Yesterday, NBC announced that they will air a live TV performance of the 1975 African-American Broadway musical The Wiz with an updated book by openly gay, white playwright Harvey Fierstein and some help from the arty acrobats of Cirque Du Soleil. It’s a great choice — much more modern and diverse than NBC’s first two live musicals The Sound of Music and Peter Pan — but several of The Wiz’s scenes could land NBC in hot water with viewers, if they’re not careful.
The biggest question is whether NBC will go with the 1975 stage version of The Wiz or its 1978 film version. With a few exceptions, the stage version was very similar to the iconic 1939 MGM film — a tornado transports Dorothy to Oz where she defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and then goes home. The 1978 film version (which was a commercial flop in its day, but has since become a cult favorite) portrays Dorothy as a timid schoolteacher in Harlem who gets transported by snowstorm to a fantasy version of New York City that’s much more hip, but no child-friendly wonderland.
So if NBC goes with the film version, here’s five scenes in particular that they’ll have to carefully navigate to primetime viewers happy:
The Lion is totally gay
Posing as one of the stone statues outside of the New York Public Library, the cowardly lion (full name Fleetwood Coupe Deville) reveals that he has been “exiled in disgrace” for being incapable of being king.
He never says who exiled him or who took his place, but soon after he begins prancing and swishing about like a dandy onstage while admiring his good looks in a hand mirror. That is, he’s encoded as not only vain and cowardly, but also super gay. Keep in mind that the Lion from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was pretty gay too, even going so far as to say “life is sad… when you’re born to be a sissy.”
The Tin Man is a sex addict
When Dorothy and the Scarecrow discover the Tin Man crushed between two carts of a Coney Island-style roller coaster, he explains “The genius who created me only took care of my dashing good looks, my razor sharp wit and my irresistible attraction to the wrong women.” He then reveals that he was “crushed in his prime” by his fourth wife Teenie, and also calls himself a flimflammer, a old-timey word for “cheater.” We come to understand that his lack of heart is really a metaphor for callousness after years of heartbreak and possible womanizing.
The “Poppy” Girls are sex workers and drug pushers
When Dorothy and company ease on down the road, they soon find themselves surrounded by neon signs (one in particular suggestively shaped like a flower with lips, smoke langorously rising from its open hole) as prostitutes and pimps dressed in pink and red surround them, throwing magic dust into the air. While kids may not catch the sex and drug references, uptight parents might. The FCC should expect some calls.
Evilene’s a slave driver
In the play, the Wicked Witch of the West character Evilene basically runs a sweatshop and literally whips her chained black slaves as they grovel on their hands and knees — a racially charged scene (even though Evilene is black) that might upset some viewers.
Also of note is a scene where a couple of jive-talkin’ (Jim) crows make the crucified scarecrow pledge never to read, never to forget that crows are better than him, and never to get down off his pole. The scarecrow then sings a song about suffering in a rigged system entitled “You Can’t Win,” an especially resonant tune in this age where #BlackLivesMatter reminded Americans of the inherent unfairness of institutionalized racism.
“Emerald City” reeks of terrorism and corruption
The original setting for The Wiz’s Emerald City was the plaza of the old World Trade Center (pre-9/11, of course), and in it danced elegant denizens who changed their behavior at the whim of the Wizard.
They start by singing, “I want to be seen green. Wouldn’t be caught dead, red.’ Cause if you are seen green, it means you got mean bread.” Soon after, when the Wizard arbitrarily announces that green is out of fashion, the denizens begin singing, “I wouldn’t be seen green… And if I’m caught at all, then catch me in dead, red.” Meanwhile, a meter behind them totters wildly, it’s arrow vacillating between green and red.
NBC might want to avoid evoking memories of 2001 terrorist attack and the 2008 financial collapse to keep viewers happy. But then again, Fierstein could just scrap the film’s vision entirely and come up with his own take on New York. One wonders though, whether it will be as cleaned-up and Disney-fied as modern-day New York, and whether it will rob The Wiz entirely of it complexity and honesty.