NBC’s live production of The Wiz was, in a word, incredible. There were animated performances from veteran entertainers, including Queen Latifah, David Alan Grier, and Mary J. Blige. Iconic songs, like “You Can’t Win” and “Ease on Down the Road,” were blended with new material, like “We Got It.” Modern dialogue and dancing breathed life into the classic Broadway play. Plus, there were moments of Black brilliance, like Uzo Aduba descending from the top of the set in a dazzling gold gown and Ne’Yo hitting the dab, which enthralled viewers.
The Wiz Live! was NBC’s third attempt at a live musical. It drew 11.1 million viewers and 1.3 million tweets during the broadcast, which surpassed ratings for Peter Pan, NBC’s previous live musical effort. Despite the rousing success of The Wiz Live!, television critics at Yahoo! and Vulture offered unfavorable reviews.
“The central problem is its immediate source material,” Tucker writes. “The Wiz as created for Broadway in 1974, and adapted for the movies (starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson) in 1978, simply does not have a great body of music to place it in the first rank of musicals. Here’s a challenge: Name a song from The Wiz other than “Ease On Down the Road.” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” maybe, but that’s about it.”
Jesse Green, theater critic at Vulture, agrees. In his review of The Wiz Live!, he writes, “Only in a weak Broadway field could The Wiz have won seven Tony awards, as it did in 1975. Its competition included Mack & Mabel, Shenandoah, and The Lieutenant (which ran for two weeks). What The Wiz was was a hit, eventually riding out four years on its delightful pop-funk-gospel score and its winking minstrelsy.”
Referring to The Wiz as having a “pop-funk-gospel score” and “winking minstrelsy” is meant to degrade the original 1975 work from producer Ken Harper and director Geoffrey Holder. Their reviews also reinforce the idea that critics without a cultural connection to the material often misunderstand the representative importance of plays like The Wiz.
Slate committed this sin as well when writer L.V. Anderson referred to Southern University’s marching band’s rendition of Adele’s “Hello” as “the most hilariously awful things my ears have ever perceived.” L.V. Anderson’s characterization of Southern University’s marching band is a complete misreading of HBCU traditions. As someone unfamiliar with the culture, Anderson privileged her own expectations instead of understanding the lineage of Southern University. Like some white critics of The Wiz Live!, she chose to focus on the technical aspects of their band’s performance because of her lack of connection.
From the onset, The Wiz was created as a counternarrative. The Wizard of Oz, which is referred to as a classic in Tucker’s review, erased African-Americans from the moment Dorothy is swept in a Tornado to the moment she awakens in her bed in Kansas. The Wiz offered Blacks to insert themselves into a narrative and turn it into a cultural touchstone.
Reviewing Black popular culture, like The Wiz, requires intimate knowledge of both the production and the feelings it translates. When art is created without the white gaze as default, white critics tend to privilege their perspective and offer jaded reviews.
African-Americans are forced to be intimate with white culture. In classrooms, the white male canon is considered classic enough to serve as default. History textbooks erase centuries of enslavement while heralding George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as heroes worthy of commendation. Even after the ascension of Shonda Rhimes as one of television’s top showrunners, most television characters, directors, and writers are white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, and middle-class, leaving much to be desired.
African-Americans are forced into an uncomfortable, unreciprocated familiarity with whiteness, so when our work must be reviewed, it should be done through the lens of someone who has a cultural connection to the material.
The Wiz Live! was for us. Officers are riddling Black bodies with bullets and raping Black women and using the state to protect them from prosecution. In bleak times like these, The Wiz Live! reminded Black Americans that we’re entitled to radiance and joy. As multitudes of Black folks engaged in live-tweeting, offered hilarious memes and GIFs, and made significant observations about the overarching themes of the musical, it was clear how much representation matters. Black girls will now have a Dorothy who resembles them. Black Americans can incorporate the watching of the live play in their holiday traditions.
Beyond the technical gaps and flaws pointed out by Tucker and Green, The Wiz Live! matters because, for once, we had something just for us.