After striking hate-watch gold with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013 and slightly less sterling results with Peter Pan Live! in 2014, NBC's annual musical tradition is taking a trip down the Yellow Brick Road this December.
The Wiz, an alternate take on the classic Wizard of Oz tale with a historically all-black cast, will be this year's live musical production. It will air Dec. 3, be produced by the NBC Live team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, be directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon and be accompanied by the original book, with some refinements by theater legend Harvey Fierstein.
Unlike the past two NBC live events, The Wiz will continue into 2016-2017 as a Broadway revival of the musical, a savvy marketing move on NBC's part. But the smartest business decision here is something else: The producers chose a show with an all-black cast.
The right choice: Producers faced the choice between The Music Man, a more traditional musical about a con man who charms a small town with the power of song, and The Wiz. The former would have been just fine: The ratings would likely have remained roughly the same from Peter Pan Live!, though it's unlikely they would have risen to The Sound of Music Live! levels.
But this is the year when Empire, a show with a predominantly black cast, broke every ratings record in the book. How to Get Away with Murder featured a black woman in her 40s as the lead, and was the No. 1 new show of the fall. The Wiz was not only the right choice, it was the clear one.
Diversity works. Casts that represent more people draw wider and bigger audiences. It's been repeated again and again this TV season, and that's because it's a truth that bears repeating. Choosing The Wiz will almost certainly draw a far bigger audience than The Music Man could hope to reach. Credit NBC for continuing a diversity trend in their live performances: Each production has been lead by a woman (Carrie Underwood, Allison Williams and the to-be-cast Dorothy).
Living here in this brand new world: There have been other productions of The Wiz committed to film, notably 1978's cinematic adaptation starring Diana Ross. Yet 37 years after that film and 31 years after the last Broadway revival, a whole new generation raised on Wicked will be exposed to another musical take on the Wizard of Oz's mythology. Thanks to NBC's programming savvy, the broadcast will likely reach more of that generation than ever before.
In the past, the annual tradition of NBC's live musicals has drawn eye-rolls at best and hate-watching at worst. But in choosing The Wiz, the network has given itself the best chance for a whole new reaction from potential viewers: genuine, enthusiastic anticipation.