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Hairspray Live’s undeniable joy more than made up for its technical glitches

The live event also featured a stellar performance from Disney alum Dove Cameron.

Hairspray Live!
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

NBC’s Hairspray Live showed that perfection isn’t everything.

There were moments during Hairspray Live where the cast’s microphones were off when they should have been on. In one scene, the lights went out and left Tracy Turnblad (Maddie Baillio) singing in the dark. And at points, the singers huffed and puffed through the songs.

But despite these flaws, Hairspray Live tapped into a rare kind of joy that’s hard to produce on television, let alone during a live broadcast — a kind of undeniable glee that happens when great songs, talented singers, and sparkling dancing collide.

NBC’s big musical event of the year introduced a surprising newcomer and cemented the legacies of a couple of Broadway legends while illustrating the difficulty of staging a musical for live TV. Here are five key takeaways from the show.

1) The cast really understood the spirit of the original musical

It’s no secret that established pop star Ariana Grande and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson can sing, and that Dancing with the Stars fixture Derek Hough can dance. But what Grande, Hudson, and Hough, as well as newcomer Baillio, Hamilton alum Ephraim Sykes, and Disney channel triple threats Dove Cameron and Garrett Clayton, had in common was this fundamental understanding and commitment to the shiny hamminess and sly subversiveness of Hairspray.

At its core, Hairspray is about the ugliness of segregation and the pernicious racism that hid beneath the gloss and nostalgia of the ’60s. The show uses humor to get closer to the nastiness. And acknowledging that these attitudes haven’t really disappeared, and thus neither can the resilience needed to overcome them, is what gives the 2002 musical and its 2007 movie adaptation a timeless quality.

The ensemble of Hairspray Live really leaned into their roles, delivering the dazzle and shine as well as the vulnerability.

Hough was seemingly designed in a lab just to play the slick Collins, while Grande’s sheltered, nerdy Penny Pingleton showcased her ability to do sketch comedy. Hudson, well, she showed us why she won the Oscar for her role as Effie White in Dreamgirls:

2) Dove Cameron stole the show

The character of Amber Von Tussle is an unremarkable role. She’s Hairspray’s secondary antagonist, a typical mean girl without the creativity or flair of her mother, Velma. She doesn’t have a solo song or specific part that’s meant to stand out. And yet Dove Cameron’s Amber Von Tussle is all I could think about when the show ended.

Cameron, a glimmering cherub who seemingly manifested from some dark spell involving a cow and a husk of corn, was an absolute delight in her first mainstream gig (the actress’s claim to fame is starring in Disney’s sitcom Liv and Maddie). Her vocals in “Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now” were a highlight, every bit as good as Grande’s. She was impressive in the least exciting song of the musical, her solo, “Cooties,” and gave Amber a high-pitched, prickly spirit.

It’s unclear what being good in a secondary role in a live television adaptation of a Broadway musical portends for Cameron’s career, since live television adaptations of Broadway musicals are a special species of program that don’t come around very often. If Wicked or Legally Blonde: The Musical is ever adapted for the small screen, she should be on the shortlist for Glinda or Elle. But I’d love to see more of what Cameron can do, and hopefully we’ll get to soon.

3) The show had noticeable technical glitches, but its biggest flaw underlined the difficulty of shooting a stage show for TV

Two of Hairspray Live’s first three big performances — “Good Morning, Baltimore!” and “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” — had noticeable technical flaws. The sound mixing was off in the first number, and whoever was in charge of the mics didn’t seem to notice that he or she never turned some of them on. In “Mama,” the lighting fizzed out, leaving Baillio’s Turnblad in the dark. Those kinds of hiccups are unfortunate, but not totally unexpected during a live event.

What the show really struggled to figure out were which shots, camera angles, and composition to use during the non-musical scenes.

The dance numbers were staged and filmed really well, a feat that’s easier said than done considering musicals are set and staged against one perspective that doesn’t translate well to television.

Showcasing all that motion and moving the camera along with it in a way that isn’t jarring but still shows off the complexity — and, in the case of Hairspray Live, the tightness of Jerry Mitchell’s choreography — is an arduous, ambitious task that Hairspray Live delivered on. But during the musical’s downtempo scenes where there’s just a conversation (as when Tracy, Edna, and Wilbur talk in the kitchen about Tracy’s audition), the camera clumsily moved and jostled around, often cutting out and cutting off main characters.

4) Harvey Fierstein and Kristin Chenoweth showed why they’re Broadway legends

Broadway veterans Harvey Fierstein (who originated the role of Edna Turnblad in the musical and reprised the role here) and Kristin Chenoweth didn’t have the biggest roles in Hairspray Live, but each time they appeared onscreen, they made you wish for just a little more.

The two really understood the campy aspect of Hairspray and its timing, leaning into little glances or injecting some extra air into their line deliveries. Chenoweth threw weird magic into “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” making her Velma Von Tussle far stranger and more drag queen-y than Velma’s previous iterations. And Fierstein gave his Edna a brittle sweetness, especially in the character’s scenes with Wilbur (Martin Short).

Fierstein and Chenoweth are Broadway treasures, and Hairspray Live truly benefited from their experience and presence.

5) Hairspray Live brought kinetic, winsome joy to television

Many of the songs in Hairspray are sprints — high-paced, energetic dance numbers filled to the brim with choreography. It’s an ambitious musical that requires a lot of physical endurance from its performers.

Hairspray Live didn’t cut corners on these numbers. If there was free space on your TV screen, there was a dancer in it. If there was one more angle that could be shot, there was a camera ready to capture it. And in the big numbers, the Broadway choreography from the musical was kept intact.

The results were numbers like “The Nicest Kids in Town” (embedded above) and the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which overflowed with unbridled, indomitable joy. When it came to the latter, you could tell some of the cast members were a bit out of breath and maybe weren’t fully hitting their notes, but they still plowed through to the end. (Prior to watching Hairspray Live, I watched a few performances of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray’s original Broadway cast, and they had trouble keeping their breath, too.)

The production wasn’t perfect (that’s what the studio recording of the soundtrack is for), but it was never supposed to be. And with the glee these numbers brought, perfection didn’t really matter.

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