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'The Wiz Live!': Viewers and critics respond to NBC's latest live musical

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(Read caption) 'The Wiz Live!' stars Ne-Yo (l.), Shanice Williams (center), and Elijah Kelley (r.).

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NBC brought its latest live musical production, “The Wiz Live!,” to TV on Dec. 3 with a cast that included newcomer Shanice Williams, Ne-Yo, and Mary J. Blige.

After scoring massive ratings for the network’s 2013 live production of “The Sound of Music,” NBC has been trying to replicate that success since. Last year’s show, “Peter Pan,” still scored respectable ratings but didn’t approach the levels of “Music.” 

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NBC is airing these shows as broadcast networks continue to try to find a way to lure viewers away from cable and streaming services, no doubt hoping that live TV events will appeal to TV watchers. 

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Many critics were won over by NBC’s new production. With NBC’s “Music,” viewers showed up in droves but many reviewers criticized the performance of country singer Carrie Underwood as Maria and the caliber of the production in general. 

For most critics, though, the performance of the leading lady and the show in general were the components they were least likely to find fault with for “Wiz.” Reviewers raved about Ms. Williams’ turn as Dorothy and about the singing talent and acting of many of the performers, including actress Amber Riley as Addapearle, the Good Witch of the North, and actress Stephanie Mills, who originally played Dorothy in the show on Broadway and took on the role of Auntie Em for this production. 

There were aspects of the show that didn’t win over everybody – New York Times writer Wesley Morris called the show overall “two-dimensional,” and Variety writer Brian Lowry wrote that “the producers still haven’t fully overcome the somewhat ironic challenge of how to make these live presentations consistently exhibit sparks of life.” 

But many other parts of the show were praised, with Daniel Fienberg of the Hollywood Reporter calling the show “a colorful triumph … [Williams is] revelatory … this was the first time it was possible to just sit back and purely enjoy a new generation NBC musical,” while Jeremy Gerard of Deadline found it to have “phenomenal star casting and a young newcomer with killer vocal chops…[the] smoothest outing yet in what should become a holiday tradition.” Associated Press writer Mark Kennedy called it “exuberant, inventive … Starring a nice mix of pop music heavyweights, Hollywood stars and Broadway veterans, the show had a heart and playfulness that was missing from ‘The Sound of Music Live!’ with Carrie Underwood and ‘Peter Pan Live!’” 

So now the question is, how did viewers respond to this show? Some of the ratings success of the 2013 “Music” show seemed to come from curiosity on the part of viewers and what has been dubbed “hate-watching” – viewers determined that “Music” wasn’t good but still stayed, discussing the show on platforms like Twitter. 

How will viewers respond to a show that appears to have been mounted impressively and that had well-received performances? “Pan” did about the same with critics as “Music” did – that is, not well – but far fewer viewers tuned in. Perhaps the curiosity aspect had worn off by that point, with TV watchers not seeing an NBC live musical as a novelty.

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But “Wiz” has been popular so far on Twitter and despite the low ratings of “Pan,” the amount of people using social media to discuss the current NBC live production actually grew in 2014, with more tweets about “Pan” being posted than about “Music.” Those who work in TV always value their programs being a presence on social media, though they would most likely prefer good ratings, too.

Viewers may have tuned in for “Wiz” and then been impressed, hanging around to see favorite artists like Ne-Yo and Riley of “Glee” performing tunes. Unless the ratings for “Wiz” are in the basement, the critical response to “Wiz,” at the very least, may mean these live shows continue to be a holiday tradition for NBC.