Hairspray Live! is going to air live, as the title says, so most of what happens will be happening for the first time. That’s why live television is exciting and these network musicals — like The Wiz, Grease, and Sound of Music — are bringing it back. Still, months and months of rehearsals and preparation go into show night.
Hairspray began as a 1988 John Waters movie, then a Tony Award–winning Broadway show and a hit 2007 movie adaptation of the musical. It’s the story of a high school girl in Baltimore who auditions for a local dance show in the early 1960s. With her big break, she ends up leading the charge to integrate black and white performers, and helps her mother Edna come out of her shell.
The cast and producers of Hairspray Live! spoke with the Television Critics Association about this week’s big production. Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, show director Kenny Leon and television director Alex Rudzinski clued us in on 11 things we can expect from the event.
Fierstein returns to the role of Edna Turnblad, a role for which he won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards and a role always played by a male ever since Divine played her in the movie. This time Fierstein is also in charge of adapting the musical to television as a writer.
“Truthfully, they came to me, and they asked if I would write it months before they asked if I would act in it,” Fierstein said. “I said yes, and I was in. I mean, it’s the adventure. We are in this for the adventure.”
Marc Shaiman, composer for the Broadway musical, wrote two new songs for the 2007 movie: “Ladies’ Choice” and “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go).” Zadan said the live TV edition found a way to incorporate the new songs.
“It’s kind of a hybrid, and Harvey worked out really great places [for the songs],” Zadan said.
The role of Tracy Turnblad, an optimistic Baltimore girl who ends up fighting for racial integration, has always been an unknown. In the 1988 movie it was Ricki Lake’s breakthrough role. The Broadway production gave Marissa Jaret Winokur a much deserved lead. The 2007 movie discovered Nikki Blonsky. So Hairspray Live gave Maddie Baillio her first job.
“This is surreal,” Baillio said. “This was my first audition outside of college and school. So I decided at, like, 3 a.m. the night before of the big open call in New York City that I was going to go out and go do it. There were over 1,300 girls there, and I was number 344. After four callbacks, I got the part.”
Chenoweth is a Broadway legend from Wicked, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Promises, Promises among many others. She’s sort of America’s sweetheart, too, with her upbeat personality. Velma Von Tussle is the villain of Hairspray, a television producer holding back African-American singers, but this is the role Chenoweth always wanted to play.
“I actually wanted to play this role originally back in ’98, but I was too young,” she said. “So I was hoping to graduate into one of the parts, and here I sit. I saw the original movie, and I guess now it’s the right time. I’m working on my splits and my twirling.”
Ariana Grande has become a hit recording artist since her turn on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. Hairspray Live! brings her back to her theater roots, playing Tracy’s friend Penny Pingleton. She says “theater geek” has always been her true calling.
“Penny’s been my favorite character since the start,” Grande said. “I got my start on Broadway. I did a show called 13 and that was my first professional job. This is just such a dream come true for me because, at heart, theater is everything to me. Pop music is so fun, but this is way much more fun.”
Through catchy songs, the musical actually educates the audience on Civil Rights and promotes tolerance. Fierstein believes the world of 2016 is ready for this message again.
“We can change laws, but the war is to change hearts, and nothing does that like song does,” Fierstein said. “Music just brings us all together in a way that words just don’t. When you see a story like this, which is told in such good humor and with such warm heart and such good purpose, I think it will do wonders. I hope so. That’s our aim, and we are each in this together to do that.”
Grease Live! was an incredible production with the cast running from stage to sage across the Warner Brothers lot in real time. After the magnitude of that production, NBC hired Grease Live! director Rudzinski to stage Hairspray at Universal.
“I’m hugely excited to be able to use the Universal backlot as a space,” Ridzinski said. “In fact, Hairspray’s going to be using a much bigger area of the backlot than we ever did on Grease, so it’s very ambitious. We’re recreating suburban Baltimore, and I think that’s going to be just an energy of scale that’s really going to make the show immersive for the viewers and make it really fun to watch.”
Several of those scenes take place on the streets of Baltimore.
“It’s four or five times,” Leon said. “But when we go outside, we really go outside, so it feels natural and organic to me.”
Weather shouldn’t be a problem at Universal Studios, since it hardly ever rains in California. Just in case, there are backup plans, and it actually did rain during Grease Live!
“In any live broadcast, part of us as a team of producers and directors doing our due diligence is planning for the worst-case scenario in every area, not just weather,” Rudzinski said. “You rehearse elements that can be under cover if it’s raining, but you hope you never risk the quality of the broadcast in any way. I think in Grease it rained for part of the outside scenes. I don’t think it detracted from the performance.”
Another thing Hairspray Live! shares with Grease Live is the Hough family. Julianne Hough played Sandy in Grease Live! and Hairspray cast her brother as Corny Collins, host of the dance show for which Tracy auditions.
“Actually, seeing how much she enjoyed the process just turned me on to the idea,” Hough said. “So when I was asked to be a part of it, I said yes immediately.”
Both Hudson and Chenoweth are powerhouses in the world of music, but when they met, they were each fans first.
“I was watching this child on American Idol,” Chenoweth said. “Singing live is what you are born to do, but she got it. Then I saw her at a benefit. In passing from below, I yelled out ‘Jennifer! Jennifer!,’ and she looked down and was like, ‘Hello.’ Now, here I sit with her, and I’m very, very honored, truly honored.”
Hudson had her moment during Hairspray rehearsals.
“This lady blew me away yesterday,” Hudson said. “I sat at the table, and my life was changed. Like, I am so inspired. I mean, I’ve seen her work before, but I’d never heard nobody sing like that. I said, ‘Well, what am I going to do, Jesus, when it gets to my part?’ She can hit every note on this piano. That’s amazing. So watch.”
Even after eight shows a week, and a 2011 reprisal at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s been years since Fierstein played Edna. He had to revisit his earlier performances, and confer with his successors.
“I had to go back a lot and go and watch,” Fierstein said. “I do that with all of my shows and give notes and help if I can. I had very close relationships with a lot of the Ednas that came after me. That’s what we do in the theater. We take care of each other. We do it on the day, but then there’s tomorrow, and that’s what the theater is. So I owe a great debt to Divine, who is a friend, and then, hopefully, I’ve passed that love on to the next one playing Edna. Nobody owns Hamlet, you know. There’s the next one.”
Hairspray Live! airs Wednesday, December 7 at 8 p.m. on NBC