It’s the morning of Black Friday, and while many Americans are kicking off the holiday shopping season, Paul Tazewell is on a Metro North train back to Manhattan. With just six days to go until the highly anticipated December 3 live broadcast of The Wiz Live! on NBC, the costume designer is on a sprint to the finish.
The promotional machine for the show kicked off in earnest in mid November, but today, Tazewell is still savoring the cast’s performance on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade the day before. “The climate has really changed in recent years due to the way excitement for a production builds on social media,” Tazewell says on a call from the aforementioned train. “There is a feedback loop with fans during the production process which is exciting.”
The live musical broadcast has become something of a trend in recent years. The Wiz Live! marks the third for NBC, after The Sound of Music Live! in 2013 and Peter Pan Live! in 2014. Fox will get in the game in January 2016 with Grease: Live. And these broadcasts drive more than Twitter chatter—the highly coveted youth audience, often absent at the theater, tunes in and if Sound of Music is any indication, the ratings soar.
This medium also gives Broadway performers, directors, writers, and designers like Tazewell an opportunity to work in television. Tazewell’s theater resume includes Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, Memphis, and The Color Purple (original Broadway production); and he is currently represented on the boards with Hamilton. However, The Wiz Live! marks his first TV gig. Working on the live telecast comes with a heightened sense of pressure, as he must balance the demands of quick makeup and costume changes that exist in live theater along with the amplification of television. “Typically, you can do multiple takes and cut things together, but here, we only get one shot,” he says.
Designing The Wiz also comes with added pressure, as the characters are some of the most beloved in American culture. “There is a collective consciousness of these iconic characters and my job is to modernize them,” says Tazewell. He goes on to explain that the world of Oz in The Wiz is Dorothy’s dreamscape brought to life, and since this production makes the world contemporary, each of the costumes reflects styles that could be seen on the street today.
For example, the Emerald City costumes are fashion forward and a twist on what one might see in a New York City nightclub or on a runway, while the Munchkinland wardrobe is highly geometric, which reflects designs for modern children’s toys. Glinda’s gown incorporates modern technology including fiber optics and LED lighting to create an element of magic. “There was a learning curve on the dress that pushed everbody,” he says. “It was a real team effort to make that a reality.”
Tazewell also took inspiration from the star-studded cast that will bring his costumes to life. Mary J. Blige will play Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Tazewell’s designs for the character exhibit a power and boldness brought to the character by Blige. This idea contrasts the more frumpy and darker evil seen in the 1978 movie musical. As the Wiz, Queen Latifah will be shrouded with a sense of androgyny, while at the same time possessing an over-the-top showmanship.
While many of the costumes can already be seen in the released photos, Tazewell says there are a few surprises left to be unveiled during the live telecast. “Be on the lookout for the Winkies that appear with Evillene,” he says, almost winking through the phone.
Editor’s Note: Make sure to tune-in to The Wiz Live! on NBC at 8pm on December 3, and follow our live behind the scenes coverage on Twitter and Instagram from BSG creative director and The Wiz Live! ensemble member, James Brown III.