The year is 1962. Racial tension is sky high and white people are clinging to what they have left of segregation. Straight, white people judge anyone and everyone by every quality that differs from their own. Hairspray Live! was NBC’s production of choice for their annual December live primetime production, and in 2016 this selection couldn’t have been more timely. As Motormouth belted about being a black woman, and Tracy and her mother crooned over being judged by their weight, the unavoidable comparison is made to the current state of this country and how we’ve reverted back to shunning those who are “different” by archaic, white nationalist standards. As I watched this production, even with its flaws, I was in awe at the powerful poignancy it managed to bring with a message that millions of Americans needed to see and hear: how far we really haven’t come.
Although most musical fans are bound to be familiar with the story presented in Hairspray, allow me to give you a brief synopsis if you aren’t. The Corny Collins Show features your ‘nicest white kids in town’ teen dance party, promoted by Ultra Glow, a brand of hairspray. Tracy Turnblad’s dream is to join Corny Collins and his crew of quaffed adolescents, so she auditions for an open slot in the cast only to be mocked by both her peers and the producer, the racist and bigoted Velma Von Tussle. After Tracy is rejected from the show, she also finds herself in detention yet again, and subsequently placed in the special education program when caught dancing with her new friend “Seaweed” and several of the other students who participate in Corny Collins’ “Negro Day”. When Corny is brought as a special guest to the school dance, he’s impressed by Tracy’s newfound dance moves and brings her on the show to the utter dismay of Velma and her daughter, Amber.
Along with her overnight celebrity fame after her TV appearance, Tracy also sparks some serious romance with the show’s heartthrob, Link Larton, who has been dating Amber. Link and Tracy, along with Tracy’s best friend Penny, join Seaweed at his mother Motormouth’s record store for a party. Sparks fly between Penny and Seaweed. After the gathering is crashed by Velma and Amber, Tracy and Motormouth decide to lead a march to take their rightful place as a part of mother/daughter day on The Corny Collins Show in order to take a stand and desegregate the production. After Velma calls the police, Tracy is arrested. Upon Link’s escapade to break Tracy out of jail, the gathers up the rest of her friends and Motormouth hatch a plan to make another attempt to sneak into the show so that everyone can dance together and Tracy can still take part in the Miss Teenage Hairspray Competition.
Once Tracy and her friends storm the stage and bust a move, the ratings skyrocket and the viewers provide such enthusiastic support the Corny Collins announces that from then on the show will be permanently integrated. The governor pardons Tracy and gives her a scholarship, Link gets a record deal, and Penny and Seaweed declare their love. Velma Von Tussle, being falsely credit for planning this evening, is promote as the Vice President of Ultra Glow’s line for women of color. Tracy claims her real prize, which is her relationship with Link and her future of inclusion, and everyone dances together.
Now that we have that all rehashed, let’s get to the good stuff. Did Hairspray Live! crash and burn on stage in an explosion of aerosol and petticoats? Thankfully, no! Was it a flawless production? Well, no to that either, but parts of it definitely were. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Commercial breaks. Part of the immersive experience of watching a Broadway production is that the sequences flow together uninterrupted, only broken up by usually one intermission in a spot that makes sense, in this case right after Tracy’s arrest, which is obviously a climactic moment. The rhythm of the show is constantly disrupted by commercials, commentary, and interviews that break it up at moments that often times shouldn’t have a pause. Some of the emotional moments and impactful songs fell flat when followed up by an ad for Doritos. I realize NBC wants to make money, and these events are prime times to bring in cash with millions of people tuning in, but occasionally it was at the expense of the show as a whole.
Link + Tracy = Meh. Garrett Clayton’s suave, yet coy take on Link Larton is an adorably fresh take on the character, but his chemistry with Tracy was less than steamy, it wasn’t even simmering. Perhaps it’s because the flamboyant character seemed more likely to me to pair up with Corny Collins instead of Tracy (was that just me or do we all agree we need some fan faction featuring those two?), but either way, the pair weren’t much of a match.
Tepid Tracy. Maddie Baillio has a fantastic voice, she had the pitch perfect enthusiasm and perky demeanor for Tracy Turnblad, but as I feared when seeing the advertised cast prior to last night’s production, she often faded into the background in the presence of some of the powerhouse performers that took the stage. When you have Broadway veterans Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, and Harvey Fierstein alongside an unknown who is making her debut, there’s bound to be some balancing issues. Kudos to Baillio for giving it her all and proving herself at the beginning of what’s bound to be a prosperous career, but her light was dimmed a bit in the presence of perfection.
JHud SLAYS. Just hand Jennifer Hudson the Emmy now, please. My feet were literally tapping the floor in anticipation for this woman’s presence last night. She can give me chills while ordering a Diet Coke with James Corden in his car on The Late Late Show, so it’s no wonder Jennifer Hudson just absolutely stole the show. The goddess brought soul to a whole new level in her portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle, bringing both the fierce fire and the jaded exhaustion that is necessary in the depiction of a woman who has been fighting for her civil rights her entire life. Motormouth is the strongest character in Hairspray’s story, and that strength has never been depicted in a more poignant and pronounced way than by Jennifer Hudson. If you had dry eyes and zero goosebumps by the end of “I Know Where I’ve Been”, it’s possible that you have no soul. JHud will be the most remembered part of the Hairspray Live! production in the years to come.
Seaweed Shines. Like on screen mother, like on screen son. The casting of Seaweed is spot on in every rendition of Hairspray I’ve ever seen, but Ephraim Sykes’ turn as the playful, warmhearted Seaweed is probably my favorite. Sykes was part of the original ensemble cast for Hamilton, but outside of the theater and dance community his work is little known. Sykes and Hudson are a flawless mother and son duo, and this is bound to spark limitless opportunities for his career. The line he sings in his first major solo that mentions how people judge him immediately by the color of his skin is delivered so clearly and poignantly that it reverberated through the screen in a way that’s bound to make people pay attention.
Movie Magic. Past production of these NBC live shows have suffered from set and camera limitations that prevented the shows from translating effectively through a screen to viewers watching at home. NBC has come along way since their debut of The Sound of Music, which had a stale quality to it largely due to how it was filmed for TV. The network and the crew utilized camera angles and set pieces in a much more innovative way to make the event watch more like a movie and less like a play, which is key for those having to watch it on a screen. The best example of this success was the quick switch of camera to the inside of the police car when Tracy is arrested. We wouldn’t get that moment if we were sitting in the audience, and it made the viewing experience much more intimate and cinematic.
Hairspray Live! had its fair share of hits and misses, but overall the gloriously cheesy, fantastically acted, and flawlessly sounding production was a home run. AfterEllen prides itself on being a pop culture site that plays for your team. You, the reader, regardless of your gender, weight, sexuality, or skin color, matter just as much as every other person. Hairspray emphasizes a celebration of our uniqueness and the fact that are similarities are much more prevalent than our differences. We are all human beings, and in 2016 that’s a message we need now just as much as we did in 1962.