NBC's next live musical airs on Dec. 7

By Marc Snetiker
Updated August 02, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: NBCUniversal
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NBC ended its day on the Television Critics Association’s annual summer press tour with Hairspray Live!, its upcoming live musical production of the Tony-winning 2002 Broadway show. In a first for the network, most of the musical’s cast (which has annually never been fully announced by this point in the year) joined the panel: Stars Jennifer Hudson, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, Derek Hough, and newcomer Maddie Baillio. (Not present were cast members Dove Cameron, Garrett Clayton, and Martin Short, or newly-announced additions Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Hayes, whose involvement was announced during the panel.)

The cast joined executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, and live television director Alex Rudzinski, who recently shepherded Fox’s Grease: Live to success and has now been scooped up to work the same magic for NBC. Similar to Grease, Hairspray will break out of the proscenium and utilize the Universal studio backlot to recreate 1960s Baltimore. “Hairspray‘s going to be using a much bigger area of the backlot than we ever used on Grease,” Rudzinski told the crowd.

Director Leon said, “I’m just happy to do this particular story at this particular time in our country when race relations are where they are.” To that point, Fierstein said the story isn’t being changed or altered to reflect today’s heated landscape: “You don’t update history…We can change laws but the war is to change hearts, and nothing does that like song does. Music just brings us all together in a way that words just don’t, and when you see a story like this, which is told in such good humor and with such warm heart and with such good purpose, I think it will do wonders. I hope so.”

During the panel, NBC also unveiled a first look video featuring the cast in costume, and Meron confirmed that two new songs from the 2007 movie (a la “Ladies’ Choice”) would be included in the live show. “Harvey worked out really great places” in the script to include them, he mentioned.

Chenoweth said mean mom Velma is a role she wanted to tackle during the show’s earliest pre-Broadway plans. “I actually wanted to play this role originally back in ’98 but I was too young,” she told reporters. “I guess now it’s the right time. I’m working on my splits and my twirling.”

Grande was too young, too — albeit to play even Penny during the show’s original run. But having got her start on Broadway, the pop star’s participation was long in the works. “I never thought it would actually happen,” Grande said. “It’s kind of surreal for me to even be a part of this. I got to see the original Broadway cast, which was incredible. I think I was 10 or 11 — so yes, way too young. But…every time Harvey speaks, my heart bursts. A light goes off inside my heart. Kristin Chenoweth, we’re soul mates. I don’t even know what’s happening. My theater geek inside, which is what I am, I can’t take it. It’s very overwhelming, very exciting. And Penny’s been my favorite character since my start… Pop music is fun, but this is way more fun.”

Unlike Carly Rae Jepsen in Grease, Grande didn’t have a new song written to showcase her character (who doesn’t have a major solo). “I think one of the thrills is that Ariana wanted to play that role as written,” said Meron. “She really, really felt it, she loved it…basically she loved the fact that she held off those powerful pipes until the very end, and there’s some sort of artistic merit in terms of Ariana doing that role in terms of the surprise for her audience.” Grande added, “I don’t want to change anything about the role or how she develops. I love Penny and it’s just such a great honor to play. I don’t want any sort of special icing.”

Hudson, who will play Motormouth Maybelle, equated her first live NBC musical to her recent Broadway debut in The Color Purple — both equally nerve-racking: “I just got off of Broadway, and just doing the first opening night was traumatizing to me. So now, are you crazy? You’re really going to do this on live television!? Because that’s like opening night happening on television.”

Chenoweth and Hudson were asked to swap stories about their first impressions: “I was watching this child on American Idol,” said Chenoweth. “I knew that, singing live, this is what you’re born to do. She’s got it, right? So then I saw her at a benefit — you won’t’ remember — but in passing, from below, I yelled out, ‘Jennifer, Jennifer!’ And you looked down and you were like, ‘Hello!’ And that was our one meeting. And now here I sit, and I’m very, very honored.”

“This one blew me away yesterday,” Hudson said. “I sat at the table [read] and my life was changed. I was so inspired. I’ve never heard nobody sing like that. I said, ‘Well, what am I gonna do, Jesus, when we get to my song?'”

Hairspray Live! airs Dec. 7 on NBC.

Hairspray Live!

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