I Flipped for ‘Hairspray Live!’

Plus-sized Tracy Turnblad ( Maddie Baillio) takes the stage by storm.

Hairspray Live! got rave reviews, so-so ratings. (Photo: Jun Wajda/NBC)

Okay, they say the ratings were meh. But for this reviewer, NBC’s Hairspray Live! was an unqualified triumph, hitting all the right notes: it looked great; the tunes? Fantastic! Propelled me out of my seat, had me bopping to the beat. I was literally drawn to the screen, mesmerized by all the twirling, trilling and candy-toned hues. I may have been about to do dishes, but suddenly a great gust of fun had blown into my family room on a Wednesday. From housework to houseparty. Thank you, John Waters and Marc Shaiman! For contributing to life’s magical surprises. (And to NBC, because magic is often risky, and doesn’t come cheap.)

That the live televised production — the fourth in what has become a holiday musical tradition for NBC — was not an unqualified “hit” only stiffened my laudatory resolve, not unlike the eponymous product behind all this follicular splendor. I’ve not seen a previous Hairspray iteration — not the 1988 John Waters original, the 2002 Broadway smash or the 2007 film remake it sparked. But I knew of them, and have a couple of John Waters books on my shelves.

I turned it on not really expecting much, only to find myself mesmerized by all that glittering motion, the social messaging (accepting people who are “a little different,” uncannily appropriate for our time) and of course all those crazy kids, whirling around. The casting, by Bernard Telsey (NBC’s This Is Us), was inspired. Much was made of Maddie Baillio winning the role of Tracy Turnblad through an open audition. The newcomer received much praise for her portrayal of the big gal with larger-than-life dreams that include racially integrating the fictional The Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore-based American Bandstand, circa 1962.

Less was said about the Ariana Grande’s pitch-perfect performance as nerd-turned-sexpot Penny Pingleton. At the risk of launching into one of those awards show laundry lists of the outstanding achievers who deserve shout-outs, let me summarize by stating everyone was fabulous (but I particularly enjoyed Sean Hayes as Mr. Pinky, purveyor of plus-sized garments). The technical contributions are equally outstanding, with Chris Willman helpfully pointing out in Billboard that Alex Rudzinski, the “live television director,” was the one responsible for getting the cameras, lights and microphones operating on cue, while director Kenny Leon focused on the actors.

To think, all of this was going on right around the corner, at Universal Studios, where production took place across two soundstages and several backlot locations. Waters has described Los Angeles as a great American city, in part because he finds it “throbbing with fake glamour.”  Hairspray Live!, too, pulsates with glamour so fake it’s real. The teleplay’s theme of racial equality (or inequality, depending on how you look at it) is a serious one, wrapped up in a pretty package. “By representing this reality—in bubble-gum, technicolor clarity—Hairspray does something that pure documentation, at times, can’t: It makes a difficult part of a nation’s history accessible (and entertaining) to millions of viewers,” writes Matthew Delmont in a revealing exploration of Hairspray and race for The Atlantic.

The piece details how from 1957 to 1963, Baltimore’s The Buddy Deane Show — a favorite of John Waters and the model for Corny Collins — only allowed white kids in the studio, segregating people of color to the so-called “Black Mondays.”  When, much like Corny Collins, the show Buddy Deane in concession to youthful pressure, broadcast an integrated episode, the producers “received bomb and arson threats, hate mail, and complaints from white parents. Facing controversy over the possibility of more integrated broadcasts, the station canceled the program.”

Waters idealized his ending, a jump cut to happier times. Hairspray Live! producer Neil Meron told the Associated Press that “after the election [people] were saying ‘Boy, do we need this now.” They didn’t need it enough to give NBC the ratings win it no doubt craved. With a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49, the show tied 2014’s Peter Pan Live! in that key demo, but fell short of that program’s 9.2 million viewers (with a collected  8.9 million). Hairspray Live! was down 25% over the NBC Live! high water mark, 2015’s The Wiz Live!, also directed by Kenny Leon (11.5 million viewers and a 3.4 rating among adults 19-49).

While it may have been a bad Hair day in terms of ratings, in several instances, reviews soared to bouffant heights, with USA Today calling it “NBC’s best live musical” and “more than just exuberant fun.” Hollywood Life called it “exceptional!!!” (emphasis theirs), and The Hollywood Reporter summed up the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” as “the musical equivalent of a cork popping.” Of its progressive themes, The New York Times noted ” it should amaze and distress us with its continued relevance in 2016.”

Hairspray Live! was the fourth installment in NBC’s Live! franchise, which started with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013. The network has earmarked for 2017 Bye Bye Birdie Live!, starring Jennifer Lopez.

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