A calorie-rich serving of bright colors and a motley crew of star power is making for a hallucinogenic visual on a soundstage here in Universal City. Kristin Chenoweth skedaddles across the floor. Harvey Fierstein and Martin Short bow in front of a swarm of adoring dancers. All the while pop powerhouses Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson effortlessly belt out a sway-inducing song against a glittery, electric-blue backdrop.
But this is no hallucination. This is “Hairspray Live.”
Along with early displays of decorations by retailers, the festive color of Starbucks coffee cups and the trove of cable holiday movies, NBC is steadily establishing itself as a marker of the holiday season with its live musical productions.
The post-Thanksgiving tradition continues Wednesday with the peacock network’s adaptation of the 2002 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Hairspray,” which, in turn, is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. The flamboyant production’s all-star ensemble includes Fierstein, reprising his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad; Short as Wilbur Turnblad; Chenoweth as Velma von Tussle; Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle; and Grande as Penny Pingleton.
“Hairspray” tells the story of the successful attempt by black and white Maryland teenagers in 1962 — led by dance-loving Tracy Turnblad (played here by newcomer Maddie Baillio)— to integrate a teen dance show. At its roots, it’s a story about the triumph of outsiders.
Yes, the show is fun and there are some campy parts. But there are some real, powerful moments in there that are needed today.
“Tracy believes that everyone should be equal, everyone should be dancing together,” Baillio says in her dressing room. “I’m so glad it’s making the rounds again. Yes, the show is fun and there are some campy parts. But there are some real, powerful moments in there that are needed today in a world where it sometimes feels like there is so much hate.”
Much like last year’s timely production of “The Wiz” — which came amid a fraught year of protests against police brutality and offered up another voice in the debate of African American representation in Hollywood in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite — the issues tackled beneath the bubblegum colors and whipped-up coiffure of “Hairspray” —segregation, race riots, and interracial romance — arrive at a critical moment.
The Black Lives Matter movement remains steadfast in its focus. And America is in the midst of a culturally defining moment with the recent election of Donald Trump. Some question whether his win might embolden acts of discrimination or prejudice against people of color, immigrants, and the LGBT community.
“It’s the kind of musical that our country needs right now,” says director Kenny Leon during a break from rehearsal. “This is a part of our history that can’t be ignored and it’s relevant today in this country when race relations are the way they are. And, even beyond that, no matter how you voted, we need to find ways to unify ourselves. We have been so focused on what has divided us.”
That is the prevailing sentiment that looms over rehearsal inside the razzle-dazzle set for “The Corny Collins Show.” The cast and dancers are running though the curtain-call song, “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go),” performed by Grande and Hudson. (One of two songs that were written for the movie that made it into the production.) It’s a piece of lyrical solidarity:
“Let’s move past the bad times/ But before those memories fade /Let’s forgive but not forget /And learn from the mistakes we made.”
“We thought it would make a great curtain call for the show because the message really sums up everything that ‘Hairspray’ is about and what we all need to hear right now,” says Neil Meron, who is returning to produce the NBC musical with his longtime collaborator Craig Zadan for the fourth straight year, during rehearsals.
Zadan adds: “This sadly doesn’t feel like a period piece. … We just hope to bring some light.”
That light won’t come without some innovation on NBC’s part.
Others have joined the fray — Fox broadcast "Grease: Live” in January--but viewership hasn’t returned to the heights of the 18 million who tuned in to see “The Sound of Music” starring Carrie Underwood in 2013.
This year, the network is trying a different approach. After years of making use of elaborate renderings on one New York soundstage, NBC is taking a cue from Fox’s recent production of “Grease: Live!” and, for the first time, is staging the production in Los Angeles including a live studio audience and will mount some of the production outside.
About 40% of the show will take place outdoors on the NBCUniversal back lot, which has been gussied up as Baltimore with bright colors and storefront signs containing sly nods to the original film such as Waters Plumbing and Divine Pet Food (in homage to the actor and drag queen who originated the role of Edna).
“We learned from ‘Sound of Music’ and applied some of that learning to ‘Peter Pan,’ which we then applied to ‘The Wiz,’” Meron said. “The people on ‘Grease: Live!’ watched what we had done and made it their own. What they did was spectacularly done. They really turned it into a party. What’s great is that we can build on each other. It’s like a small community.”
In addition to reprising his Tony-winning performance as big mama Edna Turnblad, Fierstein also wrote the teleplay for NBC.
“It’s not that I wanted to update it — because it’s 1962 and I don’t want to [mess] with that,” said Fierstein, who also scripted the network’s production of “The Wiz,” along with Broadway hits like “Kinky Boots” and “La Cage aux Folles.” “But I wanted to feel more of the story from the black side. The story that John Waters so brilliantly told, but he did tell it from the white side. That’s where [director] Kenny Leon helped in bringing the tone and soul to it.”
Helping to make the production as seamless as possible is a crew of about 1,200 people and 18 cameras. “Hairspray Live” will also be the first of NBC’s musicals to use drones.
“With each one, we’ve evolved,” said NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. “‘Hairspray’ goes in directions that are bigger and broader than anything we’ve done so far. And it’s all done to suit what this production needs. I will tell you, there are aspects to the show that seem impossible, even days leading up to it, but we’re going to pull them off.”
It all makes for a somewhat jittery cast and crew as they brace for the big show day — even the ones used to no do-overs.
“I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” Fierstein says. “It’s such hard work. You just saw me running down the street alongside professional dancers — and I’m not even wearing heels yet. ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ is the one that kills you. That one just has me heaving.”
Tony-winner Chenoweth, who twirls a baton during downtime in her dressing room, puts it this way: “It’ll feel like we’re being shot out of a cannon on performance night.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)