‘Hairspray Live!’: Five Things the NBC Musical Got Right — and Three It Didn’t Quite Nail


Fourth time’s a charm! On Wednesday, December 7, NBC aired Hairspray Live!, its fourth installment of the newly minted live-musical franchise. (ICYMI, previous musicals included The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz.) All in all, the network seems to be learning with each round, improving as it goes, and Hairspray, the story of teen hair hopper turned civil rights activist Tracy Turnblad, was largely praised as the most successful attempt yet.

That said, it’s impossible to nail everything, especially on live TV. Here’s what stuck and what fell a little flat for Us.

Harvey Fierstein Sparkled — Literally

Considering that he played Edna Turnblad during Hairspray’s turn on Broadway, it was no surprise that Harvey Fierstein brought a certain comfort and familiarity to the role, which helped to anchor what could have easily become an unwieldy production. As Edna, he brought truth to her struggle to embrace her size, and sweetness to her love for her husband (played perfectly by Martin Short). When Edna emerged in the show’s final moments, clad in a sparkling red dress, you could practically hear everyone cheering from their living rooms.

Integrated Advertising

This really could have gone either way, but overall, the risk paid off. From Corny Collins (Derek Hough) championing Oreos, to placements for Reddi Wip, cars and Coke, the not even thinly veiled ads harkened back to perhaps a more wholesome, less calculated marketing strategy on TV. While some viewers no doubt found these placements to be a bit annoying, they were far less grating than the swatch of regular ads that ran during each of 10-plus commercial breaks. Bravo.

A Star Is Discovered (Maybe)

It’s always exciting to see someone emerge from the common folk to become a household name on any show (seriously, how many times have you rewatched the footage of Carrie Underwood‘s American Idol audition?) — and that may have been what viewers saw when Maddie Baillio took the stage as Tracy Turnblad. The 20-year-old, who was selected from an open casting call, didn’t offer up the most stunning vocals of the night (that honor would have to go to Kristin Chenoweth or Jennifer Hudson, to be sure), but she held her own against some of the world’s most praised sets of pipes … and that has to count for something. In addition to her strong singing, Baillio proved to be naturally likable, charming and remarkably comfortable in what was an insanely high-pressure situation.

The Staging Stunned

As NBC has gotten more familiar with ways to translate live theater to TV (which, to be clear, is no easy task), it has honed its staging and production strategies. For Hairspray, both cameras and actors moved around enough to keep it from feeling like someone was just recording from a seat in a theater. (Anyone who was ever forced to watch a video of a Shakespearean stage play being performed live knows how painful that experience can be.) Yes, some lights were off, and yes, they weirdly cut away as Chenoweth was taking her final bow, but overall, the production choices kept the story moving and people at home watching.

Celebrity-Cameo Perfection

In addition to the stars who nabbed plum roles, like Hudson (as Motormouth Maybelle) and Chenoweth (as Velma Von Tussle), a smattering of other celebs dropped in, adding their own sparkle to the production. From Rosie O’Donnell (as a gym coach) to Billy Eichner (as an overly zealous newscaster) to Sean Hayes (as Mr. Pinky), each actor brought a burst of fresh energy to the three-hour-long production.

Hairspray Live!
Dove Cameron as Amber Von Tussle, Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad and Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton in ‘Hairspray Live!’ Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Overall, it sounds pretty great, right? Well, it was, but here’s what could have been even better.

Zac Efron Wasn’t in It

OK, OK, so this might not be a fair critique, especially considering the fact that Garrett Clayton did a solid job as Link Larkin. Despite Clayton’s strong performance, however, he just couldn’t make up for the fact that he’s not Zac Efron (who portrayed the character in the 2007 theatrical film version). Fortunately for Clayton, assuming he doesn’t play roles formerly played by the heartthrob indefinitely, he will go on to great things.

It’s Tough to Compete With Jennifer Hudson

Let’s just say it: Ariana Grande isn’t really anyone’s idea of a nerd. When one dresses her up in a schoolgirl outfit, she looks more like someone ready for Halloween than a professional actress actually playing a schoolgirl. Because she never really looked “nerdy,” the “big reveal” that she was actually hot wasn’t very impactful. Plus, it was a bit tough for Grande to compete vocally with Hudson (although, let’s face it, that would be a challenge for just about any performer).

Darren Criss’ Freakishly Enthused Interruptions

You can’t blame the guy for trying, but Darren Criss somewhat halted the momentum of the actual show to interject (scripted) asides designed to give viewers a behind-the-scenes peek. The intention was good, but the execution just didn’t work. Wielding a microphone, Criss popped in before every single commercial break to remind viewers how much work went into the 10 minutes of musical they’d just watched, effectively breaking the fourth wall. That said, with a little more nuance, this could have been effective.

Tell Us: What did you like, and what didn’t you?

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