NBC's latest musical was big, blonde, and (occasionally) beautiful.
ALL CROPS: HAIRSPRAY LIVE! -- Pictured: (l-r) Shahadi Wright Joseph as Little Inez, Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin, Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton, Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed J. Stubbs -- (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)
Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

“Three thousand lightbulbs,” said Darren Criss, “50 thousand feet of audio cable, 58 cameras, over 600 members of the cast and crew!” Hairspray Live! was a massive production; it didn’t miss a chance to remind you. In the breaks between the show and the commercials designed to look like the show and the Oreo commercial inside the show itself, Criss announced those impressive-sounding statistics. And he grooved, in realtime, with the official Hairspray Live! social squad. And he checked in across our great nation with participating NBC affiliates in Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, the only four Hairspray viewing parties in the country without wine.

Hairspray Live! felt like a well-earned victory lap. The producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron brought live musicals back to primetime with 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!, which was a ratings sensation and a social media phenomenon; never mind if it was also an immediate artifact of the year everyone discovered “hatewatching.” Good or bad, Sound of Music deserves credit for existing at all. It wasn’t that long ago that conventional wisdom declared musicals on TV dead; live musicals were deader than dead.

Three years later, I’m not quite sure people hatewatch anymore. There’s too much good TV for the average human to love — and too much real hate for the average human to watch. Meanwhile, Zadan and Meron have made the NBC musical an annual tradition. Credit them for magical thinking — and for their steady improvements. Peter Pan Live! had the garish production value. The Wiz Live! had an actual soul. Hairspray brought the Wiz band back together — directed by Kenny Leon, adapted into teleplay from Harvey Fierstein — and it upped the ambition further. Several major numbers followed Maddie Baillio’s Tracy Turnblad through “Baltimore,” played by the Universal backlot and a small civilization of dancing extras. The cast featured Tony winners, plural, and Disney stars, plural. Technically, there were three Tracy Turnblads: Ricki Lake (from the original film) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (from the original Broadway show) swung by for a cameo. Coincidentally, during one commercial break, there was a perfume ad with three Ariana Grandes. With Hairspray Live!, more was never more enough.

There were pleasures to be had from all the much muchness. Kristin Chenoweth and Dove Cameron played the demonically blonde Von Tussles, a perfect pairing of mean-girl matriarch and fat-shaming teen fascist. Fierstein and Martin Short were on different worlds as the loving elder Turnblads — Short’s Frank-Gorshin-as-the-Joker act made Fierstein look subtle — but there was a palpable generosity in their performances. You watched Fierstein and Short together, and you felt the genuine boundary-bursting freakiness that powered John Waters when he made the original movie — and the genuine sweetness that powers every iteration of the Hairspray myth, this beautiful, hard-edged fairy tale about fixing racism and classism and The Crushing Shallowness of American Culture with a local-TV dance show.

But the first half of Hairspray dragged a bit. There was a sense that the performers weren’t quite all on the same page. As an actor, Derek Hough sure can dance. As a dancer, Ariana Grande sure can sing. Ephraim Sykes, late of Hamilton, brought some real energy to the production as Seaweed — but so much of Seaweed’s arc depends on sparkly chemistry with Penny. (Grande played Penny; as an actor, she sure can sing.) Garrett Clayton had the right look for Link Larkin — he and Alden Ehrenreich must’ve crawled out of the same Old Hollywood time capsule — but he couldn’t quite find the character’s anxious desperation. And sometimes all 58 cameras seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. In a later scene when Link comes to rescue Tracy from prison, the show couldn’t seem to find an angle on the actors’ faces: Clayton gave half his lines with his face obscured by prison bars, and the other half with the camera pointed at the (extremely handsome) back of his head. Before that came the dodgeball game, which was either confusing choreography or bad improv.

Newcomer Maddie Baillio gave a spirited performance as Tracy, but really, the show’s ambitious cut-to-camera-7 scale made it hard for any performer to stand out. Hairspray Live! reflected no small amount of influence from Grease: Live, Fox’s first volley in what I can only we hope we will someday recall as The Live TV Musical War. Grease got big ratings and won Emmys. I loved it; almost a year later, I can remember my five favorite moments from the show’s 14th lead. Hairspray took some elements of Grease‘s style — the obvious backlot, the audience participation, the roving Steadicam scenes — but it couldn’t match that show’s odd artfulness. Grease treated every performer, major or minor or back-up comic relief, as a star. Hairspray treated every star like a cameo worth tweeting about.

To be clear: Nothing wrong with cameos! And the show improved to a glossier level of big-tent grandeur around the midpoint, when Jennifer Hudson arrived as Motormouth. The live musical format feels like the right venue for Hudson — if I’m Zadan and Meron, I’m asking her what her favorite musical is and what she’s doing in December 2018.

Hairspray‘s fundamental message of diversity and tolerance feels radical and topical, an inspiringly sincere coda to this miserably angry year. Credit the show for its timeliness — and for getting more clever, or maybe just less abashedly decadent, as it went along. A protest on the backlot was one of the show’s most kinetically staged moments, a living cartoon of ’60s political dissidence that doubled as front-lines commentary from yesterday, or tomorrow. The production climaxed at its over-the-top finest with the whole sprawling cast taking the stage for a final sequence of performances set during The Corny Collins Show. Here it was, some kind of apex for this old genre’s new golden age: A live musical show about a live musical show.

Hairspray ended there, but Hairspray Live! couldn’t stop. Hudson and Grande stuck around for an encore: A victory lap as an epilogue to a victory lap. Zadan and Meron will return next year, with Jennifer Lopez in Bye Bye Birdie, a musical with none of Hairspray‘s relevance. Like Hairspray and Grease, Bye Bye Birdie exudes nostalgia for an earlier era of television. (They’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan!) Nostalgia’s a double-edged sword. I’m already nostalgic for the days when a live musical stopped playing promos for itself after the show started. But hey: Three thousand lightbulbs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hairspray Live!
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