In less than an hour on Wednesday morning, Shanice Williams went from regular teenage girl to household name. The 19-year-old New Jersey native was announced as NBC's choice to play Dorothy in The Wiz Live!, the primetime musical production set to air live on the network on December 3.
It didn't take long for Williams to win us over with her sweet demeanor and killer voice, but now that all eyes are on her, it's time to get to know this future superstar a little better. We caught up with Williams just hours after the announcement, and her appearance on the Today show, to talk about the wild ride she's been on since the open call in June, her vocal influences and how she feels about the future for Black women in entertainment.
This might sound like a ridiculous question, since it's just been a few hours since the announcement was made, but I'm going to ask it anyway. How has your life changed so far?
[Laughs] It's been crazy, but all good things, all good things. I guess there's not been many changes yet, though I saw myself on TV for the first time, and that was crazy. Then for the first time, some people asked me for my autograph, so I guess that's how it's changing. That was really cool.
We saw in the video that you found out two weeks ago that you got the part. It must have been hard to keep it a secret!
I told my mom and I told my grandmother and grandfather, and they got that on camera, too. Everyone else, it had to be a secret. That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, I think.
What was going through your mind when you got the part?
Literally, I was in a state of shock. I felt just like it was a dream, like it wasn't real, but it's hitting me little by little. I'm just so thankful that I got the opportunity, you know?
You're going to be working with some big talent on this production — Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Stephanie Mills, to name a few — have you been in contact with any of them yet?
No, I haven't actually met any of them, and I'm just so excited to work with them. I'm actually not sure when I will meet them. I know everything's going to get serious in October with the rehearsal process.
You've done a lot of local musical theater. Who is your vocal inspiration?
Audra McDonald. She's my biggest inspiration in the world when it comes to musical theater.
A month ago, you were a regular teenage girl living in New Jersey. What's your life like at home?
I'm an only child, and [my family] always supported me. I told them I wanted to go to college for performing arts, and they were like, "Okay, we support you," so they've always supported me in that sense. I love animals so much. I've always wanted to open an animal shelter. I have four dogs right now, so I'm excited to see who's going to play Toto!
Who in your life got you into theater? Did anyone take you to see shows when you were younger?
My grandparents actually, whenever they got the chance, took me to Broadway, but that started when I was in high school, because that's when I realized ... At the very beginning of high school, I realized, "Oh my gosh. Okay, this is a career choice for me." So yeah, then they always brought me to New York to see Broadway shows whenever they could.
Social media was very famously tough on Carrie Underwood for The Sound of Music. Are you nervous about Twitter backlash?
Listen, I'm a performer and all I'm worried about is just performing and just doing ... This is what makes me happy, so no matter what, I'm going to give it my best shot, and I'm going to put myself all out there and give it 100% and whatever happens, happens. This is my first role, so we're just going to see how it turns out.
It's no secret that women of color have had a harder time breaking into Hollywood. You come from a different generation, and we'd like to think that those things are changing. Do you still see those barriers?
I'm very optimistic about the future, because ... Okay, with Audra McDonald, even just on Broadway, they cast her in shows that are usually not played by African-American women, so she's very inspiring to me just because of that, you know what I mean? If they can do that for her on Broadway, they can do it in Hollywood. Yeah, there's so many African-American women out here that are doing so good in Hollywood right now, and I just don't see any boundaries. I'm very optimistic about that.
We've been hearing some rumors about Beyoncé joining the cast. Have you heard anything about that?
Yes, all of it online. I don't know anything. I'm online everyday and I'm like, "What's going on with The Wiz?" I don't know. I find out everything that you find out. But no matter who gets that part, I'm excited to work with them.
Is there a line either from The Wizard of Oz or The Wiz that stayed with you or really inspires you?
Okay, so you know how she goes, "Living here in this brand new world might be a fantasy," and I feel like that line always gets me, because this is all brand new to me. This is my first audition ever. I've never had a job performing live, so that line just gets me all the time because it does feel like a dream sometimes and it's all brand new.
(Photo: Jeff Riedel/NBC)