Below are a dozen photographs from “Hairspray Live,” which was broadcast on NBC December 7th; videos of seven of its songs; and my ten takeaways.
Takeaways from Hairspray Live
1. In its tale set in 1962 Baltimore of a pleasantly plump high school girl who fights for inclusion for herself and for her African-American friends in a local TV dance show, “Hairspray” mixes campy good fun, a subversive sensibility, a rocking and tuneful score, and social commentary that seems newly relevant. The 2003 Best Musical Tony winner, which was adapted from John Waters 1988 film, holds up as a musical.
2. Favorite lines and lyrics:
This is America, where everybody deserves a separate but equal chance to fail
Tracy: I wish every day was Negro Day
Seaweed: At our house it is
Whatever happened to the spiceless spineless boy I fell in love with?
i’m Big, blonde and beautiful
There is nothin’ ’bout me
You’re like a stinky old cheese, babe
Just gettin’ riper with age
My mother’s in shock
My father’s in hock
I much prefer Link’s arms
To jailhouse cells
There’s a light In the darkness
Though the night Is black as my skin
There’s a dream
In the future
There’s a struggle
We have yet to win.
And there’s pride
In my heart
‘Cause i know
Where i’m going
And i know where i’ve been
3. Kenny Leon, the Tony-winning director of eight Broadway shows — including “Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences,” both starring Denzel Washington — deserves kudos for following up his direction of last year’s The Wiz Live. If “Hairspray Live” was not as much of a popular or critical success, please remember that, before Leon, the NBC December musicals were targets of gleeful hate-Tweeting.
4. Jennifer Hudson, with that powerhouse delivery, deserves her stardom.
5. As Velma Von Tussle, Kristin Chenoweth made for a superior villain.
6. As Seaweed J Stubbs, Ephraim Sykes, who has been in the ensemble of five Broadway shows, starting at age 22 in “The Little Mermaid” and now in “Hamilton,” showed that he can sing (sultry), dance (electrically) and act well enough to become a star.
A general observation, perhaps too obvious to state: The performers who do best in live musicals on TV are the ones who have experience doing live musicals on stage.
7. The cameos by the former Tracy Turnblads, Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur, while welcome, served to undermine the production in two ways. It reminded us of how strong singers and actors they were; the same couldn’t really be said of the new Tracy Turnblad, Maddie Baillio, an undergraduate chosen after a nationwide casting call. That both former Tracys came to fame as plump and are now svelte (ditto Jennifer Hudson) is a good indication that one of the central messages of the show (“I’m big blond and beautiful…”) hasn’t taken hold.
8. Could they have cast a Link Larkin that looked more like Zac Efron!? Yes – Zac Efron.
9. Unlike the three previous live musicals that NBC has produced, “Hairspray Live” was not shot in New York, where most of its talent resides, but in a Los Angeles soundstage, in apparent imitation of Fox’s Grease Live. This was a mistake. It makes sense on several levels — aesthetically, symbolically and practically — for a live musical using Broadway talent to be broadcast from New York.
10. ELEVEN commercial breaks was entirely too many, made worse by the way they were bookended, with Darren Criss as some kind of anchor (why wasn’t he IN the show!?) and shots and interviews of fans watching in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Baltimore, and of the actors going from set to set in golf carts. These and the cheerleading by a sporadically inserted audience were all worse than superfluous; they undermined the show’s continuity, distracting us from the story.
NBC’s greed leaked into the scenes themselves, with product placements that were despicable, sabotaging the satire and the spirit of the show.