RAHWAY, NJ — Rahway’s Shanice Williams only has high school productions on her theater resume — “West Side Story,” “Seussical” and a handful of other shows, both extracurricular and curricular.
But the 18-year-old New Jersey native, just one year removed from graduating from Rahway High School, is set to star in a national TV program that more than 9 million people watched last year.
After a lengthy selection process, Williams is set to play the role of Dorothy in NBC’s upcoming production of “The Wiz Live!” on Thursday, Dec. 3, according to a report from NBC News, alongside Grammy winners Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige.
“This has been my dream forever, but I never thought it would be a reality,” Williams told People Magazine. “I’ve just been thanking God. I couldn’t celebrate because I couldn’t tell anyone until now. Just me and my mom have been celebrating.”
Williams, who spent four years at Rahway High School, was unveiled as this year’s headliner during an episode of TODAY on Wednesday, Aug. 5. And to those who know Williams, like Rahway High School music and dance teacher Alison Dooley, no one’s more deserving of the role.
“I had her two periods a day, every day, for four years,” said Dooley. “She has got a great instrument, a great voice, that’s a God-given talent. But she also took the talent she was born with, and then she soaked up any information, any guidance, any mentoring, any technique that people offered her, to continue to get better. All criticism was taken with great grace, and it was always her goal to become better.”
With each year of practice at Rahway High School, said Dooley, Williams reached new highs and accomplished greater vocal feats, but her vibrant personality never changed. Williams didn’t develop an ego, added Dooley, like many other high school students who get lead after lead: She remained well-grounded, helpful to others and energetic, “one of those people you want to be around.”
When Williams takes that kind of charisma to “The Wiz Live!” in December, she will be doing so on the largest stage of her young career. Last year’s live NBC production, “Peter Pan Live,” was watched by 9.2 million total viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, and the Carrie Underwood-led “Sound of Music Live” was watched by more than 18 million people in 2013.
But, said Dooley, Williams isn’t shying away from the challenge, — the 18-year-old believes she will be given every resource that she needs to be successful, and Williams is confident this incredible opportunity came about for a reason.
“We’ve been on the phone every day,” said Dooley. “She’s very well-grounded, and she has a lot of faith. She’s a very spiritual person, so I believe that her strength — and belief in a higher power — helps her believe that she was chosen for a reason, and she’s where she’s supposed to be. And she has faith and confidence in the other people with the project, that they will show her the way.”
And while it’s the largest production of her career, Williams at least has four years daily theater training, added Dooley, from the many arts programs at Rahway High School. Not many other schools offer theater classes in their curriculum, added Dooley, and Williams’ routine allowed her natural talent to grow, from taking dance and chorus classes to participating in the color guard and after-school plays.
It’s been years of work to get to this point for Williams, who told People Magazine she’s always wanted to perform, to the point where she was kicked off her high school volleyball team after “missing it for musical theater.” Williams “just fell in love with it from the very beginning,” she told People Magazine, and “knew it was going to be a career, not a hobby.”
So when Williams moved to Rahway from Jersey City, said Dooley, just before her freshman year of high school, she came to the Rahway High School arts programs with a lot to offer — and they offered her a lot in return.
“I think when you compare the programming of what the school offered to her, as opportunities, it’s far greater than it is at many other high schools. I think that contributed to being able to cultivate and nurture her God-given talent,” said Dooley. “I think it is kudos to the community and the school for recognizing the importance of art, and for being able to support it as part of the educational curriculum.”
And Williams fully took advantage of the programming offered to her, said Dooley. Never in four years did Williams have a bad day, and she always had a smile on her face. Williams worked hard, was very humble, and just wanted to be the best that she could be, which is why she’s perfect for the role of Dorothy, said Dooley.
“For me, what I think of that is unique about this role, and the decision that NBC made to choose somebody that is not well-known, is that Dorothy is kind of naive, innocent, she sees the world through rose-colored glasses,” said Dooley. “I think that’s an easier sell for somebody like Shanice, who does see the world through rose-colored glasses and is innocent and naive to the world she’s been thrust into, being an unknown and not having many resume items. I think it’s going to work.”