On the Set of 'Hairspray Live!': Behind the Scenes of NBC's Most Ambitious Musical Yet

(l-r) Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin, Derek Hough as Corny Collins, Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray Live!
Trae Patton/NBC

(l-r) Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin, Derek Hough as Corny Collins and Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, in Hairspray Live!

Before NBC's latest musical goes live, we spoke to the cast and crew about why 'Hairspray' has never been more essential.

It’s good afternoon, Los Angeles, and “Good Morning, Baltimore.” On a Thursday at Universal Studios in mid-November, the cast and crew of NBC’s Hairspray Live! are enjoying their first day of rehearsal on the show’s vast outdoor set, which has transformed a typical backlot small-town cityscape into the slightly weathered urban Baltimore of the early 1960s. The recreation of mid-century-modern neon and storefront signage, right below the city hall clock tower featured in Back to the Future, is all so dead-on that it could make you believe you actually drove a DeLorean 60 years into the past, except for all these video monitors, and… well, what is that bed doing sitting upright in the middle of the street?

“Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh,” sings Maddie Baillio, by way of introduction, echoing the kind of wordless Ronnie Spector trademark that was written into the Hairspray score. Baillio is a Tracy Turnblad for a new generation (albeit not a very, very new generation, since the Broadway show only opened in 2002, and a movie version followed in 2007). And like every Tracy before her, she will open the live television translation of Hairspray by standing up in a bed that is sitting on its end, all the better to step out of and be instantly transported to a morning street scene that is, in her naïve eyes, glorious with possibility. It’s sunset in L.A. — but for idealistic Tracy, it’s morning in America.

Hairspray Live! airs on NBC on Wednesday (Dec. 7), following in the annual pre-Christmas tradition of the network’s three previous live musicals, The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz. The production is aiming its appeal at theater fans, bringing in names associated with the original Broadway production like leading “lady” Harvey Fierstein; meanwhile, NBC also hopes to capture the pop diehards with the casting of Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson in key roles. And especially after last year’s The Wiz raised the bar for these live musicals (and Grease Live, which aired on rival Fox, kept it there), Hairspray Live! may mark the first time one of these has transpired with most viewers tuning in expecting to love it, not just to live-hate-tweet it.

Can it live up to those love-tweeting expectations? The signs are good, and not just the battered storefront window signs the production designers cleverly devised for the show’s outdoor streetscape. A little less than a month out from the air date, Billboard stopped by the massive production for a set visit. Our minute-by-minute notes:

2:40 p.m. A ladder is wheeled over to the marquee of a theater exterior that is advertising a “tonight only” appearance by the Dynamites, a girl group trio that recurs throughout the show. The three Dynamites in question ascend this ramp and stand on top of the marquee, adjusting to the perch where they’ll deliver a key verse. Co-director Kenny Leon steps in to warn the threesome to stand back as they sing, and never lean against the railing, which, unlike the marquee they’re standing upon itself, has not been tested and secured for human weight. Everyone’s hoping for a little spontaneity on Dec. 7, but no one wants to see Hairspray Live! turn into a splatter film.

3:06 p.m. The audio playback blasts the opening snare-and-kick-drum beat — another familiar nod in the score to the Spector/girl-group era — and Maddie, as Tracy, steps out of her vertical bed, fully clothed, to face the day. This is the cast’s first day rehearsing on the outdoor set, after being stuck in a couple of soundstages for the last month, so there are plenty of new wrinkles to deal with… like a mechanical rat that crosses Tracy’s path as she darts between parked cars. The production is truly blessed: It works! So does the unbuttoning of the raincoat worn by the flasher who also runs into her on the sidewalk, his perversion failing to dampen any of the eternal optimism of “Good Morning Baltimore,” as ever.

As the young lead, Maddie Baillio arrives as an unknown ingénue in the tradition of Ricki Lake, who starred in John Waters’ original1988 non-musical movie, and Marissa Jaret Winokur, who originated the role on Broadway (both of whom will have cameos in Hairspray Live!). She’s also in the tradition of Shanice Williams, who starred in The Wiz, in that she was found through a PR-savvy nationwide casting call.

“Shanice was in my place last year, so I saw how her journey went, and I can kind of see where mine may be going,” says Baillio, on break. “This was my first professional audition. I finished my sophomore year of college the day before they told me that I got the part, so this is the first time doing a show since high school.” If you’re tempted to begrudge Baillio for such a lucky break despite her lack of theater or film credits, know that she did sing at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center with Michael Feinstein when he was her mentor for a couple of years. Prior to this, she says her "most nerve-wracking performance was the National Anthem, at an Indiana/Texas football game. I thought 50,000 [people] was a lot, but millions will be watching this.”

3:10 p.m. “Five, six, seven… run!” says choreographer Jerry Mitchell. Technical director Alex Rudzinski is trotting backwards with a video camera, establishing what will be the master shot in this opening scene. Baillio and the dancers follow him down the street, as if magnetically pulled by the camera. The show’s racial segregation themes won’t become overt until later, but there is foreshadowing in Mitchell’s formations, with the white dancers loosely moving around on one side of Tracy, the black dancers on the other. As “Good Morning Baltimore” reaches its climax, they form a V behind Baillio — still divided by race, but now at least synchronized.

Seaweed J. Stubbs is being played by Ephraim Sykes, an original Hamilton cast member (he portrayed George Eacker, who shoots Hamilton’s younger brother in a duel, and left Broadway in September to come west for Hairspray). Like many involved, the 31-year-old actor has some parallels between 1962 and 2016 on his mind.

“Honestly, the show is a very, very timely and relevant piece, with the amount of hatred and bigotry and racism and all the –isms that have been running rampant throughout this country,” says Sykes. “But for me specifically, this character deals with it through love and music and dance. I think it’s the most appropriate live musical event we’ve had thus far, with a message of individuality that still speaks to how to love your neighbor.”

4:27 p.m. “Jelly donuts! Eat ‘em up while they’re hot, girls!” says the proprietor of Mr. Pinky’s Fashion Frocks, emerging from his storefront with a tray of glazed delicacies. If Hairspray is eventually about racial acceptance — and, covertly, sexual orientation, as it is always played with a man in drag as Tracy’s mom — and these are both issues that divide much of America… it is first about body acceptance, a theme that the country’s reddest and bluest coalitions can all get behind.

Co-director Rudzinski has brought a crane into the town square lawn area in the cityscape, as he figures out how to give a prominent entrance to Sean Hayes, who will play the small role of Mr. Pinky on the air, as opposed to the stand-in serving as the shop owner today.

“In order to get the shot of Mr. Pinky’s Fashion Boutique, we’ll have about 10 seconds to dolly a camera crane into the middle of the street, set up for the shot, and take the shot, arming down from the neon sign down to find Mr. Pinky at the doorway,” he explains. “Then I’ll have to cut to a different angle, and I’ve got five seconds to dolly the crane back off the street before I take the next master shot. As a technical team of about 100 people, we’re trying trying to block the technology and the equipment to make it feel like it’s a movie and get some really immersive coverage, but in real time.” It will truly take a village to get those maple bars — and Hayes — their close-up.

Rudzinski was poached by NBC after he served as the technical director of Fox’s Grease. All of these live TV musicals have had two directors, one concentrating on actors and story, and one to figure out how the hell the cameras are going to capture all this without running into one another. For Hairspray, they’ve landed a sort of dream duo of directors,  involved with the two of these shows that people have actually liked so far: Rudzinski, who made Grease feel like a truly well-oiled machine, and Kenny Leon, who helmed the actorly side of the equally well-regarded Wiz. “You can’t remotely consider doing this without two directors,” says Craig Zadan, who has produced all the NBC musicals with Neil Meron.

But those are a fraction of the cooks. “It’s funny that you say we have two directors, because it feels like we have at least four,” says Baillio. “Because besides Kenny and Alex, we have Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed it on Broadway, and this is like his baby. Then Harvey wrote the screenplay (as well as playing the lead), so this is actually his baby. My first day of rehearsal, I was getting notes from all of them. That was a confusing day for me, because we have so many people who love the show so much and want their say in it.” Even behind the scenes, it’s an integration story.

5:05 p.m. Rudzinski looks up at a plane passing low overhead, presumably on its way to landing at the nearby Burbank Airport, and has a conversation about it with a member of his sound crew. “Unfortunately, even though the powers of NBC are strong, we don’t have control over the airspace on the night,” the director says. “So if we have a helicopter flying overhead that becomes annoying, what we do have is the recording session that we did in the studios, and we run stems of all the leads and the backing track, so we have the ability to pull the natural sound back a little bit and push the recording in real time, if it becomes a problem.”

He also has his eye on the sky for other reasons. This happens to be the moment that the show will be going live on the east coast, and while there’s plenty of sunlight now, by Dec. 7, the sky will be a deep, dark blue at 5 p.m. PT. Assuming there is no L.A. rain that evening, he’ll use that twilight sky to stand in for the early morning Baltimore sky as Tracy gets out of bed… then gradually turn up the spotlights to have the cast looking into what looks like a blazing sunrise, instead of an already transpired sunset. Fingers crossed for a continued drought!

5:25 p.m. With the sun properly down at last, a switch is flipped and the Baltimore street signs become aglow. An amusing sign for a bail bonds storefront has a cartoon jailbird in black-and-white stripes peering from behind yellow neon prison bars. In a nod to the creator of what we can now call the Hairspray franchise, there is a vertical sign for Waters Plumbing that has a neon drip coming from a glorious spout. The allusions don’t stop there: Even without the neon pink flamingo, any John Waters fan would know exactly which legendarily tasteless (or overly taste-full) movie moment Divine Pet Food refers to. Don’t tell the kids.

Watching a couple of dozen serious dancers go through their paces on this set is like you’ve been plopped down onto a Broadway stage, except that Broadway stage is somehow, magically, a mid-century-modern version of Main Street USA in Disneyland. Producer Neil Meron likes that analogy, then reconsiders. “I don’t think Universal would appreciate that!” he corrects. “It’s a Broadway musical let loose at Universal Studios.”

5:38 p.m. “Somebody stole my damn sody-pop!” Harvey Fierstein has entered the building, if we can consider this outdoor set a building, and he is looking for his Diet Coke, which he had set down next to a trash can for safekeeping. Water will do, as he returns, aspartame-free, to rehearsing “Welcome to the ‘60s,” the show’s second number and his first. Fierstein doesn’t look very Edna-like, at the moment, in his Nikes and cargo shorts, and with his grey eyebrows still intact, although the purse helps.

Tracy is dragging Edna out of an apartment façade and onto the street scene, where the mom’s hands-in-the-air reticence quickly turns to glee. Fierstein jumps onto a hot dog cart, reaches in and pulls one out, chomping on it like a cigar as he gets pushed into the middle of the dancing action. He acts out a full metaphor for liberation — any kind of liberation — in 20 seconds or less.

There are some very good philosophical answers to the question “Why Hairspray, why now?" — which, unlike any of the other TV musicals, is being remade in the same millennium of its previous iterations. Producer Zadan acknowledges, “At first when we thought about it, (NBC’s) Bob Greenblatt said, ‘Are you sure you want to do Hairspray? Because you did a movie of it.’ I think the main reason was because of what the musical is about. When we did the movie, we considered it a period piece. And now, all of a sudden, this year, it feels unfortunately, in certain ways, contemporary."

So, he says, Hairspray touches upon a number of real-world issues that have defined 2016, but “in a humorous, musical, dancing way. But nevertheless, the message is in there about love and hope and unification and integration. So it feels new.”

There’s an equally valid reason to do Hairspray again so soon, and it's spelled H-A-R-V-E-Y. No one involved wants to insult John Travolta’s Edna Turnblad by saying so, but lovers of the show generally agreed that the movie went for stunt casting in its most essential role, and this version has the potential to correct that by giving America the only Edna that matters. Obviously Fierstein himself hadn’t harbored any hard feelings about being passed over for the movie — he just worked with Zadan and Meron last year, writing the teleplay for The Wiz, and did the same duties now on Hairspray Live.

“We don’t really stunt-cast,” Meron says, “because if you put stars in there and they can’t do it, you’re dead, on a live show. You can’t camouflage it. You can’t put stuff around it to make it look right when it’s not right. So if for instance Jennifer and Ariana couldn’t actually do it all, it wouldn’t look good, and it wouldn’t work.”

Grande (who plays Penny) was known dramatically, as it were, for playing Cat Valentine on about 90 episodes of two Nickelodeon series. Yet Meron says, “Ariana started on Broadway, in a musical called 13 [in 2008], which was not successful. Her whole background is theater, and she grew up worshipping Hairspray and her dream was to be in it.”

It’s a dream shared by other younger-generation cast members. “’It Takes Two’ has been one of my audition songs for years.” says Garrett Clayton, who plays Link Larkin. “Even when I got Teen Beach Movie -- in the beginning, doing ‘Stir Crazy' -- I did it as Tanner, but it felt very reminiscent of Hairspray to me.”

Ironically, Derek Hough, of Dancing in the Stars fame, was cast in a non-dancing role, as TV host Corny Collins. They fixed that in pre-, you might say. “I do dance a bit in it,” says Hough (who just left Stars to become a judge on J.Lo’s competing new series, World of Dance). “We’re like, ‘Hey, this version of Corny can move!’” But, he adds, not move so much that it yanks viewers of a certain age out of the period. “We watched a documentary about the transition between the ‘50s and ‘60s, and about dancing, and how the Twist was seen as debauchery. So with the dancing here, we want to try to do it in light of that period, and yes, you add your own little thing, but you have to hold back a little bit and keep it sort of in that (more constricted) genre and era.”

One of the more interesting casting choices is a dual one: Dove Cameron and Kristen Chenoweth as Amber and Velma Von Tussle, playing mother and daughter — just as they did in the 2015 Disney Channel movie Descendants, where Chenoweth played Maleficent. Cameron reported to the Hairspray set in early November a day after finishing up Descendants 2 in Vancouver, where she’d just gotten plenty more practice in at being terribly mothered.

“I keep using the word unhinged” for Amber, says Cameron, borrowing a word most recently applied more to certain politicians. “Rather than a stereotypical mean girl, I think it’s funny to play her as someone whose wires [have] just gotten so crossed growing up. She’s just been fed the most wrong information about life by the crazy person who raised her, so she just ended up sort of manic and heightened and out of her mind, with almost no self-awareness, while also being very mechanically perfect.”

Is there anything relatable for her in that? “Not the perfect part,” Cameron says, “but I definitely access ‘unhinged’ pretty easily. I always say I’m the most highly functional dysfunctional person I know, so I function in the normal world like a normal human, but I’m sort of waiting for somebody to go ‘She’s not one of us!’ and take me away somewhere.”

6:30 p.m. Theater people can already feel a little outside of society as it is. After the election, some of the cast and dancers on Hairspray were feeling it particularly. At the end of a long rehearsal day, director Leon is remembering how it began, with him reading a note he’d typed out to read to everyone.

“This was the first day that we saw each other since the election,” Leon says, “and a lot of them were emotional and there were people crying because they wanted it to go the other way. And as an older person on set and their leader, I was trying to say, no, no, America is 240-some odd years old — it’s still young — and we can sustain all the bumps in the road. And this is what you do at 19, 20, 22 years of age. You find purpose for your art."

He continues: "I shared with the company an email that I put together just about how now this particular fun musical has even more importance and more purpose, to tell this story that wants to say to America that it takes all of us — all kinds and all shapes and all races. And we always end my little pep talks by saying ‘One, two, three, Hairspray Live!,’ and everybody really shouted that louder than they’ve ever shouted it before.”

And, oh yeah: you need to take time to savor every bit of the day’s satisfactions. “We had a little rat that had to come across the street,” he says, “and that worked.”


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