The Wiz, Charlie Small and William F. Brown’s musical take on The Wizard of Oz, has a history propelling its young stars to fame. The original 1975 Broadway production skyrocketed a young Stephanie Mills to stardom, and its supporting cast also included Phylicia Rashad and DeeDee Bridgewater. And the upcoming The Wiz Live!, a real-time broadcast of the musical which will air December 3 on NBC, looks to be no different.
After the previous live events featured country star Carrie Underwood (as Maria in The Sound of Music!) and Girls actor Allison Williams (as the title role in Peter Pan Live!), The Wiz Live! director Kenny Leon chose an unknown to play Dorothy.
Shanice Williams, a 19-year-old from New Jersey, only auditioned for Dorothy for the experience and for fun. After her casting was announced on August 5, the teenager quickly became the subject of curiosity and interest from theater lovers around the country. However, talking with the soft-spoken and mature young woman in her room at The London in New York, Williams behaves as if she has been in the spotlight for years.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Williams says, as she’s having her hair and makeup done for the photoshoot that afternoon. “Everyone’s watching you, waiting to see what you’re going to do. You have to really take care of yourself so you can do your best, especially when people say, ‘This is my favorite musical!’ ‘This means a lot to me!’ I have to really give it my all.”
Despite the commotion surrounding her and TLC’s Cake Boss playing in the background, she doesn’t miss a beat as she chats. “People are really in love with [The Wiz]; it means so much to them,” Williams continues. “When I think about how I stood in that line, and there were so many girls who wanted this opportunity and I was blessed enough to get it… I’m happy to be where I am.”
And it seems like the opportunity was a long time coming. Williams and The Wiz go back to when she played Addaperle in a middle school production. She didn’t audition for Dorothy then, she says, because she was too nervous. And she’s been a fan of the movie for years and always listens to the soundtrack while driving in the car with her dad. So when it came time for Williams to sing “Home” and “Be a Lion” in the audition room, she wasn’t nervous. Instead, she says, she just had a good time.
And the fun continued on set. Williams is working with David Alan Grier, who plays the Lion; Ne-Yo, who plays the Tin Man; and Elijah Kelley, who plays the Scarecrow—the trio that accompanies Dorothy as she eases on down the road to see the Wiz, who will be played by Queen Latifah. The Wicked Witch of the West, or Evillene in this telling, is played by Mary J. Blige.
When asked if she was a fan of her co-stars, Williams laughs and says, “Of course!” though she quickly admits she had to give herself a pep talk before rehearsals began. “I had to brace myself: ‘Okay, Shanice. Don’t fangirl. Just stay calm.’ I had to tell myself,” she recalls. “‘They’re just normal people, too. It’s all about the work.’”
And, her costars have helped her remain focused. Williams says it’s an education just performing alongside them. Mills, who graduated from playing Dorothy to playing Aunt Em in The Wiz Live!, advised her young costar to stay humble and focused on the job at hand.
“People will tell me, ‘You’re this’ and ‘You’re that,’” Williams says of the compliments that have poured in. “But you have to just stay humble and remember that if it’s not all about the work then it doesn’t mean anything. She also tells me to take everything one step at a time and live in the moment.”
Living in the moment is just about all Williams will be able to do during the performance. Dorothy is in almost every scene of The Wiz, and during the live broadcast, there will not be a moment for Williams to be distracted or, as she described it, “turn off.” It’s important for her to get enough sleep, which can be a challenge as she is now attending parties and media events—including People magazine’s “One to Watch” party in Los Angeles where she wore one of her favorite new outfits: a pink, beaded, cocktail dress that reminded her of The Great Gatsby.
Williams’s sudden transformation into a rising star—even though she modestly says, “I don’t think I’m famous”—has given her opportunities to dress up for nights on the town and wear different outfits that embody her “young, spunky, and classy” style. All of that was personified when her photo was released following The Wiz Live! casting announcement, and she was wearing a bright blue dress with a flared skirt in the image. “That dress is everywhere now!” she says at the mention of it and good-naturedly rolls her eyes at the idea of being a trendsetter. Her style hasn’t changed; she just has more events to attend.
But even Williams can get starstruck, despite the glittering names surrounding her every day on set. A lifelong fan of Audra McDonald, Williams had the opportunity to talk with the six-time Tony Award winner when another person on set received a call from her.
“I look [at the phone] and it says ‘Audra McDonald’ and that was it for me,” Williams remembers. “You would have thought someone just killed everyone because I was just crying. I couldn’t control it… I don’t even remember what she said…I love her because when she sings it’s like you get a play. She always tells the story. She doesn’t just sing. I’m always watching on social media—all her work, all the time. Getting to talk to her was incredible.”
(Though Williams has never seen McDonald perform live, she says there is no way she will miss seeing her favorite star in Shuffle Along this spring.)
One way in which Williams says she stays grounded is by keeping the time spent on social media in perspective. She’s well aware that people watching The Wiz Live! will be live-tweeting the event, but “If you read everything that everyone posts, it’s never going to help you,” she adds. “There’s always going to be something negative. You can’t let any of that bother you.”
But, she says, she will be checking McDonald’s Twitter timeline the next day to see what she had to say about the broadcast.
“I have to see what Audra says!” she laughs. “Any time she wants to call me, that will make my day. But first I have to stop crying around her!”