It takes a lot of dubious, misguided decisions to level what should be a surefire show but NBC managed to check off just about all of them. Which is odd, given that the network got off to such a spectacular start with its 2013 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," a production which honored the show as originally written, restoring two fine numbers that were excised from the Disney-fied 1965 TODD-AO film.
But the success of "The Sound of Music" cornered the network into a rather rigid "family friendly" formula - musicals that appeal to kids, teens and their parents exclusively. There's no place here for something like "Sweet Charity" or a Sondheim work. Instead, we got the deadly "Peter Pan" in 2014 (a production that, seemingly, has impacted the career of its miscast star, Allison Williams) and a forgettable version of "The Wiz" in 2015. What's next for the kids? "Oliver!"? Yet another "Annie"?
Predictably, the announced production for 2017 will be "Bye Bye Birdie," a (teen-driven) show that has already been the basis of an inferior but wildly popular 1963 film version and an especially terrific 1995 TV version.
There's an expression for this - can you say creative bankruptcy?
In the meantime, the Fox network entered the picture earlier this year and raised the bar considerably with a jaw-droppingly excellent version of "Grease" performed before a live audience (a conceit that NBC appropriated for "Hairspray") and with a youthful enthusiasm that's been glaringly absent from the (again, middle-aged) NBC musicals.
I can't readily comprehend the reason for NBC's "Hairspray," as the material was the basis of Adam Shankman's exceptionally good film version (the definitive "Hairspray") which played cineplexes as recently as 2007 - a production that benefited strongly from Leslie Dixon's textbook example of exactly how to adapt a cartoon-like play into a credible movie.
Adhering close to the stage book, "Hairspray Live" seemed rickety, devoid of the kind of solid foundation that supported the '07 film, something which affected its performances which were scattered all over the place.
On paper, the peerless Kristen Chenoweth (a musical comedy treasure) and the ever-reliable Martin Short (who can do anything) both seemed letter-perfect for their roles, but performances which should have worked with ease were undermind by either the TV script or simply bad direction.
Jennifer Hudson, strangely cast as the mother of a high-school student (she looked younger than her TV son), has a knockout singing voice but precious little "presence"in this production and even less of the kind of powerhouse personality that her role required. She also has the disadvantage of being compared to Queen Latifah who nailed the role in the Shankman film. Whatever, her performance lacked a necessary heft.
Having seen Harvey Fierstein in the stage version of "Hairspray" - and having a rocking good time watching him - I anticipated the same fun. But it became clear that the kind of broad playing that marked Fierstein's stage performance works well only in the artificial setting of a theater. It can't hold up under the close, relentless scrutiny of a camera.
There's a reason why Carol Channing was never considered for the films of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and 'Hello, Dolly!" or Ethel Merman for the movie version of "Gypsy." It would have been too much. (Full Disclosure: I'm seriously dating myself here, but as a kid, I saw Merman in the original production and, yes, even on stage, she was too much.)
Anyway, in retrospect, John Travolta's decision to eschew even a hint of camp in his performance in the theatrical film was an astute one.
Then there's Maddie Baillio, the newcomer selected for the lead role that was played with such effortless pluck and sincerity by Nikki Blonsky opposite Travolta. Baillio has a fine voice but, as an actress, she is (how can I put this?) - well - fairly vacant. And while Hudson seemed too young for her role, Baillio looked too old to play a teenager. But then just about every teenager in this production looked too old. I have to ask: Why not cast the show with real teenagers? There are certainly plenty of them out there.
An unctous Darren Criss was brought in to serve as on-screen host, an assignment that Mario Lopez pulled off so handily for Fox's "Grease Live." Despite his yelping and fawning, Criss was an unconvincing cheerleader.
On the plus side, there was Ariana Grande who exhibited impressive restraint, grace and a sense of team spirit in a good but frankly supporting role; Garrett Clayton, who brought a fascinating sexual ambiguity to the role of a high-school heart-throb, and best of all, Dove Cameron, who managed to make her mean girl both loathsome and button-cute.
Cameron is a naturally witty actress. Get this woman a lead role already!
On the production side, the choreography by the estimable Jerry Mitchell was a decided disappointment, surprisingly rigid and jerky, rather than what the show's breezy score would inspire - liberating and free-flowing.
As for NBC's timing in airing "Hairspray," that was unavoidable, since these shows are announced and go into pre-production a full year before airing. For all its frivolity, "Hairspray" is an ardent plea for diversity, with the dance floor used as a level playing field for people of all color. It indicts the racism which has been revived in recent years and has become disturbingly rampant in the past few months. Compared to the racist venom and bile that have become routine in society and regularly covered by the media (always in lip-smacking detail), the crucial message behind "Hairspray" now seems weak, facile and, sadly, a little futile. It's like using a pretty little pink Band-Aid to try and cover an ugly, festering sore.
That said, I have to admit that I was amused by the ads for some vintage products (Nilla Wafers!) that are rarely advertised on TV these days. A very clever touch. Also, the telecast restored a familiar line borrowed from another show, "Gypsy," that wasn't used in the Shankman-Dixon film - "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," given a famously iconic reading by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film of "Gypsy" and spoken in this production by Ariana Grande. (There's another "Gypsy" line quoted in one of "Hairspray's" lyrics - "Momma's gotta let go!," from the rousing "Rose's Turn" finale).
Note in Passing: During the telecast, NBC promoted its next live musical - "Bye Bye Birdie," starring Jennifer Lopez (although it sounded like it used Ann-Margret's voice singing the title song written for the awful '63 movie). This seemed way too premature. Anything can happen in a year. It reminded me of the 2004 Tony Awards telecast. Nicole Kidman was a presenter and the announcer introduced her as "the star of the upcoming film of 'The Producers'." Well, when "The Producers" went into production a few months later, it was without Nicole Kidman. She dropped out and Universal lost one of its big selling/marketing points. Uma Thurman, almost as big a star as Kidman, came in and took over the role.