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Behind the scenes of ‘Wiz’ – Laughs, tears & wizardry

In this image released by NBC, Stephanie Mills portrays Auntie Em (right), and Shanice Williams portrays Dorothy in ‘The Wiz Live!’ which was premiered on Dec 3 on NBC. (AP)
In this image released by NBC, Stephanie Mills portrays Auntie Em (right), and Shanice Williams portrays Dorothy in ‘The Wiz Live!’ which was premiered on Dec 3 on NBC. (AP)

LOS ANGELES, Dec 4, (RTRS): David Alan Grier loosened up by joking around in a faux Shakespearean actor voice. Limber dancers in creature costumes, ranging from furry winged warriors to sexy poppies to sassy crows milled around the edges of the stage, where members of the off-stage chorus gathered around a rack of headphones to wait for their cues. Shanice Williams, the bubbly ingenue of NBC’s “The Wiz Live,” was primped and hugged and quizzed about when she ate last in the moments before the start of Wednesday night’s final dress rehearsal.

If “The Wiz” team was feeling the pressure leading up to its live telecast, they weren’t showing it. Wednesday’s runthrough went smoothly and clocked in on time, a big concern for a network with any live event.

“Wiz” is the third live musical event that NBC has staged under the leadership of NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who has moonlighted as a Broadway producer periodically during his long career in TV. Shepherded by director Kenny Leon and exec producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, “Wiz Live” is a re-imagining of the 1970s Broadway musical that put an R&B spin on the enduring “Wizard of Oz” story.

NBC’s 2013 production of “The Sound of Music” shocked the TV biz by delivering 18 million-plus viewers. Last year’s “Peter Pan Live” was less successful from a ratings perspective, but still a buzzy event for the network. The “Wiz” is seen as having bigger potential as it is a more familiar musical property to audiences than “Peter Pan.”

It’s also aided by deft casting, including: Queen Latifah as Oz, Ne-Yo as the Tin Man, Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West, Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch, Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow, Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Common as Oz’s Bouncer gatekeeper and Amber Riley as the Wicked Witch of the North. Williams, a 19-year-old New Jersey native who was plucked from an open audition, rises to the occasion with stage presence and vocal chops that soar beyond her years and limited professional experience.

Once again, NBC’s one-night-only musical is originating from a soundstage on the Grumman Studios lot in Bethpage, Long Island. The magnitude of the production is evident in the number of satellite trucks, trailers and heavy machinery parked outside the stage. Inside, the backstage area looks like a Broadway production writ large.

“Wiz Live” is a more elaborate production than the previous two tuners, with a bigger investment in costumes, sets and choreography. But the journey from Kansas to Oz and back again will play out on a single stage (compared to three for “Peter Pan” and five for “Sound of Music”), thanks to the cutting-edge magic of rear projection of scenery on giant LED backdrop screens. From the opening scene that finds Dorothy and Auntie Em (played by Stephanie Mills, the original star of Broadway’s “Wiz”) in a wind-blown field of wheat, the effect is visually engrossing.

The backstage area is positively electric. In the hangars where Grumman once built machines for aerospace and defense purposes, dressing rooms have been cordoned off with scaffolding and velvet drapes for the stars. There are dedicated dressing areas for the players in most of the 18 musical numbers, which are enlivened by the eye-popping, boldly colored creations of costume designer Paul Tazewell. Tazewell began working on “Wiz Live” nine months ago after setting the sartorial tone for the Broadway smash “Hamilton.”

Artisans

`The makeup artisans who run the prosthetics room, headed by the husband-and-wife team of Dave and Lou Elsey, function like a pit crew at a racetrack. Grier, Kelley and Ne-Yo have less than 20 minutes to transform themselves into their main characters after performing the opening scene in Kansas farmhand duds. When rehearsals first began in October, the process of applying the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow costumes and makeup took some three hours.

In the middle of all this is a warren of vanity mirrors and dressing tables where dozens of dancers and background cast members are prepped for their numbers. Next to that cluster is a necessary element for any show involving that many dancers and acrobats — a large open space for stretching, dancing, voguing and general tension-relieving horseplay prior to the curtain. Cirque du Soleil has loaned “Wiz Live” a host of rubber-limbed performers who are used to great effect by director Leon and choreographer Fatima Robinson, starting with the human tornado that sends Dorothy on her way to Oz.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: Special effects makeup artist Dave Elsey says he was “traumatized” by the movie “The Wizard of Oz” when he was a child — but in his view that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“If you go back in time and look at children’s literature like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ some of those characters are incredibly grotesque and scary, (but) when you get to know them, you sort of love them,” he says.

This combination of fear and affection informed the artistry of Elsey and his wife, Lou Elsey, as they created the makeup for NBC’s “The Wiz Live!,” this year’s addition to the network’s holiday tradition of adapting a beloved musical for live TV. Airing Dec. 3, the production features Elijah Kelley’s Scarecrow with a face like a bag full of seeds and hair of twigs, Ne-Yo’s rusted and weathered metallic Tin Man, David Alan Grier’s hairy and menacing-eyed Cowardly Lion, and a heavily eyebrowed Queen Latifah as the Wiz herself.

“It’s very important to have their characters and their performances come through the makeup so that we don’t completely lose the actors,” says Lou Elsey.

“Obviously, they’re heavily influenced by what’s done before, but it’s keeping that freshness in line with how the production looks and with Paul Tazewell’s costume designs.”

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