Director Kenny Leon runs a tight ship. The Tony Award-Winning Broadway and film director has built a strong reputation among his peers for fostering camaraderie and getting the best out of his cast. For “The Wiz Live” he has the enviable task of corralling the amazing talents of Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Common, Stephanie Mills, Uzo Aduba, Elijah Kelley, Amber Riley, David Alan Grier and newcomer Shanice Williams to remix a classic remix. So he employed some nontraditional tactics on the set to instill trust and boost morale.
“We have a thing where if you’re late everyone has to do 10 push-ups,” he revealed to a room of reporters. “So you might walk into a rehearsal and you got Queen Latifah down doing push-ups. Because it builds a sense of unity and ‘I’ve got your back.’ If you’re late for rehearsal you may be late on December 3rd. We’ve done push-ups everyday. If you’re late like a minute or miss your cue, that’s a push-up for everyone. If you don’t have your prop, that’s 10 push-ups.”
“I did it once, but I was like ‘really word?’ “Latifah confirms. “I’m getting into fighting shape on this dag-on show.” However, the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, gave the notion a patented NY side-eye.
“What’s a push-up? Who doin push-ups? Nobody has approached me about a push-up.” Blige’s defiance may have been her way of staying in character, as she takes on the abrasive matriarch, Evillene, the Wicked Witch Of The West.
“I was like ‘I don’t want to play Glenda the good witch,” she says when asked about being part of the production. “It’s nice (To be bad). You’re not treating people terrible in real life and this is a person we can all recognize. We keep them in back of us, so I’m enjoying being Evillene.”
Latifah, who played Aunt Em in the “Muppet’s Wizard of Oz,” reunites with her “Chicago” and “Hairspray” producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for “The Wiz: Live.” The statuesque multi-talent gender-bends the role of the all powerful Wizard.
“I think it’s perfect (being a woman Wiz). I’ve been doing things to empower women for my entire career before I even attached the word feminism to it. This is how I was raised by the strong mother I have, the women around me and the male feminists in my life that told me ‘Dana, go ahead.’
It wasn’t shocking to me because I know Neal and Craig. They’re not traditional thinkers. ‘Chicago’ was not the broadway version of ‘Chicago.’ It speaks to who we are right now. We want to tell this version of The Wiz. It’s very exciting to see this imagined for a new audience in today’s time, and we get to go out there and have the great honor or presenting it.”
This isn’t the first time that Latifah and Mary J Blige have worked together. The two appeared on the track “Freedom” (alongside TLC and Aaliyah) from the Panther film soundtrack and recorded the duet “People” from La’s 2009 album Persona. While the two Queens did not collaborate on a new song for the show like their co-stars Ne-Yo and Elijah Kelley, Mary says she is back in the studio working on the follow-up to her project The London Sessions.
“The London Sessions is done and I’m working on another album now. I’m not gonna go to London this time, I’m just gonna do it here.”
But you can hear them both on tonight’s premiere of “The Wiz:Live” on NBC at 8:00pm.