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BWW Feature: Musical Histories of THE WIZ LIVE!'s Friends, Grier, Kelley, Ne-Yo, Williams

NBC's upcoming holiday production of THE WIZ LIVE! will air Thursday, Dec. 3. 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. For More Information, Click Here.

In anticipation of this star-studded event, throughout the week, we are looking at the impressive musical careers (and when possible, musical theatre careers) of THE WIZ LIVE! stars. Today, we are easing on down the road with the group at the center of the story, the four characters affectionately referred to as "The Friends;" Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. This group has a two-time Tony nominee and comedy legend, a rising Hollywood star, a three-time Grammy winning R&B icon, and a virtual unknown in the role of a lifetime.


We are going to start with this wonderful promotional video of "The Friends" (along with a little help from Tony winner Stephanie Mills and Addaperle, Amber Riley) singing "Ease on Down the Road"


David Alan Grier


Long before THE WIZ LIVE's Cowardly Lion, David Alan Grier, rose to fame as one of the stars of seminal sketch-comedy show IN LIVING COLOR, he was a theatre actor. With numerous Off-Broadway productions of classic texts under his belt, he made his Broadway debut in the short-lived musical THE FIRST. Grier earned his first Tony nomination in the show for playing baseball barrier-breaker, Jackie Robinson. Grier then went on to take over the role of James Thunder Early in the original production of DREAMGIRLS, before settling in Hollywood for over a decade.

Even when he was away from Broadway, music was always a part of his comedy. Many of his IN LIVING COLOR characters sang, and part of his stand-up routine featured impressions of his favorite African-American singers. Grier returned to Broadway in 1997 replacing Whoopi Goldberg (who had replaced Nathan Lane) as Pseudolus in the Tony-winning revival of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. He also starred in the original Broadway production of David Mamet's RACE and in the 2012 revival of PORGY AND BESS, for which he earned his second Tony nom.

"It Ain't Necessarily So" from THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS


"There's a Boat Leaving Soon" from THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS


Grier's "Black Singers are the Baddest singers" bit at Harlem's Apollo Theatre in the early 1990s


Performing "Walking Blues" by Muddy Waters with the Dave Austin Trio earlier this year


Elijah Kelley


For many theatre fans, THE WIZ's Scarecrow, Elijah Kelley, first appeared on their radars as Seaweed in the film adaptation of HAIRSPRAY, playing the son of his current co-star, Queen Latifah. Since then, he has appeared in a handful of projects from Hollywood's top filmmakers. In 2012, he appeared alongside an all-star cast, which included his WIZ "friend" Ne-Yo and HAMILTON's Leslie Odom Jr., in George Lucas' RED TAILS. Then the following year, he played Charlie Gaines, the younger son of the title character in LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, who enlists in the Army against his father's wishes, in order to serve in the Vietnam War. Earlier this year, he voiced an elf named Sunny for the George Lucas animated film STRANGE MAGIC, along with Broadway faves Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, and Alfred Molina.

"Run and Tell That" from the HAIRSPRAY film adaptation


"Without Love" from HAIRSPRAY


Last month he sang "Happy Birthday" to THE WIZ LIVE! producer Neil Meron in the style of Stevie Wonder


Earlier this year, he sang at the Skywalker Ranch at an event promoting STRANGE MAGIC


Ne-Yo


Over the last decade, Ne-Yo has become one of R&B's most sought-after artists, composers, and producers. He has released four Platinum albums and scored 15 Top-10 singles on the Billboard charts. With over 10 million albums sold, Ne-Yo is a three-time Grammy winner, and has collaborated with Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion, Pitbull, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, and many more.

As an actor, Ne-Yo has primarily done guest spots on TV, often as himself, and a handful of films. In addition to RED TAILS, he was in SAVE THE LAST DANCE 2, STOMP THE YARD, and the award-winning masterpiece SHARKNADO 3: OH HELL NO! Playing the Tin Man in THE WIZ LIVE! is likely his biggest role to date.

A live performance of his Billboard No. 1 hit, "So Sick"


He recorded ALADDIN's "Friend Like Me" for the "We Love Disney" album released earlier this year


In 2012, Ne-Yo paid tribute to music icon (and the Scarecrow in THE WIZ film) Michael Jackson with a performance of his "Smooth Criminal"


To promote the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, artists Cobra Starship, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ne-Yo and Russel Brand collaborated on the musical theatre-inspired "VMA Side Story"


Shanice Williams


It was just about a year and a half ago that Shanice Williams was a student at New Jersey's Rahway High School. While there, she was nominated for the prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award for playing Polly in CRAZY FOR YOU. After her high school graduation, Shanice spent one year at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. It was over her 2015 summer break that she went to the open call that would change her life.

As one of thousands of young women who auditioned to play Dorothy, Shanice won the part, and since has shown why, displaying incredible talent, humility, and poise for someone so young. With NBC having already announced intentions to take THE WIZ back to Broadway, here's hoping that Shanice eases on over to the Great White Way soon.

At a SiriusXM event, Shanice sang Adele's "Someone Like You"


Along with Stephanie Milles, Shanice sang her new signature song, "Home"


Meron, Zadan, and director Kenny Leon knew they had a star in Shanice from the beginning, follow her journey in this NBC feature


Whose performance are you going to be easing on down the road with tomorrow night? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter. Also, don't forget to follow @BWWTVWorld on Twitter and Like us on Facebook for all of the latest TV news, reviews, and recaps.



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From This Author Matt Tamanini