Playing the title character in this week’s NBC special The Wiz Live!, Queen Latifah is indeed a “wizard” in her own right, conquering the worlds of television, film and music.
Earlier this year she produced and starred in Bessie, which won four Emmy awards. This Thursday [December 3] she tackles the role of The Wiz, a reunion with the show’s executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan whom she first worked with on Chicago in 2002. In the live special Latifah’s seen like never before, sporting white hair with green highlights and an elaborate emerald geometric sequin costume.
“The first call we always make on a project is to Queen Latifah,” says Zadan. “That’s always the first call. We did Chicago with her, we did Hairspray, we did Steel Magnolias, and now this. Latifah said on the phone call when we called her about it, ‘you know, when I was a girl, I was in the theater and I watched The Wiz. And when Stephanie Mills sang ‘Home’ I wept, and I decided that night I was going to become a performer.’ And she said, ‘so the answer is, yes, I want to do The Wiz.’”
“It was explained in great detail why they felt I should be a part of it,” Latifah says. “We’ve worked together on several projects and everything has been really rock solid—and Neil and Craig know what they’re getting with me and I know what I’m getting with them. Then add Kenny Leon into the mix and I know what I’m getting with him. I felt comfortable with them, like I could trust myself in their hands, otherwise I would never even think about doing this. You have to feel very, very strongly about a project, or at least about the people that you work with, to put yourself out there when you don’t have to. But it’s The Wiz, I wanted to be a part of it from the moment I heard they were doing this. I called my agent to find out what’s the deal, where are they going with this, what’s happening, what’s going on? I didn’t want this to pass without me being a part of it in some way. I could be the guy sweeping floors in the background in one of the scenes, but I wanted to be a part of it because this is who I am. This is part of why I am who I am.”
“There are a lot of elements of who The Wiz [character] is that I have had to use throughout my days,” Latifah explains. “Just going back from the time she was a magician’s assistant. I know what it is to sacrifice for other people, to let them have their shine when you may want that yourself and you’re not necessarily being given the respect you deserve or treated in kind. That’s the essence of where she starts off.”
Latifah says she relates to the character because The Wiz is able to make something from nothing. “That’s just me growing up with no money. Learning how to take a pair of sneakers and clean them off or tie them a certain way or jazz them up to make myself someone I wanted to be, even though I couldn’t afford to be that person. Ultimately I think despite all the lies The Wiz is telling, she has to have some sort of determination and intelligence to weave such a grand lie. That requires a lot of work.”
Latifah even compares The Wiz to Bernie Madoff. “I know people who are liars on a regular basis. I’m not that kind of person, but I always think to myself, ‘Damn! That takes a lot of energy and effort to be that good and that much of a liar.’ I was in my hotel, I was looking out over the city of New York and I’m thinking, ‘this is what Oz created, this is what the Oz is pretending to rule.’ It made me think, ‘Well what’s the difference between Oz and a Bernie Madoff or any Wall Street guy who’s spending all these people’s money and living this lifestyle, but is stealing from you at the same time?’ It’s not until years later that everyone might have known something, but they all let the lie get away and then finally they get busted. Then it’s like, ‘Oh what? Why didn’t anyone say anything?’ No, this person was like, ‘Hey, your stocks are great! Everything’s fine. I’ll take the yacht, yeah.’ This is what The Wiz is doing. At the end of the day, The Wiz just wants some love and wants to be who she was when it all began, but in a better way. But it’s too late by that time.”