There have been countless versions of The Wizard of Oz over the years, but perhaps the most unique take is The Wiz, an urbanized stage musical that won seven Tony Awards in 1975.
Four decades after that musical adaptation of The Wiz, NBC brought the production to TV in The Wiz Live! a three-hour special that debuted Dec. 3. The initial broadcast pulled in nearly 12 million viewers, prompting NBC to schedule a repeat.
Special make-ups for the new incarnation were created by Dave and Lou Elsey, who heard about the project from costume designer Paul Tazewell.
“We were in London at the time,” continues Dave Elsey, “so we talked about it over the phone and I doodled a couple of quick designs to send off. I had heard Kenny Leon—the director—was worried about using prosthetics and losing the identity of the actors, so what I did was show him you could still tell who the people were.”
Although the original build list included a lot more special make-up characters, that list was eventually whittled down to the Scarecrow (played by Elijah Kelley), the Tin-Man (Ne-Yo) and the Cowardly Lion (David Alan Grier). “Our schedule was pretty crazy at the time,” claims Lou, “so that worked out perfectly, because it meant we could focus on those three characters.”
“I would normally be arguing to do more,” agrees Dave, “but in this case, I was quite happy to concentrate on those characters. I did some designs based on a selection of people they were thinking about at the time, and by the time those designs were approved, they had cast the actors and we were already into the build.”
For the Scarecrow make-up, there was initial discussion that the character’s head was made out of a paper bag instead of sacking. “No matter how crazy the concept is,” offers Dave, “I always try to make it logical to myself at least, so I imagined his head was made from a bag of seeds, and it had rained, so water had gone into the bag. The seeds had grown and burst out of the top and created his ‘hairstyle,’ so that’s how we rationalized it.”
“My concern with the Scarecrow prosthetics was we wouldn’t have long to get him into that make-up, and as it turned out, we had just 20 minutes, which was just about the shortest make-up I’ve ever done,” adds Lou.
“The Scarecrow was the big worry, because we had less time to make him up, and he was also the most active character in the show. We used Michael Davy’s Sweat Stop on all of the actors, and astringently cleaned their faces beforehand to make sure there were no oils on their faces, but with the Scarecrow in particular, his face was so mobile that he would rip his lower lip, so there was no way to keep the piece down. In our final week, we remade the lower lip using a Pros-Aide piece, which stayed on the entire time,” tells Dave.
With the Tin-Man, Leon was worried about losing Ne-Yo under a lot of metal and silver paint, so Dave’s solution was a cowl-like big foam piece that left much of the actor’s face exposed, with latex ‘metal’ screws to tie everything together. “We went through a couple of different sculptures done by Steve Koch who’s really good at straight lines and model maker-looking stuff,” recalls Dave, “so he really nailed it.”
“We also changed a few things about the color,” adds Lou, “putting a bit of gold in there as well to complement the rust and have a bit more going on instead of just the silver.”
And finally for David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion, the big point of discussion was how much facial hair to include in the make-up. “My initial design didn’t have a lot of facial hair,” remembers Dave, “so we were looking at them and thinking it didn’t look quite right, but David said, ‘Hey, I’m not going anywhere, so let’s just play around with the make-up,’ so he came in for an entire day and let us lay hair on him in different colors and combinations.”
“The first set of hairpieces we made were just a chin beard, chops and a wig,” continues Lou, “but he almost looked too human, so we started putting more and more hair on. I was also playing with different colors, so we made him lighter around the muzzle and made the chin beard part of it. We did one version where we covered his face in hair, but it didn’t work, because he looked like a giant teddy bear!”
With the Elseys applying the Scarecrow make-up between them, they had to put together a team for the other characters. “It was a huge amount of work,” acknowledges Dave, “but we actually had a very small team, who had a very short of amount of time to get everything done, so we needed people we could rely on.
“While we were still in the workshop, we had Steve Koch, who is a terrific sculptor and a great painter as well. We also had Danny Wagner, who I’ve known for many years, and he came out to New York with us to apply the Tin-Man make-up with Rich Krusell, who had helped us on Sideshow, so we knew he was a very good and reliable artist. Once we put them on there, we didn’t need to worry about it anymore.”
“Back in the workshop,” continues Lou, “we had Jen Seibold, a fantastic fabricator, who worked on the Lion’s suit. For the wigs for the Lion, we had Ursula Hawks who made all the pieces, and Karen Keener-Mansell helped out with some of the facial bits, dreadlocks and things like that. Mark Viniello ran all of our foam and did an amazing job.
“And for the Lion make-up application, we had Jeremy Selenfrend, who we met on Saturday Night Live; and Vincent Schicchi, who had been on SNL for about ten years. It was great to have those guys, because they had obviously done live television before and were used to that pressure.”
The success of The Wiz Live! is proof that a series of make-ups can be designed and built within a relatively short period of time and still look great—although many make-up artists might never take on a project with those restrictions. “No, because they’ve got more brains than we do!” responds Dave. “It doesn’t make sense to try and do what we normally do, which is to just rush headlong in and try to make things as cool as we possibly can without thinking about it until it’s too late!”
“Since when have we ever done anything easy?” adds Lou. “But as challenging as it was, I think it was perfect for us, because we just said we were going to go for it and do the best job we could and have fun while we’re doing it.”
The Wiz Live! repeats Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. on NBC.