I showed up Thursday night with homemade Yellow Brick Road butter cake. Because “The Wiz” deserved a celebration.
Our party had Munchkin Land streamers, witchalicious Evillene orange fizzy drinks, a gold carpet and neon pink Munchkin Land cake, too.
We wore silver shoes. Our cast of parents, aunties and cousins in this south Kansas City home sang, danced and laughed for nearly three hours during NBC’s wonderful “Wiz Live!” broadcast.
There were little girls as young as 8 and grown women refined at 62. Some of them remembered seeing the 1975 Broadway musical starring Stephanie Mills (who returned as Aunt Em here). All of us had seen the movie with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. None of us were disappointed in the newest remix of this soulful adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Look at all these generations in this room,” said Nicole Williams, mama to 8-year-old Savanna, my gracious host. “We’re all here. This movie brought us all together.”
It could have gone wrong. NBC had tried its hand at modernizing old classics into live specials with the Carrie Underwood version of “The Sound of Music” and last year’s “Peter Pan” starring Allison Williams — mediocre efforts that earned hate-tweeting audiences. “The Wiz Live!” surpassed all expectations.
Trust me, this performance earned all 11.5 million viewers. There’s a reason it was the most tweeted live special (outside of award shows and political events) since Nielsen started tracking four years ago. Nearly 300,000 people tweeted more than a million thoughts in three hours because the show was a never-ending escapade of wonder and soul.
I was hype from the start when Elijah Kelley rocked a KC Royals hat on the farm in Kansas. And his sweet, angsty Scarecrow did Michael Jackson great justice. Ne-Yo surprised me with his soulful and stylish Tin Man, and David Alan Grier’s Cowardly Lion was king. Newcomer Shanice Williams made for a bright-eyed and big hearted Dorothy. Not only did she top Diana Ross’ “Home,” she lived up to the iconic performance Stephanie Mills once gave. She’s a star. And Queen Latifah’s gender-fluid Wiz channeled Grace Jones in a major feminist moment.
As for the witches: divas. Pass out crowns to Mary J. Blige as Evillene, who had so much swag with her rendition of “Bad News”; Uzo Aduba as Glinda, who took us to church and baptized us in the river with “If You Believe”; and Amber Riley as Addaperle, whose sushi lunches and iPad made us all smile when she sang “He’s the Wizard.”
The visuals grabbed you off your couch and twirled you right on into Oz. Munchkin Land looked like a “Project Runway” finale. Fatima Robinson choreographed a tornado dance as beautiful as a scene from an Alvin Ailey ballet. The Emerald City turned into a vogue dance-off that made me want to get a VIP table. Forget flying monkeys: Evillene had Cirque du Soleil as winged warriors on pogo stilts.
Really, my only complaint is that the oversized Toto stayed back in Kansas while Dorothy got swept off to Oz. He was probably busy getting fat on cornbread and collard greens.
This was more than a live special, a nostalgic nod. This was a coming together for thousands of families and friends around the country — and in a south Kansas City den.
As soon as Scarecrow started singing “You Can’t Win,” Savanna’s lanky 8-year-old arms soared in the air with excitement.
“He did that,” she yelled, arms swaying like a choir soloist at church on Sunday morning. As I looked around her den I was looking at love.
Her auntie, Carri Ellis, 45, remembered the message she gained the first time she saw the play.
“I’m a child again,” she told us. “As a girl, the play gave me confidence. It was all about disregarding the negativity, getting the garbage out of your mind and believing in yourself. I think this storyline is even more important today with all that is going on in the world. It’s important we are reminded to look inside ourselves, to rise above the bad and come together.”
I met Savanna in July when she put on an art show inspired by “The Wiz,” to raise money — over $1,200 it turned out — for orphans in Rwanda. “I saw the movie and I liked the music and how they all found each other and helped each other. I wanted to paint scenes from it,” she told me then. We sang “Ease on Down the Road” and talked about watching “The Wiz Live!” together when it aired.
Thursday night, every time Dorothy, Addaperle or even Evillene appeared on screen, the little girls and teen queens in the room said, “She’s so pretty.” I felt that same way when I first saw Diana Ross as Dorothy. Back then, you didn’t see a lot of black and brown heroines.
“I think this is important because it shows young African-Americans doing great things. They must have a lot of confidence to be up on that stage live like that,” Michele Ellis said during a commercial break. “I think it is inspiring.”
The beautiful thing is that even though the cast is all black, the message is all inclusive. Everyone can enjoy “The Wiz.”
“You don’t have to be black to get in on this,” says Kristaminique McDonald, 24. “You don’t watch it and just see black people. You see beyond that. Timing-wise, it’s a great political statement.”
Lannie Simms, 62, said the movie connects the generations and serves as a reminder that we have everything we need to get to a better place.
It’s all of that and more. If Shanice Williams can be Dorothy and Judy Garland can be Dorothy and we can love and relate to them both, it’s more than a bridge between the generations. It’s a humanizing bridge to one another. Maybe it’s not as simple as an NBC sing-along. But with some heart, smarts, courage and unity, couldn’t it be?
Did you miss it?
NBC will air an encore showing of “The Wiz Live!” at 7 p.m. Dec. 19.