It was the summer of 2003 and “Hairspray” was the hottest show on Broadway, after taking home eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A friend at New Line Cinema had offered to get me a pair of coveted tickets on a Saturday night, but upon arrival at the Neil Simon Theatre, they were not there. After a series of frantic phone calls back to Los Angeles, sweating on the sidewalk, tickets were procured literally one minute before showtime, and we breathlessly raced to our seats. But the second we sat down in the theater, a huge smile crossed my face that did not leave for the entire performance.
What an absolute joy to see Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur perform their roles as mother and daughter Edna and Tracy Turnblad in the musical adapted from the 1988 John Waters film. (In 2007, New Line would remake it as a feature film starring John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in the lead roles and co-starring Christopher Walken and Zac Efron.)
And now I, along with untold legions of other fans, eagerly await NBC’s production of “Hairspray Live!,” in which Fierstein will not only reprise his role alongside Maddie Baillio as Tracy, but has written the teleplay.
Other cast members include Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Derek Hough, Ariana Grande, Dove Cameron, Garrett Clayton, Ephraim Sykes and Shahadi Wright Joseph.
The list of performers doesn’t stop there. Also on tap are special appearances by Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, Andrea Martin, Rosie O’Donnell and Paul Vogt.
Aside from the rehearsals that have been going on, the closest thing to a preview of the live production to be shot on the Universal lot came during the summer TCA press tour, when NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, the force behind other live NBC musical productions of recent years including “Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music” and “The Wiz,” introduced a panel including executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and most of the cast.
All of the other Peacock Network musicals were shot in New York, and this will be the first one staged in California, on sets both indoors and outdoors, with a section of the backlot dressed as Baltimore storefronts with signs that pay homage to the original film.
Eighteen cameras will record the action and a crew of about 1,200 will shepherd the scenes for live broadcast.
Greenblatt noted that the message of inclusion in the show, set in 1962, comes at a timely moment that resonated deeply with the cast and crew.
“I’m just happy to do this particular story at this particular time in our country, when race relations are where they are,” said director Kenny Leon. “And I think this would be a fun time and a subtle way, with a feel-good musical, to talk about the beauty of all of us being together — and what better place to do it than the backlot.”
Fierstein, who also wrote NBC’s production of “The Wiz,” said “Hairspray’s” story of integration will remain set in its early ’60s time period and will not be revamped for contemporary mores.
“You don’t update history. You tell history. You’re true to it. You’re as true to it as you can be,” Fierstein said. “We can change laws, but the war is to change hearts, and nothing does that like song does. You know, music just brings us all together in a way that words just don’t, and 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, you know. That’s our aim, and we are each in this together to do that.”
The musical talents that will be showcased are pretty extraordinary — between Hudson, Grande, Hough and Chenoweth, who are all used to performing live.
Grande, who got her start on Broadway performing in a show called “13,” said she saw the original production when she was 10 or 11.
“It’s kind of surreal for me to even be a part of this. I’m so grateful,” she said. “But the fact that I’m here doing this with such incredible people — every time Harvey speaks, my heart bursts, a light goes off inside my heart. Kristin Chenoweth, we’re soulmates. I don’t even know what’s happening. My theater geek inside, which is what I am, I can’t take it. And it’s very overwhelming and very exciting, and Penny’s been my favorite character since the start.”
Hudson, who earlier this year wrapped her first Broadway experience, “The Color Purple,” admitted she’s nervous about performing her role as Motormouth Maybelle.
“So now I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? Are you really going to do this on live television?’ Because that feels like opening night happening on television,” Hudson said.
Fierstein was asked about coming back to the character of Edna a decade later.
“Unfortunately, she’s not any smarter, but, you know, you just approach it with love. You have a different director who I trust will bring something different. It’s a different medium because television is different,” said Fierstein, who also waxed euphoric about his co-stars. “I am going to have the unbelievable honor of having Marty Short as my husband. Who would not want to have a love affair with Marty Short and to sing that wonderful ‘Timeless to Me,’ to do a duet with him.”
Zadan, with Meron a veteran of all of the recent live NBC musicals, said he’s most thrilled about Fierstein’s performance.
“One of the most exciting things for us is the fact that Harvey’s performance on Broadway in that role is one of the great performances we’ve seen on Broadway, and the idea of capturing this for posterity on television is thrilling for us,” he said.
Baillio will jump into the national spotlight after completing her sophomore year at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. “Hairspray Live” was her first audition, alongside 1,300 other hopefuls, in which she was number 344. She got the part after four callbacks, after a little bit of trickery was played upon her.
“So I thought that was my final callback maybe, or maybe I had more auditions to go. I had no idea,” Baillio recalled. “And so they had a little interview set up, and they told me that they were doing a behind-the-scenes thing for the other Tracy hopefuls, how it all came together. And I was doing that, and Kenny [Leon] walked into the room and said, ‘Hey, Harvey asked me to give this to you so you can read it. Project and look into the camera.’ And so I pulled the paper out, and it said, ‘Maddie Baillio will be Tracy Turnblad in NBC’s “Hairspray Live!”’ And I was so excited, and I had to call my mom immediately. Yeah, that was fun.”
After “Hairspray Live!,” Zadan and Meron will take a break from musicals and executive produce the next NBC live production, “A Few Good Men,” based on the play (and movie) written — and now being rewritten for television — by Aaron Sorkin.
(“Hairspray Live” airs on NBC Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 8/7c.)