NBC’s live version of The Wiz managed to do what The Sound of Music and Peter Pan certainly did not: It was fantastic. Where the others felt unintentionally campy and ridiculous, or downright strained and awkward, The Wiz had it figured out. But as strong as the production was, one major element was missing: This staging badly needed a live audience to help punctuate its rhythms.
There’s an intimacy to live performance that’s removed through the medium of television, and in-studio audiences help restore it. After soaring, cathartic numbers, we need applause breaks. The collective gasp of appreciation when an impressive set piece dazzles, or the murmur of amazement when a section of choreography transfixes are parts of the lived language of musical theater. If you want to make a movie, make a movie. If you want to put on a show, don’t play to an empty house.
Even more so than The Sound of Music or Peter Pan, The Wiz has intentional comic material, and laugh lines without laugh breaks feel wrong. You’d never have a stand-up comedian do a special direct to a camera, alone on a stage — you have to hear the audience’s laughter. Funny, well-delivered dialogue seemed like it was falling flat, when it actually wasn’t: There just wasn’t anyone there to fill in the glaring blank.
The audience’s absence could be felt through the entire performance, but it felt especially egregious at the closing moments. We don’t need another 15 minutes of local news. Trust. What The Wiz needed — and deserved — was a damn curtain call. That urge to applaud might as well be hardwired into us, plus the thrill of watching a performer accept an audience’s adulation is part of the bargain of live performance. I wanted to cheer for The Wiz, and I especially wanted to cheer for newcomer Shanice Williams. Didn’t everyone? We needed a proxy there for us, laughing and clapping and acknowledging the power of what was happening on stage, closing the circuit that creates the essential joy of theater.