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Photograph: Paul KolnikHarvey Feirstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur in Hairspray

The next NBC live musical will be Hairspray, and it's a perfect choice

Adam Feldman

It’s official: The next NBC live musical, the network’s fourth in as many years, will be Hairspray. It’s a very smart choice. True, the 2002 Broadway musical it’s based on—adapted from John Waters’s delightful 1988 film—only closed in 2009. And true, the 2007 movie version of that musical wasn’t very long ago. But Hairspray is a terrific show, and full of youthful energy, with an ethnically diverse cast and a message about loving people of all sizes and races that feels as relevant today as ever.

What’s more, executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who have overseen all three previous NBC live musicals, already know Hairspray very well, having coproduced the 2007 movie version. And three of the show’s authors—Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman and Thomas Meehan—are still around to give advice. (The fourth, Mark O’Donnell, died in 2012.) But based on our own experience of the show and NBC's previous NBC offerings in this series—The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz—we have a few early suggestions to offer.

1) Use a live audience. The challenges of shooting a live musical for television are considerable, and we get that NBC doesn’t want its broadcast to look like a PBS-style recording of a stage show. But Hairspray is less demanding, from a special-effects standpoint, than Peter Pan or The Wiz. Its stage magic comes from comedy and musical-theater gumption, both of which benefit from the cheering and laughter of a live audience—whose absence has been felt, sometimes keenly, in the previous live broadcasts.

2) Cast big names, but get cool people for the cameos. Hairspray’s central role of Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size Baltimore gal with hopes of making it big on local TV, must be cast with an unknown. Her parents should be vets: John Goodman or Nathan Lane, perhaps, in the Divine part of Tracy’s dumpy mom, Edna; Martin Short or Billy Crystal, maybe, as her wacky dad. And there’s room amid the side roles for major names with young fan bases. In our dreams, we see stars (as, we imagine, the producers do, too): Nick Jonas or Justin Bieber as boyfriend Link! Ariana Grande as permanently punished Penny Pingleton! But the real fun will be in casting the smaller parts, which we hope they’ll make the most of, as Waters did when he populated his original movie with folks like Deborah Harry, Sonny Bono, Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora. One special request: Harvey Fierstein, who played Edna on Broadway, needs to be in there somewhere.

3) Please, not Latifah again. We’re awfully fond of Queen Latifah, and so are Zadan and Meron, who cast her in their 2002 film of Chicago as well as their 2007 Hairspray and last year’s The Wiz. But it’s been a case of diminishing returns: She earned an Oscar nom for Chicago, but was a weak link in The Wiz, and we frankly forgot that she was in Hairspray at all until we started writing this. Tempting as it might be to bring Latifah back, we’d love to see someone else as Motormouth Maybelle, who sings what should be a rafter-rattling pop-gospel anthem, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” (Is Jennifer Holliday available?)

Of course, the actual broadcast of NBC’s Hairspray is almost a year away, so we have plenty of time to backseat-drive it before then. And whatever news may come in the months ahead, we’re excited to see the result. The beat of this show is nearly unstoppable. In December, we hope that beat goes on without a hitch.


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