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How ‘The Wiz Live!’ and ‘Grease Live!’ Revitalized the TV Musical (Emmy Watch)

Several of the designers behind the latest live TV musicals "The Wiz" and "Grease!" come from Broadway, including this year's Tony-winning musical "Hamilton."

THE WIZ LIVE! — Pictured: (l-r) David Alan Grier as Lion, Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow — (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

“The Wiz Live!” and “Grease Live!” both continued the live musical revival that began with NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013, which drew a remarkable 18.4 million viewers.

NBC’s “The Wiz,” though, was designed more like a Broadway show with an eye on Broadway sometime in the future. “The Wiz” “lent itself more to theatrical environments because of its familiarity, because it’s fantasy, and because of its musical performances,” said production designer Derek McLane (“The Sound of Music Live!” and NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!”).

McLane collaborated with”Hamilton” Tony-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell on an organic world with different looks made for the culture of today.

“Kansas is not a happy place for Dorothy and that’s reflected in its neutral palette,” McLane continued. “Munchkinland is predominantly orange with cylindrical buildings that evoke the Munchkins. Emerald City is like a modern club with different shades of green and electrified. The Boiler Room [run by Mary Blige’s Evillene]  is totally industrial. That was based on some old coal-powered plants.”

Director Kenny Leon knew how he wanted to cast “The Wiz” but left the visuals up to his designers. He cast newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy in her late teens as a rite of passage, and Tazewell found a flattering look.

“But in the design, I wanted some subtle nod to Judy Garland’s Dorothy with the choice of the plaid skirt (reflective of the blue gingham dress),” said Tazewell.


For The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley), Tazewell drew from homeless people with a collage of different types; The Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was a woodsman with work clothes that have morphed into a solid tin finish; The Lion (David Alan Grier) was a full-on lion with a vest that made him look like a hop hop artist; Queen Latifah’s Wiz was an androgynous force in her shiny and sparkly emerald glory; Evillene’s clothes were completely inspired by industrial elements with cords and transformers; and Glinda (Uzo Aduba) was a beacon of light with a wardrobe filled with fiber optics.

For the husband and wife makeup team of Dave and Lou Elsey, “The Wiz” was a new experience in live TV and they worked it out with the actors like a dance.

“The makeup had to supply great visuals but also be applied quickly during the live performance,” said Dave. The Lion took 45 minutes to apply, The Tin Man 30 minutes and The Scarecrow 15 minutes.

“We tried as much to make features out of what normally would be weak points,” he continued. “If we had an edge, say, on The Scarecrow, the patches could be an edge and you didn’t have to blend it. There was one big appliance for his head and a separate lip appliance because of the way he sings.”

The Tin Man was very efficiently designed with metallic paint and prosthetics, and The Lion required entire body work, including a fully-articulated muscle suit to look more animalistic.

“The actors had lots to think about with extreme makeup on. And the costumes were restrictive and the makeups were complicated, but we didn’t have one complaint,” added Lou.


Meanwhile, Fox’s “Grease Live!” (directed by “Hamilton” Tony-winner Thomas Kail) was a hybrid of the musical and movie, broadcast from Warner Bros. Studios, utilizing two soundstages and the studio’s outdoor backlot.

In combining the best of theater and TV, production designer David Korins (Tony-nominated for “Hamilton”) drew 16 of the 18 musical numbers and then storyboarded them.

“The thing about ‘Grease’ is that there’s so many scenes with cars, so keeping them all in one venue was a defining feature in one of the sound stages,” said Korins.

And the 90-second drag race was done with a combination of editing and camera tricks to evoke intensity and speed.

Grease costumes

“But getting people to do costume changes and sprinting from one place to another became this amazing, visceral, totally palpable energy,” added Korins.

Speaking of costumes, designer William Ivey Long went for a pop ’50s vibe (heightened mid-century fabrics). “We made all the prom dresses and then a lot of the people that stood in the back were vintage,” said the six-time Tony-winner (including “Hairspray”). “And you can’t find all of those fabrics anymore. Leather jackets were made thinner and lighter than real motorcycle jackets so they could dance in them.

“For the girls, we determined a silhouette for each of the ladies and obviously good Sandy [Julianne Hough] had poofy skirts and Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo had those pencil skirts. But we did such penciling that it made her feel taller, so it was all playing with the proportions.”

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