BWW Interview: Harvey Fierstein on Adapting THE WIZ for TV: 'I Got to Answer All the Questions That I Had'
We are another day closer to NBC's highly-anticipated musical special, THE WIZ LIVE!, which airs Thursday, December 3, at 8PM/7c. The production will star newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy alongside Grammy and Golden Globe-winner Queen Latifah as the Wizard, nine-time Grammy-winner Mary J. Blige as Evillene, original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, as Auntie Em and David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion.
THE WIZ LIVE! is adapted from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum, with a book by William F. Brown, and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. The production opened on Broadway in 1975 at the Majestic Theatre, starring Mills. It won seven Tonys, including best musical.
BroadwayWorld was on set earlier this month as the company was readying for the big night and we checked in with Harvey Fierstein to find out what kind of changes he made to the book to make it more modern. Check out the full interview below!
What makes this adaptation so special?
Hopefully, it's good; hopefully, it's entertaining. I've loved Wizard of Oz my whole life but have had questions. I was always a questioning kind of kid. I got to answer all the questions that I had. Where did Dorothy's parents go? There's this girl living with her aunt and uncle... well I killed off the uncle; he doesn't do anything anyway. Do we care about him just sitting on the porch rocking away? You have a girl living with her aunt, and it's never mentioned what happened to her parents. Dorothy's such a victim. She didn't create that storm; she gets taken away. She doesn't kill the witch; the house falls on her. She doesn't kill the other witch; she throws water to save her friend. She's just a victim. I said, "Why should she be just a victim? It's her dream! It's her fantasy!"
So I gave her a story, and we open with her running away from home trying to get home to Omaha where she was actually born. Her parents are dead. She hates her school; she hates Kansas. "I hate this place; I hate being out in the cornfield. I want to go home." Her answer is this is your home but your too old for me to tell you what to do. I could keep you here and force you, but at some point in your life you have to figure out where you really belong. She's sent off on this very different journey of going home to Omaha. She ends up in this place that's not Omaha and becomes much more of an active participant in it. In the end, when the Wiz turns out to be from Omaha when they get in the balloon. Instead of missing the balloon, I have her walk away from the balloon an say you're going to your home, I'm headed somewhere else. She finally figures out home is not where your feet are; it's where your heart is.
It is kid centric, like Alice in Wonderland. It's seen through the eyes of a child, but it's a child growing up. It's a child reaching maturity. I gave each of those characters a backstory that makes a little more sense. The Tin Man got turned into the Tin Man by the Wicked Witch because she had a thing for him. She caught him with this girl, and she blasted his ass and stole his heart. She said, "If I can't have your heart, no one can."
So Dorothy is a little more empowering?
Yeah, she's stronger. She's still a girl in a weird world, but she's not just a victim of this world. She learns to make choices. That's what an artist does. We show you shit that has been there all along that you didn't know was there.
Queen Latifah's backstory is that she was a magician's assistant at a carnival so they gave balloon rides and all of that but you ever meet the person that is not bad enough they're unhappy, they have to make everyone unhappy and that was this guy. She jumps in the balloon to piss him off and this balloon landed me in Oz. Everyone came running so I put on the magic hat and did the magic act. They put me in here and I've been hiding ever since so nobody finds out that I'm not anything. I was the assistant. She is a woman escaping the world of men, which I thought would give a different color to Dorothy as well. It all has to come out of a little girl's imagination. If you don't believe it came out of her imagination it doesn't work.
How long did it take you to write the script?
I wrote it pretty fast. You're constantly rewriting but once I sat down and got excited...I was hired to do this but in my mind we were going to do it on Broadway and then if it worked do the TV thing. I went to the first meeting and I'm listening and there are all these TV people. I heard them say we're on the air December 3rd and I said what? This was in August. I hadn't started writing yet and it was gonna be on television in four or five months! I still don't have a contract. I wanna get me a contract!
Is this the first time you've tapped into your inner-little girl?
I don't think so. It's he first time I tapped into my black side.
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("The Sound of Music Live!," "Peter Pan Live!") serve as executive producers. Tony winner Kenny Leon will direct with Harvey Fiersteinproviding new written material. Fatima Robinson serves as choreographer. THE WIZ LIVE! is produced by Universal Television in association with Cirque Du Soleil Theatrical.
THE WIZ tells the classic story hundreds of millions of people have read in the L. Frank Baum books and then saw in the much-beloved 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," but retold in an African-American/multicultural context. Dorothy, a young woman from Kansas, is swept up in a tornado and relocated to a fantasy world that is inhabited by munchkins, good and bad witches, and, of course, flying monkeys. She eventually takes a path down a yellow brick road to find a wizard who can help her go home and along the way meets a scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion, who all learn to help one another.
Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC