NBC’s latest addition to the televised live musical trend harkens back to a queer classic. John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray has lived on for generations, reimagined as a Broadway musical then a movie musical, and now finding its way to the small screen.
In the months leading up to the show, one big name after another was announced, yet again bringing these beloved characters to life. From Ariana Grande to Harvey Fierstein and Jennifer Hudson to Kristin Chenoweth, some of the biggest names in music, film, and theater are gearing up for the live event. The NBC Universal lot in Los Angeles has become a slice of John Waters’ Baltimore.
We recently visited the set where we were immersed in the full Hairspray experience. From the set of the 'Corny Collins Show' to the interior of the Turnblad house, and an entire block of some of our favorite fictional locations like Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway, Motormouth Records, and the Har-De-Har Hut.
Harvey Fierstein reprises his role as Edna Turnblad with Martin Short as her devoted Wilbur. It was a rare privilege sitting with two comedic legends who’ve developed a great chemistry.
“I hear there’s going to be a man playing the mother,” Fierstein joked. “But I didn’t check anyone else’s penises or vaginas.”
“Well that’s what wrap parties are for,” Short added.
Having put on the Edna wig over 1,000 times, the role is nothing new for Fierstein. When he originated the Broadway role, he would follow women around a mall in order to gain insight into this persona. He found himself identifying with her in more ways than one.
“I do love that nurturing side of Edna, and I love being around the cast and the kids that way,” he said. “And I adore her. But there’s a sadness about her that I love too. I’ve always been an overweight person, and to be an overweight woman is different than being an overweight man.”
The relevance of the show in today’s social and political environment is not confined to one character though. The irony was not lost among the cast that the rights their characters fight for are still at stake in such a racially sensitive time. It’s an entirely different landscape than what was around 15 years ago when the Broadway show premiered.
“Those kids in 2000, we had to educate them about segregation,” Fierstein said. “The black kids would sit out in the hall while the white kids rehearsed, and they started getting a very weird feeling. People started getting very territorial. There was a fight over Little Inez’s doll, whether it would be prettier if it was a white girl’s doll. We were feeling that stuff, and that stuff was foreign. It had to be brought to the show because it was not part of who they were, growing up. This group of kids, very unfortunately knows it’s true, and we don’t have to educate them about it.”
We also sat with Kristin Chenoweth, who is taking on the role of Velma Von Tussle, and Ariana Grande, who’s found her dream role in Penny Pingleton. The two were practically joined at the hip. They now share a spotlight in the gay community for which they feel a responsibility. For Chenoweth, it’s a unique role she’s embraced as a proud Christian.
“It’s interesting to be a person of faith in show business in the 21st century,” she said. “And I guess I have to keep saying those words right there. Whatever God is for us, God is love. It seems like the opposite of that happens a lot instead of acceptance and love. Not tolerance, acceptance. That’s my message.”
Just weeks after the election with mounting cases of racial injustices in the past years, Hairspray is suddenly more relevant than ever.
“I think it’s cosmic,” Grande said. “I think it was meant to be. I think the universe had a plan and was like ok, we need to show these people something uplifting but that will also make you get the point. It’s a beautiful show. It’s touching.”
Grande will join Jennifer Hudson in reprising “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)” from the 2007 movie musical. She shared the rest of the cast’s emotional reaction to hearing Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle perform “I Know Where I’ve Been.” For Hudson, it’s an emotion she was able to grasp from experience.
“When I was doing Dreamgirls, I had to go back and look at what was happening in the ‘60s,” she said. “I don’t find myself having to do that now. It’s like, turn on the news. It helps us in a way because now we can relate in this day and age. I think it gives the story that much more power and meaning. To us, this is normal. But now, we won’t necessarily see it that way.”
The show also boasts a group of fresh talent. From Hamilton, Ephraim Sykes takes on Seaweed J. Stubbs. Also making the leap from Broadway is Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays Little Inez. The show is rounded out by newcomer Maddie Baillio in the role of Tracy Turnblad, the big-hearted ingénue.
Hairspray Live! premieres Wednesday, December 7 at 8/7c on NBC. Watch the promo below: