Queen Latifah finds role in ‘The Wiz Live!’ magical

Queen Latifah as the Wizard of Oz
Queen Latifah as the Wizard of Oz NBC

Queen Latifah says her life has come full circle, her career satisfyingly complete, now that she is playing the title role in The Wiz Live!

It sounds suspiciously like she has gone into hard-sell advertising mode for NBC and is guilty of pouring it on too thick. But then Latifah explains why the gig means so much to her.

“The first time I saw The Wiz, I was a young child,” she says of the groundbreaking 1975 Broadway musical, one of the first to feature an all-African-American cast in the famous theater district. “My impression of it was, ‘This is the most incredible thing I have ever seen.’

“TV did not compare. Movies did not compare. The songs, the production, I had never seen anything like it. Even though I was only 5 years old, I knew that my life would never be the same.

“It’s one of the reasons I’m an actor today.”

As soon as she heard that a live TV version was in the works, Latifah was eager to be involved. “How could you not want to be part of it?” she says. “Can’t end your career without doing The Wiz.”

Other cast members in this ambitious three-hour telecast, airing live at 7 p.m. Thursday, speak just as reverently of The Wiz, a soulful re-imagining of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier and Ne-Yo are among those in the new production who say the Broadway show (or the 1978 movie, which some saw first) had a seminal impact on their lives and careers.

For them, The Wiz Live! isn’t just another credit to add to their résumés. It’s a labor of love.

Ne-Yo puts it this way: “They could have made me one of the Munchkins. I needed to be part of this.”

The Wiz Live! is the third in what has become an annual December tradition on NBC.

It began in 2013 with The Sound of Music Live! and Carrie Underwood in the role that Julie Andrews made famous. Last year, the network gave us Peter Pan Live!, starring Allison Williams in the title role.

Evidently the concept is contagious. In January, Fox pulls back the curtain on Grease Live, with Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit in the main roles.

The A-list cast of The Wiz Live! includes Latifah as the mysterious and powerful Wizard of Oz; Blige as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West; Grier as the Cowardly Lion; Ne-Yo as the Tin Man; and Elijah Kelley as the Scarecrow.

And then, of course, there’s the all-important part of Dorothy, the plucky Kansas farm girl who gets swept away by a tornado and brought to the strange land of Oz, where she dons a magical pair of silver slippers and meets three special friends while easing on down the Yellow Brick Road.

She’ll be played by Shanice Williams, an effervescent 19-year-old from New Jersey making her professional debut. She was selected in August out of hundreds who auditioned.

“I remember the day that Kenny Leon (the director) told me I got the part,” Williams says. “I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was one of the best feelings ever. It’s incredible. I’m ecstatic.”

Yes, Williams says, there’s pressure. “When people talk to me about it, they’re like, ‘You gotta kill it, because The Wiz is one of my favorite musicals,’ ” she says.

Co-star Stephanie Mills, who plays Auntie Em, says Williams has nothing to worry about.

Mills knows a thing or two about what it takes to play Dorothy.

Forty years ago, at age 17, she originated the role on the Broadway stage and owned it for the next four-plus years. To this day, the show-ending tune, Home, is her signature song.

“It’s surreal,” Mills says of being part of The Wiz again. “When I’m sitting there seeing Shanice sing Be a Lion and when they do Ease on Down the Road, it’s like an out-of-body experience, but a wonderful experience.

“I’m happy to be part of it, and I think Auntie Em is the perfect role for me now, at 58 years old. I played Dorothy 40 years ago and now I’m Auntie Em. I think I’m making history.”

The Wiz Live!

  • 7 p.m. Thursday
  • KXAS/Channel 5