Ariana Grande has been cast as Penny in Hairspray Live!, joining Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Short, Derek Hough, and newcomer Maddie Baillio in the NBC production. Considering her musical theater experience, singing prowess, and all-around charming personality, Grande and Penny may be a match made in heaven.
Set in 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray follows Tracy Turnblad, who loves to dance and dreams of being on the local teen dance program The Corny Collins Show. Tracy is also a fervent opponent of segregation, leading a campaign for black people to be allowed to dance on the show. Penny Pingleton is her dorky and naive best friend, babied by her overprotective mother Prudy. Penny falls head over heels for the African-American Seaweed J. Stubbs. Sparks fly, and Penny and Seaweed face Prudy’s disapproval, as well as the taboo of a white girl and a black boy dating each other in the ’60s.
So what makes Grande so perfect for the role? Here are five reasons:
She’s been on Broadway
Hairspray has a traditional Broadway score, and Grande has proven she can handle musical theater. She got her start on the stage at a young age, performing at Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theater, playing the title role in the musical Annie as well as performing in The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast.
Grande hit the Great White Way at the age of 15, making her Broadway debut as popular cheerleader Charlotte in the short-lived musical 13. Nothing prepares you for a live TV musical like doing eight shows a week on Broadway. Check out her solo in the second verse of “Brand New You.”
Grande also has shown she can dance, and Hairspray is a very dance-heavy show. The production includes big ensemble dance numbers, including “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Grande’s dance skills were on display in 13, and, of course, she works the stage at her concerts.
She’s a theater kid at heart
Ariana Grande clearly knows her Broadway musicals. She called herself a “musical theater geek” when announcing her casting on Twitter.
She also enthused over following in the footsteps of Kerry Butler, who played Penny in the original Broadway cast, and starring alongside Broadway vets Harvey Fierstein and Kristin Chenoweth.
She knows every word of Wicked (Chenoweth originated the role of Glinda on Broadway), and she demonstrated her prowess in this lyrics pop quiz:
Her combination of musical theater and pop talent made her an obvious choice to collaborate with MIKA on “Popular Song,” which samples “Popular” from Wicked. Here they are channeling Elphaba in the music video:
Her live TV experience
Grande earned rave reviews for her SNL hosting debut earlier this year in March (she doubled as musical guest), and EW even named her the best host of the season. Grande delivered “again and again,” and her spot-on Jennifer Lawrence impression was a highlight of the episode.
She’s Penny Perfect
Often compared to Mariah Carey, few can dispute Grande’s vocal talents. Penny has a girlish voice, but toward the end of the show she sheds her shyness and comes into her own, fiercely belting her way through “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
Grande has a soft, feminine voice, but she is also a formidable belter, as heard in the chorus of “Problem.”
Naive and dorky, Penny often provides comic relief in Hairspray. As proven in her SNL appearance, as well as her turn as babyish Cat on Victorious, Grande should have no problem meeting these new character demands.
Her lollipop game is strong
When Amanda Bynes played Penny in the 2007 movie version of Hairspray, she was constantly — and hilariously — licking a lollipop.
Ariana Grande apparently likes suckers, too, as evidenced by several Instagram photos:
Her lollipop-licking days date back to Victorious:
She also tweeted this lollipop-related missive in 2012.
Hairspray Live! premieres Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.