket to the theatre. So it needed to be approached in that way with non-traditional choreography, set design, casting and music – all elements which were inspired by general popular culture rather than the theatre.

But should this remain exclusively on television? These contemporary elements which I have mentioned are included in some of the biggest hits on Broadway at the moment. Hits which are doing so well because they don’t attract the theatre audience, they have great resonance with new audiences. And that is surely something that will be seen when The Wiz transfers across to Broadway later next year.