Called either “Hairspray” or NBC’s more pumped and primped “Hairspray Live!” Wednesday’s special always seemed the lightest of risks for the network. There was the Broadway musical and Harvey Fierstein, who reprised his Tony-winning Edna Turnblad for this telecast. Also, the hit 2007 movie, a million high school productions before and after, and a core theme that continues to course through American history like scalding steam: race and prejudice.
Then, there’s the music. From a score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman, it’s perfectly fine, but most songs are hardly well-known, with the exception of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and maybe “Good Morning Baltimore” (maybe).
How to adjust for a national audience that thinks “L’Oréal” when it thinks “hairspray” — as opposed to Divine’s Edna from John Waters’ 1988 movie, or her (his) timeless quote, “Would you keep that racket down? I’m trying to iron, here!”
With money. That’s how. Lots of money, and lots of stars (who command money). But with all that, and them, this “Hairspray” still didn’t quite work. From a Fierstein rewrite of the original musical — itself adapted from the Waters film — “Hairspray Live!” must have been incoherent to an audience unfamiliar with the story. The energetic performances and performers — some of them legendary — consumed both plot and message, of an early 1960s Baltimore TV station that banned “Negro Day” on a music show until one Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Maddie Baillio) and her new friends, like Motormouth Maybelle (Jennifer Hudson), changed history. NBC promised the most lavish live TV musical ever, spread across a couple of Universal lots. But instead, this often felt like some of those million-plus high school productions: crimped, dark, confined and spread across a few school stages.
Directed by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski (who along with Thomas Kail directed Fox’s “Grease Live!” in January), both got a dream cast if not quite dream performances. The great Kristin Chenoweth played Velma Von Tussle, though more as a Rockette than a racist. (Dove Cameron as her daughter, Amber, was good, but barely present). Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle — spectacular in purple dress and towering blond bouffant — was fine, but not as good as Queen Latifah in the second movie.
You’re right, of course. Comparing a live TV edition to a movie is apples to oranges, but those are the risks with “live.” A few of us still remember the movie — and how could we not with a CGI-enlarged John Travolta as Edna? — and many others that great run at the Neil Simon Theatre from 2002 to ’09. By comparison, “Hairspray Live!” is forgettable.