A peek at the news is all you need to reckon that America needs Tracy Turnblad now more than ever.
The fearlessly sunny poster girl for body positivity, self-esteem, racial equality and the power of a good set of dance moves is the creation of avant-garde auteur John Waters, who made her the centerpiece of his 1988 feature film Hairspray. The quirky tale of the Rubenesque teen’s quest to star on, then integrate, her favorite local dance show in 1960s Baltimore was only a minor success, but its do-right-and-dance message resonated with veteran Broadway producer Margo Lion, who hired a theater dream team to adapt Waters’ work for the stage.
Hairspray the musical — starring Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy and Broadway icon Harvey Fierstein as mama Turnblad, Edna — debuted in summer 2002. Seven years, eight Tony Awards, more than 2,500 performances and a 2007 movie reboot later, the show ended its Broadway run, living on in national and international touring productions.
Now Tracy and crew are bopping their way to your television in NBC’s Hairspray Live!, a star-studded live production anchored by Fierstein, who adapted the stage production and plays Edna (squeal!) once more. Equally good news, theater buffs: Hairspray’s original songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and choreographer Jerry Mitchell also signed on, along with acclaimed director Kenny Leon, who co-helmed last year’s The Wiz Live! Borrowing Leon’s words, Fierstein says Hairspray Live! “is not television and it’s not theater. It’s a hybrid. … It will be much more the experience of seeing it onstage, but it will have the [production] values of a movie.”
And an audience that theater can’t match. That expansive reach — NBC’s other live-theater offerings lured from 9 million (Peter Pan Live!) to 18.5 million (The Sound of Music Live!) viewers — also means more folks will hear Hairspray’s gentle message of kindness and inclusion.
“We don’t hit you over the head with it,” Fierstein explains. “It’s done with love and it’s lovingly told and we’re not lecturing anybody — but it does come with a history, which is different than the original John Waters movie. We had the original [musical’s] director, Jack O’Brien, talk to the company a lot about those times of breaking the color barrier and how black people always had to come in the back door. Even if they would star in an act — even if it was Harry Belafonte or Lena Horne! — they still had to come through the back door and the white actors didn’t.”
Fierstein says he added a speech — only in this show — for Motormouth Maybelle, played by Jennifer Hudson, who’ll belt the stirring “I Know Where I’ve Been” post-sermon. “[It gives] an important message: that no generation does it alone. It’s a step-by-step, even in the politics that we’re involved in right now,” he says.
Baillio, a Texas-born charmer with a knockout voice and a penchant for the Great American Songbook, first warbled the Tracy Turnblad anthem “Good Morning, Baltimore” in fourth grade, even if she didn’t exactly know the roots of what she was singing until later. A few years later than she planned. “I was actually at a friend’s house — I don’t remember how old I was — and she wanted to watch the original John Waters one,” Baillio laughs. “So her mom called my mom and asked if I could watch it and my mom said no!” Mother Baillio finally relented on the PG-rated 2007 film version, and an avid Hairspray fan was born.
“I wanted to be Harvey Fierstein’s Tracy,” says the 20-year-old theater arts student who made a wee-hours decision to audition, besting more than 1,000 other young women to land her dream role. “I ran up to him and said, ‘Mama!’ and he said, ‘Oh, my daughter!’” she recalls of meeting her idol for the first time. He calls or texts me almost every day to make sure I am doing OK and that my experience is good.”
Baillio says that, while she relishes her famous new friends — she held hands with pop princess Ariana Grande, who plays Tracy’s bestie Penny, during table reads, and talked Turnblad with Winokur at the home of Glee’s Matthew Morrison, Broadway’s original Hairspray heartthrob Link Larkin — she thrills at the idea of bringing “the ultimate optimist” to a new generation of fans. “She’s so at home in her own skin,” Baillio says. “And she doesn’t see why there’s any reason she shouldn’t be at home in her own skin. I wasn’t like that. I was bullied a lot when I was growing up, so getting to play someone like her is so inspiring.”
For Fierstein — who points out more people will see him play Edna in a single night on television than at all of his thousand-plus stage performances combined — Hairspray Live represents a chance to turn a much-loved role into a fresh experience with some longtime pals.
“Kristin Chenoweth [who plays Tracy’s rival’s cutthroat momager Velma Von Tussle], she must have been 6 feet tall when I first met her,” Fierstein jokes. “Now she’s a foot and a half tall! Show business has worn her down to the bone. We’ve been friends for 20-some years, but we’ve never done a show together, so that alone is fun. I’ve known Marty Short [who plays Mr. Turnblad] for a bunch of years, and yet we’ve never done a show together. Now we get to be married! The young man playing Seaweed, Ephraim [Sykes], was in my show Newsies. Jennifer Hudson and I did the concert version of Hair together, when she had just barely come out of American Idol.”
Then there is his newest friend — his brand-new baby girl, Baillio. “More people will see her play Tracy that night than ever saw anyone play her on Broadway,” Fierstein marvels. Because, as the musical’s fans know — and new fans are soon to discover — you can’t stop the beat. Or the lasting power of Hairspray.
Hairspray Live! premieres Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8/7c on ABC.