NBC’s Hairspray Live! Could Be the First Live Musical That Matters

Hairspray Live! - Season 2016
L-R: Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton, Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin, Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed J. Stubbs. Photo: Trae Patton/NBC

When NBC first announced plans to stage a production of Hairspray as the network’s next live musical, network chief Bob Greenblatt acknowledged that the show’s focus on race and diversity played a major role in why it was selected. That was back in January, a few weeks after NBC broadcast an energetic and successful production of The Wiz, and less than a year after Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, where Hairspray is set, sparking another wave of Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations. Back then, there were plenty of reasons to think that a musical about the civil-rights movement would resonate with a contemporary audience, even though it wouldn’t be broadcast until December of 2016.

Eleven months later, with Hairspray Live! set to debut Wednesday night on NBC, the phenomenon that John Waters built seems like an even more astute, timely choice. With the nation at a more blatantly turbulent moment than it’s seen since, well, possibly the 1960s, Hairspray may not play like a throwback at all. Instead, it could come across as of-the-moment cultural commentary.

The people involved in bringing the show to televised life seem well aware of that fact. “It’s the kind of musical that our country needs right now,” director Kenny Leon said in an L.A. Times feature about the production. “This is a part of our history that can’t be ignored and it’s relevant today in this country when race relations are the way they are. And, even beyond that, no matter how you voted, we need to find ways to unify ourselves.”

The movie musical as a contemporary live television tradition is now three years old, beginning with 2013’s The Sound of Music Live! In the past, the heavily hyped broadcasts on NBC — and, thanks to Grease Live! and the recent non-live version of Rocky Horror on Fox — have mostly provided an excuse to live-tweet snide comments about, say, dudes in unconvincing crocodile costumes. (Note: That was mainly a thing during Peter Pan Live!)

The Wiz Live! turned things around with a show that was positively received,and more widely discussed on social media than others. Now, Hairspray Live! has the opportunity to do something no recent live musical production has fully managed: Be taken seriously.

To be clear: Hairspray isn’t Greek tragedy. A lot of it is frivolous and fun, colorful and filled with bursts of bright, Baltimore booty-shaking energy. But its primary story line — about a determined outsider named Tracy Turnblad (to be played on NBC by Maddie Baillio) attempting to integrate the performers on an American Bandstand–esque dance show — taps directly into themes about racism and the need for inclusion. Assuming NBC stages their version of the show the way that Broadway and the 2007 movie did, there’s a strong current that courses through it about the inevitability of marginalized groups — African-Americans, women, the overweight, mothers who are actually Harvey Fierstein in drag — rising up to claim their deserved place in the spotlight.

Had we been preparing to watch Hairspray Live! with a Hillary Clinton presidency on the horizon, it would have been natural, at least for her supporters, to view Tracy as another example of a woman effecting change. The message in its most well-known song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” — sample lyrics: “Yesterday is history / And it’s never comin’ back! / Tomorrow is a brand new day, and it don’t know white from black” — would have felt like an affirmation of the Obama era.

That’s not where we are. If it’s done right, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” in this Trump as president-elect moment, may be tinged with irony, as well as a defiance that suggests people who feel oppressed can’t be held down forever.

But “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which is set against a protest march that culminates in a confrontation between black demonstrators and police, has the potential to be the real corker of the night. Record producer and community leader Motormouth Maybelle sings lead on that one, and she’ll be played by Jennifer Hudson, who is the queen of belting the ever-loving shit out of songs during moments of crisis. (See: Hudson doing “I Will Always Love You” at the Grammys the day after Whitney Houston died, or Hudson ripping the roof off the BET Awards earlier this year during her “Purple Rain” Prince tribute.) Already it’s got that heavily in its favor.

But when you think about that song in the context of where black people have been recently, at the center of similar racial clashes with police officers but also in the White House, being questioned by a man now poised to assume the presidency, it takes the notion of knowing where you’ve been to a totally different place. The odds that this will be the most emotional, memorable moment of Hairspray Live! are high.

Staging live TV is incredibly challenging — again, see Peter Pan Live! for evidence — but I hope justice is done to moments like that. Now that our political leaders seem to have hate-tweeting pretty well-covered, it’s time for our TV musicals to do something different, maybe even to make some history of their own. This Maryland girl has hope that Hairspray Live! might actually pull that off.

Hairspray: The First Live Musical That Matters?