The live production of The Wiz will premiere on December 3rd on NBC. I have the date marked on my calendar, the party platter pre-selected (though I’m still undecided as to whether or not I’m going to host a party to go with it), and I absolutely plan on watching the star-studded 1978 film at least five times before the event airs. Yes, I’m terribly excited and no, I can’t even pretend to care about any judgment of said excitement at the moment.
I don’t expect this to be a perfect production, especially after struggling through two prior efforts from NBC. A missed cue or stumbled-upon line are things that I’ve come to expect from any live theatrical event, televised or not. I do, however, feel like this show has cast an ensemble of passionate, almost intimidatingly talented performers who are going to do this legendary show absolute justice. I’m also thrilled to see young Shanice Williams step into her spotlight and begin what will hopefully be a fruitful career.
Looking back on the day that the network first publically confirmed that they would be taking on The Wiz, I remember that my initial response was to log on to Twitter and find out how people were reacting to the news (to be fair…that’s my general response to almost everything). I was in no way surprised to see a #CastTheWiz tag already gaining an incredible amount of steam…and it was gorgeous.
It was reassuring to see others championing the idea of Janelle Monae as Dorothy, or Jussie Smollett as Scarecrow. Many mentioned their desire to see Bruno Mars as the Tin Man, which was an idea that I can’t believe managed to escape me. A woman that I follow even proposed the idea of John Cho donning the Scarecrow costume and I, for one, am always going to support any opportunity to watch that lovely man work. The mass Twitter brainstorm session was an intriguing and welcomed one because fans of classic theater and excellent television came together to put their excitement to use.
Dream casting has to be my favorite part of any announced project (when it’s welcomed, mind you, and not when it leads to people imposing awful assertions like the ones Jessica Williams experienced), even when my predictions are entirely off base, as they often are. It has a way of bonding fans regardless of personal preferences, uniting everyone in their desire to see something turn out well. What made this round of chatter especially satisfying, though, was how many of the suggestions challenged default casting. John Cho as the Scarecrow. Samira Wiley as the Tin (Wo)Man. Gloria Estefen was even tossed into the ring of possibilities for Glenda the Good Witch, which admittedly gave me pause for a moment until I remembered just how much I loved her voice when I was younger. I loved that so many Wiz fans voice suggestions outside of the obvious choices. It was cool to see pop stars considered amongst Broadway alumni, women looked upon to play traditionally male roles, and an already diverse production being so widely embraced. To summarize: I love that fans came together to illustrate the abundance of possibilities outside of conventional casting.
This was a relatively smooth discussion, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that we were dealing with a musical that already built outside of the realm of traditionally White casting. When we venture into other territories, like classic science fiction, those discussions tend to get a little rougher. Doctor Who, for instance, goes through this every few years when the time comes to prepare for a new lead. My husband, who is an avid fan, will discuss in great detail why he feels that Matt Smith outranks David Tennent. He will also tell you how the mere mention of a Black or female Doctor causes perpetual tantrums in many fandom circles. There are some fandoms that are so deeply entrenched in complacency that any ideas that, for once, exclude the status quo are met with vitriol and cries of “…but history!” Too often you see television and film studios buckle under these collective groans of supremacy.
And you run into the same behavior with a sect of Broadway fans, certainly. With theater, however, you get the glorious payoff of watching Broadway answer back. It answers with Black men helming the roles of Hedwig, the Phantom, and Jean Valjean. It answers with Lea Solanga getting to be the first Asian woman to portray both Eponine (1993) and Fantine (2007) in Les Miserables. It answers with Patina Miller as the Leading Player in Pippin, the first woman to play AND win a Tony for the role. It answers by taking any and every opportunity to pass the megaphone to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Can we as fans think more outside of the proverbial box? Of course. When you see a discussion regarding a possible romantic lead unfold, the trend of possible candidates tends to work in favor of the thin-to-slightly-curvaceous, able-bodied, cisgender and/or straight. It’s a very easy habit to fall into when it’s what you’ve been presented with since the beginning of entertainment, however we are looooong overdue to see a plus size or trans woman viewed as a viable recipient of affection without it being presented as a fringe effort.
The tune, however, is changing. Best of all, you get to hear the roar of fans heralding these changes and looking at theater, both the classics and soon-to-be-classics, in a whole new light. This progress is necessary, I feel, so that when women like Queen Latifah are pegged to play the Wizard, the decision is met with predominantly encouraging feedback rather than demands for a man to take her place. It’s even more important when you consider that a young child interested in performing on a Broadway stage might see this performance and consider the spectrum of possibilities a little broadened.
So here’s to all of us unofficial casting directors who proudly call ourselves fans: may our boundless imaginations inspire boundless results.