Network TV’s recent spate of live musicals have been many things, from buoyant and distracting to plodding and super awkward. But rarely have they been socially relevant – and then came Hairspray Live! The movie-turned-stage musical-turned-movie musical (got all that?) has now become a television extravaganza under the auspices of NBC’s live song-and-dance format, and its message of inclusivity, equality and the fight for civil rights has taken on a freshly urgent tone in our current cultural moment. So unlike, say, Peter Pan Live! or Grease Live!, there’s a very good reason for this to be Live! right exactly now.
Based on John Waters’s 1988 cult classic, Hairspray follows the exploits of Tracy Turnblad, a wide-eyed teenager in 1962 Baltimore with dreams of landing a spot on a local TV dance show in the vein of American Bandstand. But her quest for fame and acceptance snowballs into a fight for representation of the marginalized – specifically, the primacy of women and the desegregation of African Americans on television – that feels acutely relevant in our in-progress political climate. And vitally, all of this heavy, important stuff is dipped in a colorful, kitschy, salty-sweet coating and a wrapped in a package of catchy-as-hell songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s 2002 Tony-winning Broadway show.
That’s not to say that Hairspray Live! was as flawless as Tracy’s Aqua-Netted coif. Co-directed by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, NBC’s production was a sprawling affair featuring performances by a blend of Broadway vets and theater neophytes, some of whom don’t always stick the landing. But listen: Any day we get to see Harvey Fierstein performing in full drag on network television is a good goddamn day in America. Here where 10 of the best, worst and genuinely WTF moments from last night’s broadcast.
Best: The Musical’s More-Than-Relevant Message
When modern American audiences previously got a load of Hairspray — first in Broadway in 2002 and next in Adam Shankman’s 2007 movie — it was easy to think of the story’s civil rights-era setting as throwback. But in 2016, the year that the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum, the country elected a white-nationalist sympathizer to the White House and Hillary Clinton tried and failed to break the glass ceiling, the story is achingly relevant. The cartoonish villainy of Velma Von Tussle (Kristin Chenoweth), a TV producer determined to make sure that Caucasians rule the airwaves, suddenly feels close to reportage. And the swelling “I Know Where I’ve Been,” in which Tracy and black R&B DJ Motormouth Maybelle lead a group of protesters against The Corny Collins Show‘s racist policies, carries strong undertones of the 2015 demonstrations against police mistreatment of Freddie Gray. “You are not the first to try/and you won’t be the last,” Maybelle tells her followers. “But I’m here to tell you/that I’m gonna keep on trying.”
Worst: Performing a Musical in a Vacuum
Let’s face it: Musicals are meant to be experienced in the room. (There’s a reason why you won’t feel moved by a shaky bootleg recording of Hamilton on YouTube.) Hairspray was filmed on a massive Universal Studios back lot and a pair of sound stages, which made for some cool visuals and directing – but also a total lack of engagement with a live audience. A show as filled with show-stopping numbers and drily funny dialogue as this one especially suffered without anyone there to applaud and guffaw along. It was a breath of fresh air when viewers were brought into the TV studio for Hairspray‘s rousing closer. So that’s where all the laughter had been hiding.
Best: Polished Performances from Broadway Vets
This broadcast was easily the most smartly cast of NBC and Fox’s live musicals, trusting in the chops of powerhouses from the Great White Way to play the grown-ups in the story. Fierstein, who originated the role on Broadway, is the one and only choice to play the husky, witty force of nature that is Edna Turnblad (since John Waters muse Divine is no longer with us, anyway). Wicked legend Kristin Chenoweth gleefully chews all the scenery and hits all the high notes as Velma, and Andrea Martin makes an all-too-brief but hilarious appearance as a put-upon mother.
WTF: Ariana Grande and Garrett Clayton’s Stunt Casting
Bad news, Arianators: Your girl may be great at anchoring a stadium concert, but a musical theater sensation she ain’t. She’s very much out of her depth as Tracy’s BFF Penny Pingleton, her smooth-pop warbling getting lost amidst everyone else’s brassy, theatrical vocals. And the less said about her “acting,” the better. Her presence in Hairspray might have brought in a lot of viewers, but she’s likely not what they stuck around for. Also at a loss: Disney Channel heartthrob Garrett Clayton as Tracy’s dreamboat object of affection, Link Larkin. He’s an off-brand Zac Efron (who played the role in the 2007 film), a wooden actor who has zero chemistry with anyone else onscreen.
Best: Jennifer Hudson, Oh My God, Jennifer Hudson
It’s a crime that it was almost two hours into the broadcast before Jennifer Hudson got the chance to stretch her stunning pipes, because wow. The moment she broke into “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” we were reminded anew how insane it is that she finished seventh place on American Idol. Hudson shuts everything else down whenever she gets the chance to sing, providing a powerhouse moment of true emotional catharsis in “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Will someone cast this woman in another movie musical, already?
Best: A Passel of Promising Fresh Faces
Due to the sad lack of parts for plus-size ingénues in mainstream musical theater, the role of Tracy has classically gone to a newcomer on the scene. This time around it’s 20-year-old Maddie Baillio, who won the part after she auditioned at an open call. (In a tribute to its past, two previous Tracys, Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur, made a cameo in “Welcome to the Sixties.”) Baillio is a ray of sunshine as Tracy, endlessly energetic even as she has to spend most of the show being ushered from one sound stage to another. Also worth keeping an eye on: Hamilton ensemble alum Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed J. Stubbs, who’s a magnetic presence with pipes and dance moves to spare, and preternaturally talented nine-year-old Shahadi Wright Joseph as his kid sister Little Inez.
Worst: Darren Criss’ Annoying Interruptions
Nothing takes you out of a story quite like having a host run up to the performers of said story immediately after they’ve finished a number. This is what Darren Criss did throughout the night in his thankless role as the host of Hairspray Live! Armed with a microphone, Criss appeared before every commercial break to shatter the fourth wall and remind us that, yes, we are watching a musical, and yes, a lot of work went into the production. Way to kill the mood, dude. Maybe instead they should’ve given the poor guy a part in the show? The former Glee star is a pretty talented performer in his own right.
WTF: That Giant, Giant Set
Like Fox’s Emmy-winning Grease Live! (which was co-directed by Rudzinski), Hairspray was filmed on a grand scale across multiple sets. Take “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the show’s opening number in which Tracy traverses her neighborhood on her way to school. The scope of the thing and the timing involved is pretty incredible, but the effort of it also shows. Actors seem to rush to their places, and Baillio was understandably winded halfway through the song. Performers were rushed on-camera from location to location between scenes, and after a while, their fatigue started to show. Musicals are demanding enough already without adding crossing giant spaces to the mix. Still, the ambition of Leon and Rudzinski’s vision was impressive.
Worst: The Unreliable Sound
There are bound to be a few technical glitches on opening night of a live show; but when opening night is also closing night by default, it’s harder to stomach. Hairspray was marred by shoddy sound mixing and by performers’ microphones cutting in and out at key moments. Worse, voices were often drowned out by the instrumentals – and in a show like this, the lyrics come fast enough that they’re easy to lose. Lucky for us, Kristin Chenoweth can project with or without amplification; unlucky for us, Ariana Grande definitely cannot.
Best: “You Can’t Stop the Beat”
Hairspray‘s closing number is one of Broadway’s longest, but you never really want it to end. After Tracy & Co. win the day by desegregating The Corny Collins Show using guerilla dance tactics, the whole gang comes together to sing this jubilant tribute to the inevitability of forward momentum. It’s a rousing victory dance for the marginalized, from Edna appearing in a fabulous dress to tell the body-shamers to shove it to Penny proudly celebrating her newfound interracial relationship. Plus, it’s just a dang infectious tune. “You can’t stop today as it comes speeding round the track/Yesterday is history and it’s never comin’ back,” Motormouth belts. As we head into a dark new time in our nation’s history, it might be exactly the fight song we need.