THE BEAT GOES ON
‘Hairspray Live!’ Was Nearly Perfect—And So Important
You can’t stop the beat when Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth, and Harvey Fierstein are this brilliant and a musical’s message is this timely. Why hate when you can dance?
There's a powerful moment right before Jennifer Hudson's powder-keg voice blows the roof off the Hairspray Live set and brings the entire viewing audience to tears.
"There's a whole lot of ugly comin' at you from a never-ending parade of stupid," her Motormouth Maybelle tells a scared room of black children, fearful for what fate their desire to feel safe and included might bring them.
"What do we do when something is wrong?" she asks them. "We fix it. Children, you aren't the first to try. And you won't be the last…"
In enough ways to fill Harvey Fierstein's bosom, NBC's production of Hairspray Live! was the joyous celebration of love and acceptance that an uneasy culture craved, and perhaps needed. From its opening to its ecstatic "You Can't Stop the Beat" finale, it was a rare three hours of television that elicited a continuous smile. (Turns out more change comes when community leaders sing and dance than when they angry tweet.)
Is a live TV musical going to be able to blast away hate and intolerance with some energetic dancing and possibly toxic levels of aerosol spray? Certainly not.
But a musical as infectious as this one and a production this well-cast and well-intentioned is a timely reminder of the power of theatre, the healing properties of bravery and hope, and the necessity of a night of earnest fun.
Snarky tweets might have mocked the show's over-simplification: Hairspray is about an overweight Baltimore teen named Tracy Turnblad whose innocent goal of dancing on an American Bandstand-like TV show evolves into a mission to integrate the city (musical theatre is nothing if not lofty).
But sitting back and soaking in the pleasures of Hudson's take-me-to-church belting or Kristin Chenoweth's unrivaled comedic timing while offering even just a passing glance at the show's moralizing, it's hard not to be struck by its message.
Hairspray is set in the 1960s, but is particularly poignant today. In an era of complacency, it says, "Dance!" And, albeit with the grains of silly saly provided by likes of Martin Short, Ariana Grande, and the veritable bouffant of spunk that is newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy, it says, "Fight!"
Again, this is a TV production. So for NBC, this says something else: "Worth it." The ambitious production cost a reported $10 million with sets sprawling across Universal Studios in Hollywood, with cast members jettisoned from The Corny Collins Show stage to the Turnblads' Baltimore row house on golf carts during commercial breaks.
The camera choreography was as intricate as the dance choreography, but from the first "oh, oh, oh" of "Good Morning, Baltimore," the outing was as faithful an homage to the material's original Broadway production as these live musical events have managed to come. Perhaps that's what lent the show its purity, too.
Watching this, you're not just grading what you're seeing live, but also on a curve of how the other special events musicals succeeded—or, more often, flopped. Vanity Fair's Katey Rich said it best, tweeting: "So NBC started the live musical awkwardly, FOX perfected it with Grease Live, and now NBC is shamelessly copying it." One might go a step further and say that with Hairspray Live, NBC is actually perfecting it.
Sure, things happened that occasionally halted the beat (heh). The lighting was a disaster. There's a sound guy looking for a job somewhere, after the numerous instances of dropped sound and a jarring "30 seconds!" director's cue interrupted one of the musical's most heartwarming moments.
A nice reminder that we're live? Sure! But distracting nonetheless.
While casting from the A-listers down to the rising stars was almost undeservedly phenomenal, the star-pandering hiring of Ariana Grande didn't pay off, with the pop starlet's voice out of place in the Broadway score and her comedic timing in one of the musical's most reliably scene-stealing parts even more so. And the goofy suaveness that's supposed to make Link Larkin a send-up of matinee idols was missing from Garrett Clayton's lifeless performance.
But why harp on the weak spots when the production otherwise soared.
Baillio, who won her role in a star-search casting call, was every bit the spark plug Tracy needs to be. Ephraim Sykes, too, as her partner-in-integration Seaweed, gave a star-is-born kind of performance, somehow managing to make "Run and Tell That" just as rousing as it is on the live stage, which is no easy feat to have to telegraph through a camera lens and to an audience lounging on sofas.
Jennifer Hudson sent "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" to the rafters. You hire Jennifer Hudson to perform a barn burner during a live musical, and you bring the fire extinguishers because she's going to deliver. She always delivers, but never more so than when singing "I Know Where I've Been," Hairspray's eleven-o'-clock number about calling on the strength of those who came before you to push for what's right going ahead.
If you are a music theatre fan, there's a certain ecclesiastical rapture that takes over when Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Andrea Martin are in a split screen doing stage business while three bright young ingenues—oh hey there, Dove Cameron, our new obsession—in "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now."
For all the laborious effort past live productions have made to attract new audiences to musical theatre or shoehorn iconic shows to fit more modern or hipper crowds, that's something that's been somewhat ignored.
I love Hairspray. I love it.
I know they used the original production's choreography for "You Can't Stop the Beat" because I know the original choreography for "You Can't Stop the Beat." (Thanks, YouTube.) Reciting along as Link tells Tracy, "They can keep us from kissing, but they can't stop us from singing" is basically how I came out to my high school girlfriend. (Thanks, Jarett, for that not-joke joke.) "I Know Where I've Been" played while I crossed the finish line of the New York Marathon and I wept, because I am gayer than Link Larkin and I love Hairspray.
This, folks, was a very good production of Hairspray!
Harvey Fierstein is a singular talent in the way that few people are. He's a creative genius, unafraid to approach sensitive material with big, broad strokes, and, as you saw Wednesday night with his indelible Edna Turnblad performance, has unparalleled talent for crafting comic characters that are so very human.
I missed the applause of a live audience Wednesday night most after Fierstein's one-liners. This is the kind of script, and Fierstein gives the kind of performance, that needs a giggle to land. As good as Hairspray Live was, the absent crackling energy of an audience that laughs and cries and applauds will forever be these productions' biggest detriments.
Still, Hairspray Live felt special.
NBC's other live productions may have been born out of noble intentions and a love of musical theatre, but each eventually devolved into a circus of "hate-watching" and snarky tweeting, down to the annual excitement for that very thing. And not to put too much importance on three hours of showtunes featuring Ariana Grande and Kristin Chenoweth, but there seemed to be an awareness of Hairspray Live as a potential "moment," of sorts.
The beauty of these kinds of razzle-dazzle musicals, at least the ones as flamboyant as Hairspray, is their proud earnestness. There's not a hint of irony and barely a trace of cynicism in Tracy Turnblad, something that makes her belting of maxims like, "Tomorrow is a brand new day, and it don't know white from black!" cut deeper. It isn't sharpened with bitterness and jadedness, but with something even stronger: optimism, hope, and the fierce determination that, if we all band together, you really can't stop the beat.
It's an ethos that flies in the face of our instinct to scoff at such things as naivete or delusion, but resonates because that kind of gumption is, to quote another of the production's songs, timeless.
Hairspray works because it doesn't erase history. It acknowledges that women, people of color, and—thanks to the work of John Waters, Divine, Harvey Fierstein, and the tradition of casting Edna Turnblad in drag—the gay community are weathered from the fight. It harnesses that exhaustion and that exasperation—"I Know Where I've Been"—into kindling that sets fire to a movement and, sure, irresistible production numbers.
A little irreverence helps, too: "We get any more white people in here and it'll be a suburb," one black chorus member says. "Are all white people like that?" another asks, after the exit of Chenoweth's bigoted Velma VonTussle. "No," Short's Wilbur Turnblad replies. "Just most."
Hairspray takes place in the '60s, became a movie in the '80s, a Broadway hit in the early '00s, a Hollywood success in 2007, and, nearly, 10 years later and at a moment of weariness, fear, and even anger, is now a live TV event.
Maybe the story is just popular because good songs and campy humor are fun. But maybe, too, its longevity is owed to our subconscious desire to be reminded that being big is beautiful, that appearances don't define us or stifle our potential, that you don't need to dress in drag to be loved—but, sure, do that if that makes you feel fabulous—and that unity and change are really possible.
Rosie O'Donnell, who cameo'd in the production, wiped tears from her cheeks during the production's emotional curtain call as Hudson and Grande sang the tune, "Come So Far."
The lyrics are almost laughably simple. "I know we've come so far, but we've got so far to go," it says. "I know the road seems long, but it won't be long 'til it's time to go."
The time, as it's always been, is now. And thanks to Wednesday night's jubilant Hairspray Live, the beat on the journey will be a bit peppier, if not exactly unstoppable.