Somewhere over the Rainbow Room marquee that marks the eatery’s shared entrance with NBC Studios at New York City’s legendary 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a brand-new Dorothy prepares to make the “Wizard of Oz” story her own.
During an intense, nationwide audition process this past June, 19-year-old, apple-cheeked charmer Shanice Williams — a local-theater standout from Rahway, N.J. — warbled her way into the lead role in NBC’s The Wiz Live! (airing Thursday, Dec. 3), the Peacock’s third theater-meets-small-screen production.The family-friendly extravaganza puts the bubbly, honey-voiced Williams square in the middle of the Live! franchise’s most star-studded lineup yet, including Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, David Alan Grier as Cowardly Lion, Elijah Kelly as Scarecrow, Ne-Yo as Tin Man and Stephanie Mills — who originated the Dorothy role in The Wiz’s Broadway debut when she was just Williams’ age — as Auntie Em.
“She is so adorable,” exclaims Williams, who delved into Lincoln Center archives to study Mills’ performance in the Tony-winning 1975 original. “She made me cry, and I made her cry. Her voice still sounds the same from when she was 16. What can you say to that? She’s my inspiration. She started singing, and I just started crying. Her voice, it just touches you!”
Like its predecessors, 2013’s The Sound of Music Live! and 2014’s Peter Pan Live!, The Wiz boasts an impressive theater pedigree — executive-produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (Broadway’s 2014 A Raisin in the Sun revival) and featuring new written material by the inimitable Harvey Fierstein. Cirque du Soleil performers and jaw-dropping costumes by award-magnet costumer Paul Tazewell amp up the wow factor.
Williams says she was “overcome with gratitude” when Leon himself delivered the news of her big break. Having spent two semesters at a Los Angeles performing arts school, the lifelong music buff wondered if there really was no place like home. She returned to Rahway for the summer and was contemplating her next move when she spied the Wiz audition online and made herself a deal. She’d give it her best shot and resume her school search if it didn’t pan out.
“I was already so comfortable with [the material],” said the longtime fan of the 1978 film (starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow) who played good witch Addaperle in a middle-school production. “I never really dug deep into the role of Dorothy, but I just felt like, ‘OK, I already know this story. I love this show. It’s gonna be fun.”
Suffice it to say those school applications are going to have to wait — likely indefinitely — while Williams eases on down the road to success with the support of her famous “sweet and welcoming and chill” costars.
“I run eight-hour rehearsals, and they go by in five minutes,” Williams says. “I’m living my journey. I’m having fun — and everyone in this cast is amazing. We’re gonna give you guys a great show. You guys are not ready for this show! I’m having the time of my life!”
— Feature written by Lori Acken