Hairspray Live!: What We Want to See
This week we will finally get to see the next live musical on television: Hairspray. Since its announcement earlier this year, I have been eager with anticipation for three reasons. First, I think it is a good choice for the live television treatment since it is a vibrant, energetic and family-friendly piece with a lot of messages that are particularly pertinent right now. Second, the film version starring John Travolta left me feeling unsatisfied, as if the fun had been drained from the piece. Finally, and perhaps foremost, I think Harvey Fierstein's indelible performance as the blossoming Edna Turnblad needs to be preserved for posterity.
This all being said, the live TV musical oeuvre has been a mixed-bag in regards to quality. Last year's The Wiz was robust and enjoyable, but prior efforts such as Peter Pan and The Sound of Music have felt clumsy and without verve. Hairspray seems poised to capitalize on what worked best in The Wiz, while avoiding the pitfalls of the two predecessors. Here is what we will be looking for when we tune-in on December 7th.
- No Dead Air at the End of Songs
One of the ongoing problems with these live musicals is their inability to ignite momentum. They seem to be short on that connective spark that keeps it building. Songs end and there is this dead air that just sits, even for the briefest second, like a vacuum of nothingness. The chief reason for this, I believe, is that these pieces are directed to play like Broadway musicals, but there has been no audience to applaud with enthusiasm and keep the energy going. Having an audience live in the studio, who can react and emote, should help overcome this stumbling block.
- No Rushing
Some of these live musicals, particularly last spring's Grease, feel rushed, which doesn't give the piece the organic space to unfold. I realize that these productions are tied to a certain timeframe, and that money is also made from commercial advertisements, but when a musical is not given authentic hills and valleys where the action can move and develop, the actors look strained and their characters become caricatures.
- Sometimes Less Is More
Multiple camera angles are peachy for sitcom television and reality TV, but musicals demand a certain framing where camera work is concerned. This is particularly important where filming choreography is concerned. We will get weird angles of the chorus that aren't as visually appealing as if one camera focuses on the bigger picture. Grease was particularly frantic in this regard, the result being actors not always knowing what camera to look into and angles that give us awkward shots of people who are not the focus of a particular number. I'm particularly worried about this where Hairspray is concerned. The cast's performance on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (in a specially choreographed version of "You Can't Stop the Beat") was a multi-camera train wreck that didn't do much to calm my worries. I’m not saying to abandon the multiple camera format, but use it sparingly.
- Camp is Essential
Hairspray has always relied on the camp factor, including a very obvious man in drag playing the mother. It's what makes the musical work. Hairspray’s themes, including being exactly who you are and embracing diversity, are buoyed by this conceit, as well as by the tongue-in-cheek wit and innuendo that accompanies it. Let Hairspray be Hairspray. Don't give us a G-rated version to keep the uppity ups from being uncomfortable or offended. We want to revel in being a part of its subversive lunacy.
What is most important of all is the need for fun in these live musicals. In the past, the fun seems to stop at the television screen and never leaps past that divide and into the audience's hearts. I really hope Hairspray can breech this barrier and get the people watching to jump up and dance during the musical's more inspiring moments. If it can do that, they will have a hit on their hands!
I believe that all of the above is possible and, if employed, will lead to the best live television musical yet! I look forward to watching this week!