“We are going to be the light in the darkness”—a simple, yet poignant, message from Ariana Grande, a celebrity who put her pop career on hold because she was dying to play Penny Lou Pingleton in the televised production of Hairspray and spread a message of hope, love, and equality to the nation.
Her cast members feel the same. At rehearsal in Los Angeles, exactly one week after Donald Trump was declared President-Elect of the United States of America—sending many in the theatre community into a state of solemn shock—it was all they could talk about. Hairspray Live! has become more than just a holiday musical event, but a beacon of hope for those left reeling in the aftermath of the election with the significant rise in hate crimes and hate speech throughout the country.
Harvey Fierstein, who recreates his Tony Award-winning performance December 7 and also revised the musical’s script for TV, takes us back to the early 2000s when the show was being developed.
“When we were first together—the cast back in 2000—and we put the white people in one room and the black people in the other room to rehearse, there was shock,” he explains. “It just happened because of the nature of the show—the practicality [in rehearsing]; it became symbolic. These kids [in Hairspray Live!] are going through the same thing, but they understand it because of the politics right now.
“They also understand they have a power. Is their power being used right now? No. But these kids, I notice, have a feeling of empowerment, and I think our job as artists is to empower them. Our job is to show you where the problems are, not necessarily have the answers—we don’t have to always have the answers, we have to keep bringing up the questions.”
Hairspray does, in fact, do a lot of asking over its three-hour duration. Why can’t black and white teenagers dance on television together? Why can’t, as Tracy Turnblad says, “a girl who looks like me” win the love of Baltimore’s heartthrob? And, why can’t a leading lady (Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad) be played by a man?
According to Hairpsray’s cast and creatives, younger audiences need to be posed these questions and need to have these messages broadcast into their homes through the power of live television.
“I go online, and I have a lot of kids who look at my page every day,” Grande explains. “Some of them are fighting, some of them are at home feeling conflicted about who they are—feeling like they can’t be who they are because there are people making them feel that way—and I just want to be a person to them who lets them know that that’s bullsh*t, and that it is okay. It’s just crazy because the show takes place in the ’60s, and here we are today still talking about the same sh*t. It’s not that different. We’re still protesting. My best friend hit me up a two days ago and was like, ‘Yo, let’s go tonight. Let’s go walk.’ And, I was like, ‘This is real.’”
Martin Short, who plays Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, was very vocal about how timely Hairspray is following the election results. “When I first saw this movie, and then I saw the musical, it was clearly about people [who] were on the right side of history and the wrong side of history. We now have an administration that, as we know, as they talk about climate change being a Chinese hoax, are on the wrong side of history when it comes to a lot of subjects. Therefore, this becomes even more relevant than ever before.”
Jennifer Hudson will take on some of the most moving material in the musical, singing Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” and the finale “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go).” The tunes, she says, are hitting home.
“It’s shocking,” she says. “I remember when I did Dreamgirls—that was [set] in the ’60s. When I was doing that, which was ten years ago, I had to go and say, ‘Tell me what happened then. What was that like?’ You had someone explain it to you, and it’s unfortunate that ten years later, we should be well ahead, but we’re even further behind than ten years ago. It’s like, ‘I don’t think I need anyone to tell me because we’re living in it right now.’”
Race issues aside, Ephraim Sykes, who plays Motormouth’s son Seaweed J. Stubbs, says that the show also “speaks to true individuality” and celebrates our “uniqueness.”
As for the show’s leading lady Maddie Baillio, who plays the teen at Hairspray’s heart—a young woman who sees past racial barriers and looks for the good in everyone—she, like Tracy, hopes to change the world.
“Our director Kenny Leon really wants to nail in those real moments—the moments that are just as relevant today as they would have been in the 1960s,” she says. “It’s very hard, but I’m really hoping that maybe someone who is flipping through the channels on December 7, and they stop on Hairspray, if they don’t believe in equality, and they don’t have a lot of love in their hearts… I mean, it’s bold to say, but I hope we can change the world and change their minds.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.