Nobody beats Rahway’s Williams in ‘The Wiz!’

Shanice Williams
Shanice Williams

RAHWAY, NJ — Well over 11 million people watched Shanice Williams, a 19-year-old singer from Rahway, become the definitive Dorothy for a younger generation in NBC’s “The Wiz! Live” musical on Thursday, Dec. 3, as she impressed fans and critics alike in a universally acclaimed professional debut.

It was an emotionally packed, veteran-like performance from Williams, even though, until last Thursday, she only had productions at Rahway High School and Paper Mill Playhouse on her theater resume. And in case the stage wasn’t big enough already, Williams was singing alongside an all-star cast with Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier and other household names.

“My story, I feel like it’s amazing,” Williams told The New York Times in a post-show Q&A. “It shows people no matter where you come from, no matter what your lifestyle is, your dreams could still come true if you believe in yourself and push hard to do what you want to do.”

By the time Williams launched into the show’s explosive grand finale, “Home” — “suddenly my world has changed its face,” she sang with her deep, powerful voice — Williams was being lauded by celebrities on Twitter, fans quoting the lyrics and an overwhelming critical reception.

Williams has “burst on the scene a star with pipes as Dorothy,” gushed the Denver Post. She made for a bright-eyed and big hearted Dorothy, and “not only did she top Diana Ross’ ‘Home,’ she lived up to the iconic performance Stephanie Mills once gave,” says a report from the Kansas City Star, adding that “she’s a star.”

Most people watching couldn’t have been familiar with the 19-year-old before the live, three-hour production aired, in stark contrast to her celebrity stagemates. She was one of 700 young singers who auditioned for the role, a year after graduating from Rahway High School, where she spent four years practicing with art teacher Alison Dooley.

But that kind of anonymity, Dooley told Localsource in August, would translate into an advantage for “The Wiz! Live.”
“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.”

And people from everywhere around the country, from Rahway to Kansas, agreed. “Breakout star” was a term used widely by many and “The Wiz! Live,” with Williams leading the way, ended up as a ratings coup for NBC, attracting several million more viewers than last year’s live musical production.

“This is a story about finding your people, fighting against tyranny, being brave, and having a heart. It’s a story about a young woman who feels powerless in the world, finding why she still matters, even though she’s just an ordinary girl from the Midwest,” writes Entertainment Weekly writer Melissa Maerz. “Because of that, NBC was extremely smart to cast Williams to play Dorothy. Like Stephanie Mills, who played the original Dorothy and appears as Auntie Em here, the 19-year-old actress was an unknown when she beat out hundreds of others for the role. She’s from Rahway, New Jersey, but as far as Broadway’s concerned, that might as well be Kansas.”