Universal City, Calif. — In the steadily escalating battle of the TV musicals, NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” is the most ambitious contender yet.
It’s got a deep bench of stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande and Martin Short. It boasts strong themes of racial equality, tolerance and self-acceptance. And it has the outsized, joyful talents of Harvey Fierstein as writer and actor, reprising his Tony Award-winning role as Edna Turnblad.
Executive producer Neil Meron also counts the TV musical’s timing as a bonus, calling it impeccable despite its 1960s setting and roots in John Waters’ 1988 film and, more directly, in the 2002-09 Broadway musical with Fierstein.
“People already were excited about it, but after the election they were saying, ‘Boy, do we need this now,’” Meron said recently on a Universal Studios set as the cast rehearsed “I Can Hear the Bells” for Wednesday’s telecast (8-11 p.m. EST).
With the country in a “divisive place,” he said, viewers are eager for entertainment “that can be really healing.”
“Hairspray Live!” is set in 1962 Baltimore, where “The Corny Collins Show” is TV’s hot dance program and the focus of teen Tracy Turnblad’s dreams. When she’s chosen to perform and gains instant celebrity, the plus-sized dynamo uses it to fight the show’s whites-only rule.
Tracy is played by Maddie Baillio, 20, of League City, Texas, a college student plucked from more than 1,300 hopefuls in an open-casting call for her first professional role. Short plays husband to Fierstein’s supportive wife and mother.
The cast includes Derek Hough as Collins; Grande as Tracy’s pal Penny; Hudson as record-store owner Motormouth Maybelle; Ephraim Sykes as her son, Seaweed; Chenoweth and Dove Cameron as mean mom-daughter duo Velma and Amber Von Tussle, and Garrett Clayton as Link, Tracy’s squeeze. Two former “Hairspray” Tracys, Ricki Lake (the movie) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (the play), are set for cameo appearances.
Among the catchy songs sure to rattle around in viewers’ brains for days: “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
The production is big (55 cast members, 600 costumes, 18 sets) and sprawling, designed to shift between the confines of two Universal Studios soundstages and a variety of backlot locations. It’s also got an element of risk, following other recent musicals that aired live to ramp up the excitement factor (and keep viewers tuning into broadcast networks and commercials).
The TV musical competition is both intra- and intermural: The bar for “Hairspray Live!” was set at varying heights by NBC’s “Sound of Music,” ‘’Peter Pan” and “The Wiz” broadcasts. “The Wiz” aired live in 2015, as did this year’s “Grease” on competitor Fox, and “Hairspray” plucked its pair of directors, Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, from those respective telecasts. Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed the Broadway musical, also is aboard.
The “Hairspray” producers have “certainly upped the ante,” said Hough. “The people who are part of this, including some who worked on ‘Grease’ as well, they want to try to top themselves.”
Exactly, said Meron, who is producing “Hairspray Live!” with Craig Zadan. The partners also produced the 2007 movie version of the stage musical, with Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna.
While “Grease” made creative use of backlot locations, Meron said the “Hairspray” plan is to spend more of the show, about 40 percent, outdoors on the lot.
That will include mundane facades transformed into a colorful Baltimore downtown, one that happens to be in sight of the clock tower featured in “Back to the Future.” Neon signs advertise businesses including Waters Plumbing, a bow to the story’s free-thinking originator, and Divine Pet Food. That honors the original film’s Edna, the late Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), who set the template for a male to own the role.
As with “The Wiz,” which starred newcomer Shanice Williams, “Hairspray” is rolling the dice with Baillio. But Fierstein says it’s no gamble.
She “has a voice that is just wonderful. … She’s excited about life. She’s excited to do this,” he told a teleconference, adding, “it’s given me a whole new light to have this terrific new young star.”
Fierstein showed plenty of spark on the set recently, interrupting an interview to playfully admonish a group of boisterous cast members on break.
“Don’t make me come over there!” he shouted. Turning serious, the stage veteran said the demands of the TV musical, including learning to remain aware of multiple cameras, have proved a challenge.
“In the theater, I’m in charge of telling the audience where to look and what’s important. Here, you need to very much give up all control” except over one’s own performance, Fierstein said.
Director Leon explained that the production “is not theater, it’s not TV, it’s not a film — it’s a hybrid of all of that. That’s half the problem, understanding that. So we have to take this team of actors, get them in the same world, and present it in a way so that the viewers at home feel they are the live audience.”
What they’ll discover in “Hairspray,” said Baillio, are themes that are as relevant as ever.
“One of the things I love about Tracy is her body positivity, and that she sees everyone as equal and believes everyone should be dancing together on ‘The Corny Collins Show’ and in life,” said the sophomore at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. “It’s bold to say, but I hope it changes opinions.”
8-11 p.m. Wednesday
NBC (Channel 4)
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