Hairspray has more lives than a cat.
I am talking about the now-several incarnations of the property, which started as an independent cult-hit film from director John Waters in 1988. It later was turned into a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2002, followed by a hit film version in 2007 and now is morphing into a live NBC musical Wednesday night direct from the backlot at Universal Studios. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — who also served as producers of the 2007 film — revived the idea of live TV musicals with their 2013 hit The Sound of Music Live, and they are the producers behind this one, which is the first they have done outside of the Long Island studio where Sound of Music, Peter Pan Live, and last year’s The Wiz Live were made.
Hairspray lends itself to the kind of outdoor ambiance and multiple stages that a big studio can provide, thus they have packed up the wagons and moved out west for this one, as well as next year’s holiday NBC musical offering Bye Bye Birdie, which is going to star Jennifer Lopez. In fact, as they took me on a tour of the sets last week, as well as a look at rehearsals for the big opening number, they noted that the two new Universal soundstages they are using just finished construction and Hairspray is breaking them in. Also new for this team will be a live audience for several of the scenes. It fits into the motif of this particular show since a lot of it takes place as a live TV dance show within a live musical but also is something that Fox’s Emmy-winning production of Grease Live! effectively used last January.
As for all those Emmys going to Grease Live! but still eluding the NBC musicals that started the trend, Meron and Zadan are fine with it. “What Grease did was phenomenal, and if it won, it is a win for this entire genre that’s being started,” said Meron. “It’s all hats off to them, and we all contribute something to each other, and that’s the way to look at it, and they deserved it because they did incredible work,” he said of the Fox show shot live on the Warner Bros backlot by Hamilton director Thomas Kail and was produced in part by Marc Platt, who also has La La Land and Wicked on his own musicals résumé.
So why Hairspray, especially since the prolific duo have already been down this road just nine years ago? Oddly it is a show that seems even more timely now, though it’s still set in 1962. “We finished The Wiz. We wanted to do something a little more contemporary,” Zadan told me. “We thought Hairspray is African American and white, and we thought it is the perfect show for us to do. And for the time we are living in, it seemed like the right time. We also feel the movie is different than the actual show, and when we did the movie we were doing a period piece set in 1962. Unfortunately, doing it this year, it is not a period piece, it is what America is going through right now.” Adds Meron, “The themes are so powerful — of inclusion, of self-worth, of positive body image, of one person who can effect change, of being in a world that exists with diversity and celebrated for that.”
Plus they have been able to put together a killer cast including (to name a few) Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Grande, Rosie O’Donnell, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Sean Hayes, Andrea Martin and newcomer Maddie Baillio, who won the role of Tracy Turnblad in an open audition of nearly 1,000 young women. And then, of course, there is Harvey Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad, the role that went to John Travolta in the 2007 film version. Originally Fierstein, who also wrote the original show’s book, was hired only to do the teleplay but then was offered the chance to immortalize his take on the part. The producers discussed the idea with NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, and the rest is about to be history. “I called Harvey, and there was a beat, and he got so emotional about it, and it was like reclaiming that part of him that he loved so much, and he is just brilliant and just deserves this, ” said Meron. Pop star Grande, who plays Penny Pingleton, wanted to be in it so much she had her agent call and ask if she could audition. Zadan and Meron were flabbergasted and said if she wants a role, it was hers.
“When we started this whole thing with these live musicals, we were begging actors to do it,” said Zadan. “Nobody wanted to do it because they were going out without a safety net, and if you hit a bad note, you can’t fix it. This time everybody we went to said ‘yes’.”
This whole new network phenomenon of live musicals, which harkened back to the golden age of TV, was re-hatched in a meeting a few years ago with Greenblatt, who clearly is an aficionado of the musical form and proudly displays his Tony Award as a producer of Broadway hit A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, as he showed me when I visited his NBC offices on the Universal studio lot shortly after my Hairspray set visit. Greenblatt notes he also oversees Universal Stage Productions, the theatrical arm of the company that mines Universal vaults for viable stage properties. They currently have a new musical version of the 1942 Bing Crosby film they own, Holiday Inn, on Broadway for Roundabout. He is also a producer of current hit Something Rotten, as well as Dear Evan Hansen, which just transferred from off-Broadway to the Great White Way, winning rave notices at its official opening Sunday night.
And how many broadcast network heads have a grand piano in their office? Just before our chat Greenblatt had been playing it with Chenoweth, who dropped in for a song. Among other movie and musical memorabilia on his walls is a large and stunning framed lobby standee from Singin’ in the Rain, as well as a Japanese version of the film’s movie poster. It’s abundantly clear these live musicals are a yearly pet project of his, but he wasn’t quite sure at first. “I will take credit for having no vision,” he modestly says. “It was Craig and Neil who I did this with in the beginning; you know, it was an idea. They threw it at me and I went, ‘Wow, that sounds like it could be fun, but how would we logistically do a live musical?'” Zadan and Meron had produced (along with others including executive producer Steven Spielberg) the weekly series, Smash, about the creation of a Broadway musical, but it lasted only two seasons. However, among those then-unknowns who contributed songs to the short-lived series were Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, now Oscar- and Tony -buzzed for their songs from the new movie La Land and Greenblatt’s Broadway newbie Dear Evan Hansen. But Hairspray turned out to be just the right recipe for what NBC needs in a holiday musical. Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman also contributed songs for the first season of Smash, so this is all incestuous in a way.
“There was no grand plan or thought that in four or five years we’ll be doing this or that. I didn’t even know if we’d do a second one until we could prove that the first one worked. And it (Sound of Music Live!) did work creatively, but also had an audience that was big enough to justify the expense, because these things are very expensive and very labor intensive,” he said noting that with each one they learn how to do it more economically while building on their success and expanding by getting more production value for the buck. He reiterates what Zadan says about stars coming to them now. Jennifer Lopez actually called Greenblatt not only to ask if she could star in one, but also specifically wanting to do Bye Bye Birdie which is going to be their 2017 holiday show. “She said, ‘I have fallen in love with Bye Bye Birdie, and I want to do it, and I want to do it with you guys’. We do Shades of Blue with her, and so I was like, okay this is a perfect show because it’s a family show. It’s got nostalgia, a great score. It’s funny because when I announced it, I’ve not gotten the kind of reaction from any of the other shows we’ve done that we got for Birdie,” he said, noting there are many kinds of shows like Cabaret that might be too edgy or sexually dangerous, or shows they can’t get like a West Side Story or something like Wicked, which even though it is a Universal property is going the movie route after its continuing long run on Broadway.
“I know immediately there are a bunch of titles that are not available, and there’s not an infinite number of shows that are well known. So there’s not a great big list when you boil it down. I wanted to do Mamma Mia! The studio owns that but they’re going to do a sequel to the movie,” he said, apparently breaking a little news.
Look closely at the outdoor store fronts on the Hairspray set and you will spot “Greenblatt’s Baltimore Crabs” named for the NBC chief, as well as another named after Meron, in addition to others like Waters Plumbing, a tip of the hat to the man who started the Hairspray mania in 1988.
Hairspray Live! airs on NBC at 8 PM ET absolutely live, with the West Coast broadcast on a delay at 8 PM PT.