After building a career off romantic hits like “Closer” and “Sexy Love,” Ne-Yo is channeling a guy with no heart.
The production is about 12 weeks into rehearsal now. What’s the most recent development?
It was everyone’s first time seeing the real set just the other day, and it’s, like, it just got real for us. The place is a lot bigger than the space we were rehearsing in, so certain movements have to be that much bigger and certain scenes have to change, but the workload itself is to the point where it’s not work as much as it was in the beginning. But there are still things to figure out.
You’re the only one of your main co-stars, the “Four Friends” — Shanice Williams as Dorothy, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, and David Alan Grier as Cowardly Lion — who’s a full-time singer first and foremost. How does that influence the dynamic?
I would love to be able to say that due to my experience in the music industry, when it comes to the songs, I’m killing it over anybody else, but that is not the case. Everybody in this thing is ridiculously talented to where I don’t feel special. [Laughs] And it forces you to kick up what you do that much more. Me and Elijah Kelley, specifically, have an unspoken rivalry — nothing animosity-driven, but it’s a friendly competition and it just makes us better. When I see Elijah in his scenes and he kills the character straight away, but then he gets into the song and kills the song, and kills the choreography, and everything is on point it’s like, OK. Mind you, my introduction comes in right after his — I see where he set the bar!
How is this remake different from the classic 1978 film version?
It’s a hybrid of the Broadway play and the movie. It’s not based in the ’70s; it’s based in 2015. That has been everybody’s challenge, above the dancing, the singing, the lines: getting into who these characters would be in 2015. Today’s Tin Man is heartfelt, but he wouldn’t be soft. Today’s Dorothy would be sassy. Our hope is you’ll look at it as something completely new.
The remake features a new song you wrote. What can you say about it?
The name of the song is “We Got It.” It’s one of the only songs all four friends [Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow] sing together. The feeling of it is us being right at the door of having our dreams come true; it rallies the troops and makes everyone realize we can do this if we do it together.
How did you figure out what you were going to bring to your Tin Man?
Going into the backstory about who he is [helped me]: How old are you? Where are you from? He’s 30 years old. He’s from Kansas. He’s worked on a farm pretty much his whole life. He’s got a sense of humor but he’s a serious guy. You really have to create this person and it makes everything that you do as the character have meaning. Me being new to the acting thing, it’s just amazing to me how much of a difference it makes when really stop and think about who your character is and why they’re doing what they’re doing. I gotta give Kenny Leon, the director, credit. Kenny’s the type of person where he’s not gonna let you act — you have to become with Kenny.
How did you feel about the inevitable comparisons audiences would draw between you and Nipsey Russell’s performance, or for those who saw the 1975 Broadway performance, Tiger Haynes’?
There’s naturally a level of intimidation because of the respect for the people that did it before you. I’m standing amongst giants just even being cast in this role, and all I can do is hope to add to the legacy. I’m not going to be able to make it better than it already is, but if I just look at it as, “This is an amazing song that I have to learn and put my spin on.” My “Slide Some Oil” ain’t gon’ be Nipsey Russell’s “Slide Some Oil.” Elijah Kelley’s “You Can’t Win” ain’t gon’ be Michael Jackson’s “You Can’t Win.” You’ll think of the people that paved the way when you hear them, but our hope is that we’ve connected to the records within ourselves and we’ve decided who these characters are that you’ll look at it as something completely new.
Director Kenny Leon reportedly makes actors do push-ups when they mess up. Have you had to do any?
Oh, yeah. (Laughs.) My issue when we started rehearsals was just getting there on time. I was late, walked in the room, and it was just, “Hit the floor. Getcha 10 on.” But the cool thing is when someone messes up, he makes everybody do push-ups. If one person f–ed up, we all f–ed up. You can do nothing but respect that.