How 'The Wiz Live!' Producer Harvey Mason Jr. Made the Music Current Without Just 'Throwing a Trap Beat' On It

Harvey Mason Jr
Courtesy Photo

Harvey Mason Jr photographed in 2015.

NBC’s Dec. 19 rebroadcast follows soundtrack’s wide release, out now.

“The energy was indescribable. There was a lot of pride in bringing this to national television.” That’s Grammy Award-winning producer Harvey Mason Jr.’s take on The Wiz Live!, NBC’s latest live presentation. Set to reair on Saturday night, the critically acclaimed production -- whose cast includes Shanice Williams, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Common and Stephanie Mills -- drew 11.5 million viewers when it originally aired on Dec. 3.

Preceding the rebroadcast is the new release of The Wiz Live! soundtrack by Sony Music Masterworks and Broadway Records. Featuring reimagined versions of the original music as well as new song “We Got It” and Williams’ single “Home,” the 18-track CD was produced by Mason (Dreamgirls, Pitch Perfect 2) and co-produced by Stephen Oremus (The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots).

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“The soundtrack had to be finished two days after the live show. As soon as the show ended, Stephen and I went straight to the studio,” says Mason, whose film music credits also include Straight Outta Compton and next December’s animated comedy Sing. Read on as Mason pulls back the curtain to reveal the inspiration behind “We Got It,” the balancing act between being contemporary and respectful plus getting a pep talk from Quincy Jones, the musical whiz behind the 1978 film version starring Michael Jackson.

What was your initial vision for the music?

Stephen Oremus, the production’s music director, had already been hired. During my interview with him, the producers [Craig Zadan, Neil Meron] and director [Kenny Leon], I talked about using Dreamgirls as a template for what I thought could be done with The Wiz: updating something  that people love and still do in a respectful way. At the same time, it also needed to feel fresh and cool for people seeing and hearing it the first time. Throwing a trap beat behind every track to make it contemporary wasn’t going to be a good look for The Wiz. Stephen and I had a good time bringing that vision home. He oversaw what I was doing and translated that to the cast. Obviously, he had the Broadway musical expertise and I brought the contemporary radio approach. We tried to make the music sound clean, punchy and exciting without going crazy.

How different was it working on a live TV production versus recording in a studio? 

Just the timing was different. I didn’t have access to the singers until a week before the show. I didn’t have the advantage of building around the singers as I normally do, listening to them sing in the studio as we science project the music together. Instead, I was imagining how Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo and the others would sound, relying on my experiences of having worked with most of these artists before and knowing what they sound like. In trying to make the music sound big and exciting, I was steadily building around that picture of sound I had in my head.

Why the decision to add a new song? 

When the Wiz asks the four friends to kill the witch, the director wanted to have a song that would dramatically build the action and also be uplifting. That’s the direction Ne-Yo and I were given. He’d been reading the script and had some great lyric ideas. Elijah Kelley and I also collaborated with him on the lyrics. Then Stephen added the building dynamics to close out the end of that act and make it feel appropriate to the show. The song came together pretty quickly in one writing session with some revisions made later.

And when the live broadcast was all said and done? 

We definitely wanted to utilize R&B music as most of the cast were R&B performers. But the trick was to make the music accessible to a wide audience. It’s really a variety of music featuring elements of R&B, pop, gospel, reggae, some rock. Hopefully, the production brought to the table authentic musicianship and a relevance that makes it sound as if it’s from today versus the ‘70s.

What key advice did Quincy Jones give you? 

I spoke to Quincy prior to jumping full force into the project. It was a thrill to talk to him about it and to follow him as the next guy to produce this music. More than offering any key advice, he was very supportive, telling me, “I know you’re going to kill it. Just take care of it and come play it for me.” So I will have to see him next week.

2015 Billboard Women in Music