Written by Leah Marche
Millions of people will be glued to television sets Thursday, Dec. 3, when NBC airs its three-hour presentation of “The Wiz Live!” The holiday season special is based on the 1975 Broadway production The Wiz by William F. Brown and adapted from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The production, co-produced by Cirque du Soleil Theatrical and with Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon (Holler If You Hear Me, A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly), will feature Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Uzo Aduba, Amber Riley, Stephanie Mills, Common and newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy.
Singer CeCe Peniston and filmmaker Iris Huey are two Valley residents with fond memories of The Wiz and are looking forward to the 2015 version. Peniston was part of the 1996-1997 U.S. national tour of The Wiz as “Glinda The Good Witch.” She shared the stage with Tasha Scott, Tony Terry, Peabo Bryson, Grace Jones and sometimes Howard Hewett, among others.
“I had a great time on tour doing The Wiz,” recalled the singer, who was mesmerized by Diana Ross, Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson in the 1978 film version. “The cast was a lot of fun. Not only did I learn a lot of different ways of singing it every single night… but the cast was good for playing practical jokes.”
She reminisced about two actors playing the Winkies who blacked out their teeth. When she looked down at them, she almost laughed out loud and had to hold back laughs and the tears coming down her eyes. What she remembered most was “just traveling to different places and having a difference experience every night on stage.”
Recognizing the importance of The Wiz to Black culture and American culture, Peniston shared: “As a child all of us had dreams of being someone that we’re not. It was like going to Never Never Land as a child… For us, I think that was one of the first live musicals for little Black children to see. ‘Oh look it’s us! It’s people we know. It’s African American actors and actresses.’”
“All Black families that I know have seen The Wiz. It was like a staple in history to me.”
Huey, who is working on some short films in keeping with her mission to inspire and empower, also remembers The Wiz film.
“It was just a very fun, entertaining show, and just a wonderful take on The Wizard of Oz,” she said. “A wonderful, soulful take, a celebration of basically the talent, the creative minds of Black people, and how we take something and make it our own. It made it really great and fun to watch. And then the story in general is always inspiring because it’s about finding out what’s inside of you.”
In 2007, Huey directed a youth version of The Wiz at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
“That was my first and actually only time directing a musical. That was my first time directing a play… and working with so many children,” said Huey, who prefers the control she has with filmmaking over the “you never know what will happen” theatre world. “It was very challenging… and it was actually a lot more stressful than I had anticipated. But the outcome was way better than I could have expected. I thought that the children were so good, and particularly those that played the main roles. They were so great and talented, and they just stood out. They really made the show.”
“It’s going to be interesting to see this interpretation,” Peniston said. “The regular Wiz is just ingrained in my head.”
But what most will certainly take away from watching the show is the advice that Peniston has for all aspiring performers: “Dare to dream… Dream, dream, dream, and dream big.”