What TV Can Learn About Diversity From The Success Of ‘The Wiz Live!’
Musical theater is having a moment. Following NBC’s successful broadcast of The Sound of Music Live! in 2013—which pulled in a massive 18.6 million viewers—networks have been scrambling to get their own productions off the ground. In addition to the recently announced Grease musical, starring Dancing With the Stars’ Julianne Hough, Tyler Perry is planning his own musical, based on the life of Jesus Christ.
But these shows can be a risky proposition. While The Sound of Music—starring Carrie Underwood as Maria—was a hit with audiences, it was widely panned by critics. Last year’s Allison Williams-starring Peter Pan Live! also earned mixed reviews, while scoring lower (if still solid) ratings. However, the recent live broadcast of The Wiz was arguably the format’s most successful realization yet. Although the show brought in just 11.1 million pairs of eyeballs (much softer than Ms. Underwood and co.), the notices were nothing short of stellar. Slate’s Willa Paskin summed up the reaction best: “The Wiz single-handedly revived the live-musical concept, making the first two times out look like dress rehearsals.”
If Paskin argues that the first two attempts were treated as little as “novelty items”—designed with as much artistry as your grandmother’s tchotchkes—The Wiz Live! illustrated the incredible potential of bringing Broadway to America’s living rooms (and doing it well). While television has made extraordinary strides in the past few years, the success of The Wiz opens the door to greater representation of historically underserved audiences; when it comes to people of color and queer folks, these groups still too seldom get a stage of their own.
While Broadway on TV might seem like a new trend, the practice was extremely popular in the early days of the medium—when programs like Playhouse 90, Kraft Theater and The Philco Television Playhouse brought theater to the silver screen. These series also showcased original anthologies, including teleplays like Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty, that blended the lines of theater and television.
The relationship between TV and Broadway is even deeper: Television itself was designed to be like live theater, the Great White Way broadcast right into your living room. What further helped simulate that feeling was the use of a laugh track, first introduced in The Hank McCune Show in 1949. Although television shows had been filmed in front of a live audience since I Love Lucy became the first show to bring viewers into the studio, there’s a problem with that: Audiences are unpredictable. They don’t always laugh when you want them to or react appropriately. The “laff box”—as it was then called—allowed producers the feeling of live theater in a can—sealed and ready to serve, without any of the risks.
These devices were popular at a time when television was still a nascent technology and a subsidiary art, but as TV developed its storytelling capabilities, it moved away from the stage and toward cinema. Today’s “Golden Age of Television” feels like Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s, when studios were bankrolling singular masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dog Day Afternoon. If teleplay screenwriters and directors like Chayevsky and John Frankenheimer used television to transition to film, today’s auteurs are moving in the opposite direction, seeking out opportunities unavailable in a conservative film market. Notable examples of this trend include Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) and Lee Daniels (Empire).
When it comes to what is possible on television, TV’s auteur era is pushing bold new boundaries, but where it continues to lag behind in potential is in representation. Bustle’s Shannon Carlin argued that 2015 was TV’s most diverse year in history, following the success of the CW’s Jane the Virgin and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder and Quantico. But as Master of None star Aziz Ansari argued, television has a long way to go. “Guess what? Every other show is still white people,” Ansari told Entertainment Weekly. Programs like Empire stand out not just because they’re excellent but because they’re still so rare.
It’s no accident that in a medium struggling with representing the diversity of today’s America, NBC tapped “The Wiz Live!” for its third musical—a retelling of Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. The musical’s use of R&B harkens back to not only Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film but the one era in which television has continued to be diverse: music. Since the birth of MTV in 1981, black artists commanded veejay rotations even while networks shunned “urban” audiences. Celebrating black audiences for an evening is no substitute for diversity on every show every night of the week, but these productions can help fill a hole that still looms very large in today’s TV landscape.
In a dream world, I’d love to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s zeitgeist-defining smash Hamilton brought to the airwaves. According to New York Times critic Ben Brantley, the universally beloved show “[changed] the language of musicals.” Hamilton does so by retelling the biography of our first Secretary of the Treasury through R&B, rap, and hip-hop ballads. But importantly, Hamilton also challenged our definition of who is allowed to star in those musicals. Manuel, of Puerto-Rican descent, plays Alexander Hamilton, and the actress who portrays his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, is Chinese.
If Brantley writes that the show depicts the “unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born,” it’s about the identity of America itself—a people as diverse as Manuel’s race-blind cast. If television wants to embrace that reality, bringing Hamilton to the small screen is a start. Other steps in the right direction might include embracing queer-themed musicals like Rent, Fun Home, Kinky Boots, or The Color Purple; the latter, a stage adaptation of Alice Walker’s lesbian-tinged epistolary novel, is currently enjoying an acclaimed revival on Broadway. And in fact, Fox is already planning a live broadcast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, starring Orange Is the New Black actress and trans icon Laverne Cox.
Queer folks and people of color are more visible on television and the stage than ever, but we still need to make great strides in being seen. For every Empire or Fresh Off the Boat, there’s a Sean Saves the World or The New Normal—the gay-centric shows whose critical failures showed how far we have to go toward making television that truly represents America today. To help bring TV into the 21st century, the live theater of the past may help show television the way of the future.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-sellingBOYS anthology series.