If you weren’t one of the 11.5 million people who watched The Wiz Live last night, you missed out on a glorious gay treat. Like 99.9 percent of all musicals, it was a bit corny and sugary sweet, but there were also a few wickedly funny nods to queer culture that were just subversive enough to fly over the heads of most in middle America who were snuggling up to watch with the kids.
It’s running again on NBC on 12/19 if you missed it (and duh, it’s on Hulu), and here are five reasons why it was much gayer than any of us expected.
(Spoilers for a 40-year-old Broadway musical follow.)
1. The Citizens of Emerald City Gave You Ballroom Realness
When the gates of Emerald City opened to residents voguing, spinning, and dipping like they’d paid $10 to get in the ball, our TV practically exploded in rainbows. The gays we watched with gagged at the first of multiple death-drops, and the genderf*ck flamboyance of the dancers didn’t seem altered or watered-down for a mainstream audience for a second. If anything, it was heightened. The scene was a brilliant and completely unexpected nod to the vogueing subculture that started in the black gay ballroom scene of the ’70s and ’80s and obviously continues to influence mainstream culture to this day. Work.
2. Mary J. Blige Camps It Up
We were ready for our big villain by the time Mary J. Blige stomped onstage, and boy did she give. If ever oh ever there’s a role in The Wiz that calls for going a bit big, it is Evillene and Mary J. Blige didn’t disappoint. She didn’t play “Evillene” so much as she played “the bitchiest version of Mary J. Blige anyone has ever seen,” and it was everything to watch.
It was a scenery chomping performance, and by the time she finished “No Bad News” we wanted the cast rushed offstage for fear of the sets collapsing around them. The most delicious camp is of the unintentional variety, and we were pretty much licking our fingers after her few scenes. Oh yeah, and bonus points for accusing Dorothy of “casting shade.”
3. Amber Riley Slays Her Big Song
Amber Riley has been a baby gay icon since the Glee days, and of course she killed it with one of the biggest diva songs of all time. Her big moment here comes early on with “He’s The Wiz” and, well, she did that. Glee was a showcase for some voices that were thinner than others, and even the stronger ones were drowned in studio wizardry, but there was none of that here. If there was any doubt that this girl has a serious set of pipes, they were obliterated by the end of that song. The room we watched with was stunned into silence.
4. Queen Latifah Does Drag
Whether she comes out or not (and who cares?), Queen Latifah has been a lesbian icon for years, and playing the Wiz as a Drag King is only the latest in a long line of queer-positive choices. She snagged an Emmy nod for playing the bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie (and won one for producing it), and of course she’ll always be known as the gun-toting lesbian badass Cleo in Set It Off, which would be a bold role to take on now let alone nearly 20 years ago when she did it. She tipped her hat to all of her lesbian fans again last night, who now have a new Halloween costume they can wear in honor of the Queen.
5. It’s Basically a Gay Rights Allegory
Dorothy is the original Hag. She travels down a yellow brick road with a fey lion and two single dudes to meet the Wiz…who ends up being a woman in drag who eventually comes out to everyone around her so that she can live the life she always wanted to live. The fact that The Wiz is played by an entertainer who has done everything to confirm her queerness but officially come out is the cherry on top of the gay positive sundae of The Wiz Live in 2015. Reaching? We think not.