Hairspray, Huh? … Interesting Choice
The Wiz was an unqualified hit for NBC and what has become their annual holiday LIVE! musical. In fact, it was so much better than its predecessors The Sound of Music and Peter Pan that it has injected a little more life into this teetering series that is always on the brink of extinction, dependent on ratings and an assured audience made up of musical theatre enthusiasts (are we a dying breed?). Let’s face it: if they make a musical, we will come. Those of us who love musicals in any format will show up and give it a try, but live musical television counts on a much larger crowd getting on the bandwagon.
NBC has announced that, once again under the producing eyes of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, they will revisit the live television musical format this December with Hairspray. I find this to be an interesting choice. Commercially, it makes sense because it marries youthful exuberance with lively music that is bound to bring in that all-too-important younger audience (The eager anticipation of the upcoming Grease Live on another network may have also prompted this choice). Artistically, there is a good reason for a Hairspray Live! as well. The original Broadway production that opened in 2002 ran for 2,642 performances was such a pure delight: equal parts sassy, topical, timeless, joyous and irreverent. It dripped with a camp factor (aided largely by Harvey Fierstein’s indelible performance and legacy for snark) that matched the spirit of the John Waters film on which it was based. In 2007, Messieurs Zadan and Meron produced a serviceable, but lackluster, film version of the musical Hairspray that starred John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelly, Amanda Bynes, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Marsden. I say “serviceable” because the film told the story, hit all the marks of the musical, but never seemed to jump off the screen with the same untamed spirit that the stage production unleashed like unbridled horses upon the audience each night. Is Hairspray – Live! Zadan’s and Meron’s act of contrition for their lukewarm film version?
I would argue that there are so many other titles that deserve a chance for live-television treatment before Hairspray. With the 2007 film fresh in our minds and the Broadway production even fresher (it closed in 2009), Hairspray is not urgently in need of a revival in any form. The Secret Garden, Once on this Island and Seussical instantly come to mind as family-friendly properties that deserve to be preserved in some way and that would be successful as live-television events. I realize that these live-musicals need to make money to keep happening, so it will probably continue to be a parade of tried-and-true titles. Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where people would just tune-in because it was simply a chance to see a musical in all its greatness and we didn’t have to rely on what is already known to be part of the allure? Truthfully, as a mass audience, television viewers typically choose to play it safe. I ask you, how many TV versions of Peter Pan and Cinderella do we need before someone says, “Gee, I’d like to see something musical theatre-related that I haven’t seen before”?
Is Hairspray Live! a bad idea? Not in the slightest. In fact, it will be loads of fun to see the hoopla around the casting, to see if this new version will recharge the piece with the energy and verve that it deserves, and to once again set our toes tapping to that fun and liberating music from a musical that celebrates individuality and self-acceptance. I remember sitting in theatre back in 2002 and watching Hairspray and its original cast bring me back to life for two-hours. I recall with sublime detail the way its music pulsed and prodded in a way few Broadway scores do, inviting me to get out of my seat and celebrate the possibility that “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” If Hairspray Live! can do this for a television audience, then it seems to me that NBC, Zadan and Meron have made a wise choice. I think we can all agree that, no matter what our feelings are about this choice, we will all be tuning in this December hoping to feel that electric thrill once agin.