*The highly-anticipated airing of “The Wiz Live!” On NBC has the entertainment world in a fervor as fans of the Broadway play that brought worldwide notoriety to Stephanie Mills, as well as fans of the film version that had us all convinced that Michael Jackson was born to play the role of Scarecrow, recall how many of us were inspired to imagine and dream by this offering. The new cast was recruited to be every bit as groundbreaking and awe inspiring as both of the prior soulful renditions of Wizard of Oz.
I was in attendance at a The Wiz Live! Press junket out in Long Island to get the nitty-gritty on how this incredible undertaking came to be. One of the realest of all the roundtable discussion came from music royalty-Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige. Latifah will play role of the Wiz while Mary J. Blige will play the role of fearsome Evillene. My group was the fourth or fifth collection of journalists with whom the pair spoke. However, they were professional, candid and humorous in answering questions about their characters.
“She’s selfish, self-centered, hateful, and horrible, I want what I want right now, bitch’ type of person. So, when she’s singing, she’s having her moment of release. This is how she feels. Don’t bring her no bad news,” said MJB of her character. “Evillene is someone that most women have buried inside of them. It’s not hard. Especially when people try to take advantage. Like when you’re paying people to do something and they do a terrible job, everything is ‘I can’t’ or ‘Oh, this didn’t happen’ it frustrates you and takes you to a point where I don’t want to hear it. So, I don’t want no bad news. I want what I want because I’m paying.”
Latifah sat to Mary’s left and fielded the majority of the questions. The first of which being how she reacted when director Kenny Leon came-a-calling.
“Why me. What’s the catch? What are y’all up to?” she said with laughter. “It was explained in real detail as far as why they thought I should be a part of it. Kenny and I worked together on a couple projects. They know what they’re getting from me and I know what I’m getting from them. I feel comfortable with them and I trust myself in their hands.”
“You have to feel very strongly about the project to put yourself out there when you don’t have to. But this is The Wiz. I wanted to be a part of it. When I found out about it I called my agent to find out what was the deal. I just didn’t want this to pass without me being some part of it. I didn’t care if I was just one of the people in the background. I wanted to be a part of this. This is part of who I am. This is part of why I am. I was pleasantly surprised to find out I was the first person, but then I really got excited because I wanted to know who else was going to be in this.”
For those of us who are familiar with both the traditional story of the Wizard of Oz and its soulful offspring The Wiz, the leading character is something of a despicable scoundrel. However, Latifah told reporters that she feels where the character is coming from.
“There’s a lot of me in the Wiz. I know what it is to sacrifice for other people to have their shine. You may not be given the respect you deserve. And that’s kind of the process that she’s in when it starts out. Also, being able to create something out of nothing. To be able to take something thrown away and be able to fashion it into something and make it happen.”
“That’s just me growing up with no money and learning how to take a pair of sneakers, clean them off, tie them up a certain way and jazz them up so I can make myself to look like someone who I wanted to be. Ultimately, despite all the lies the Wiz is telling, she still has to have some kind of determination and intelligence to be able to weave such a grand lie. That requires a lot of work. I’m not that kind of person but I was thought how it takes a lot of effort to be a good liar. Even going back to the time when she was a musicians’ assistant. You may want that for yourself but you may have to sacrifice.”
The traditional version of The Wiz as we know it is one of inspiration and self-esteem. Mary J. Blige told reporters she hopes today’s young people will get the same message from it.
“The same thing that we took away from it when we were kids. To believe in ourselves and know that we have within ourselves things that separate us from everyone else in the world. We have courage, we have heart, we have intelligence, and we have everything we need. Just believe in yourself, love yourself, encourage others to be better and try to be happy no matter what your situation is.”