Anything is possible in the land of Oz. Superstar Ne-Yo was sure that he wanted to play Scarecrow in The Wiz Live!, the role made famous by Michael Jackson in the 1978 movie, but fate had something else in mind.
“I actually went in for Scarecrow,” he says, in between rehearsals. “I took time and really learned three different versions of the lines and got the songs down. I took time away from my schedule to study for the role of the Scarecrow. I did what I thought was an amazing audition, right? Then [director] Kenny [Leon] said, ‘Great. Do you mind looking over the Tin Man and seeing what you can do with that?’”
On December 3rd, the 36-year-old singer and songwriter takes on the role of the Tin Man in The Wiz Live (airing 8pm ET on NBC). Ne-Yo’s come to love the character without a heart—and he has no hard feelings that actor Elijah Kelly is playing Scarecrow. “That’s my brother. Good friend of mine. He can sing. He can dance. It’s all good.”
The transformation into the Tin Man, who Ne-Yo describes as “Dorothy’s protector,” involves a complicated costume with heavy makeup and prosthetics. “The first time they [put it on] it took about three hours to put it all together.” The process is streamlined to around 25 minutes but the metallic ensemble is still as uncomfortable as you’d imagine. “It’s a little heavy. There’s pieces that poke you and you can’t move the way you want to move, but these are sacrifices for art. I gotta say, it helps. The fact I can’t move in it the way I want to helps the Tin Man character. You take all the negatives and use them as positives.”
Ne-Yo explains that the live event is not a remake of 1978’s The Wiz (or even the 1974 onstage version). “This production is a hybrid of the Broadway version and the film. They’re different. It’s not based in the ‘70s. It’s based in 2015. The hardest part is, who is the Tin Man today and how he would respond to the things going on around him. What am I going to add to the legacy of this character?”
The Wiz Live! also features Queen Latifah as the Wiz, Mary J. Blige as the Wicked Witch of the West, Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch, David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, Common as the Bouncer of Emerald City, Stephanie Mills (who originated the role of Dorothy in The Wiz) as Aunt Em and newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy.
With just days until opening night, the rehearsal schedule is rigorous even for this seasoned performer. “It’s definitely a work load to say the least,” Ne-Yo says. “Rehearsal is absolutely every day. We normally get the weekends off but they’ve been finding things to throw in on the weekends. It’s six to eight hours a day and it’s all of it, the script, dancing and the songs.”
So does he have any jitters? “Of course. The day I don’t get nervous before a show is the day I quit because I don’t care anymore at that point,” he admits. “The nerves is about wanting to do as good as humanely possible. Everybody is aware of our responsibility. It’s our responsibility to bring this iconic story to the next generation.”
The Wiz Live airs on NBC this Thursday, Dec 3 at 8pm ET/7c