BWW Special Interview: It Takes Two- HAIRSPRAY LIVE! Producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron Check In From the Set!
The countdown continues for NBC's highly-anticipated HAIRSPRAY LIVE!,which airs in just days. The all-star cast will feature newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle, Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad, Derek Hough as Corny Collins, Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton, Andrea Martin as Prudy Pingleton and Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussle. Rosie O'Donnell and Sean Hayes will also make special appearances in the broadcast.
While the cast and creative team is making final preparations for the broadcast, it's Zadan and Meron who keep the beat going. The duo checked in with BroadwayWorld to tell us all about the power of the piece, the timeliness of the message, and what's up next!
We're just days away -- how are rehearsals going?
Neil Meron: We're down to the last week and considering the scope and the ambitions of the production...it's been going really well!
Of course, you could have not anticipated the political climate when the project was first scheduled, but it really feels like the perfect time for HAIRSPRAY to be back, and in a big way.
Craig Zadan: Yes, it feels like there's a state of general shell-shock in the country, and I think it's not only from the election, but it started with the campaigns. The last year has been just so brutal, and I think people feel battered and wounded. I think that it's time for some healing, and the perfect antidote to being battered is HAIRSPRAY.
Is that something that the cast is aware of as they're rehearsing?
Neil: Very much so. At the start of the rehearsal process, Kenny Leon gathered everybody together and pointed out the messages that were being sent by HAIRSPRAY as opposed to what we been living through and are living with. So, from day one, even while the campaign was in it's last ugly weeks, we were aware of the time and place we were at and how HAIRSPRAY was such a reflection of that.
Craig: The other thing was that when we made the movie over a decade ago, we were doing a period piece about 1962. And sadly, we're not doing a period piece anymore. We're doing a story about division and racism and all sorts of things that are happening in America right now. It's very timely- more timely than we want it to be. It feels contemporary.
And you're revisiting it, having done the film a decade ago. What else from what you've done over the last decade are you bringing to it?
Neil: I think what we've brought is the fact that we've had three live musicals behind us. We're able to focus in on what is unique about HAIRSPRAY the Broadway musical, as opposed to the movie that we did. All of the live musicals we've done have honored their Broadway roots. We continue that with HAIRSPRAY, which opened in the early part of this century. We wanted to focus on what made the musical great, then take that and adapt it to our live format.
This live musical seems like the biggest yet...
Craig: When people keep asking me what it's like compared to the others, I keep on saying that it's like taking the experience of producing a live musical and taking the experience of producing the Oscars and putting it into a blender and doing both at the same time. It's overwhelming. It's epic. We're using a huge backlot for exteriors and we have two sound stages that were just built at Universal. Compared to the soundstage we used when we filmed the live musicals in New York City, the scope of it is so big that this feels like doing the movie of HAIRSPRAY in terms of size.
And it's going to be sort of even bigger, in that you're doing a pre-show for the first time as well as Darren Criss giving special sneak peaks backstage.
Neil: Yeah. I think NBC recognizes the opportunity with the show to experiment with really having a strong presence online. Darren Criss is the perfect person for that because he has such a popular voice online as well as in other places. But, to have that pre-show for a half hour, which is, in essence, a countdown to our broadcast... to have the online presence led by Darren, it kind of turns it into an even bigger event. All these technical aspects are being run out of our production, which adds more work and more responsibility to all of the amazing crew that we have.
Craig: The pre-show, which is looking to be really great, we're reuniting, for the first time since PROMISES, PROMISES, Sean [Hayes] and Kristin [Chenoweth]. All that adorable energy they had on stage is evident in the pre-show. They're just so magical together.
How much of the Darren Criss stuff are you able to plan in advance?
Neil: That is all being scripted now, in terms of where he's at. A lot of the interactions that he'll have when he's doing his segments are going to pretty much be spontaneous. It is a true second screen experience to enjoy with the program, and that's how audiences today like to view things.
We've been hearing a lot about easter eggs and cameos to related past versions of the musical. Any other tips on things that we should be looking out for?
Craig: I think one other thing people will really like, because we really like it, is that when HAIRSPRAY ends, you do "You Can't Stop the Beat" and it ends there. But here, we do the song and then break for commercial. Then we come back for the curtain call, and Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson come out and do their duet of "Come So Far." If you've heard it on the album, it's amazing.
Neil: You've heard them doing the duet, but nobody has seen it. To see it, you'll have to tune in and wait until the end of the program. There is no filmed record of them doing it together that has been released. It will be the first time that people will get to see it.
(Which we can't stop listening to on the album!) It's an all-star cast, for sure. When did the decision come about to bring back Harvey Fierstein into his iconic role?
Neil: It was simple. The truth of the matter is we hired Harvey to adapt the teleplay from the Broadway musical, and as we were going through the process, it just kind of really made sense to have Harvey recreate his role. He didn't get the opportunity to do it in the film and we know he had really strong emotions about not being able to preserve his performance, and we thought that this is the way to do it. I'm actually the one who called him up to tell him. There was a pause, there were very few words (which is of course very unusual for Harvey), but I think he was deeply moved. We are so excited that his performance, which is so iconic, is going to be preserved for the ages.
Equally as important as being able to preserve Harvey's performance has been the opportunity to work with Jerry Mitchell, and to have some of the best choreography he has ever done preserved as well. It's been one of the great joys. He has a great spirit; he knows the history of it all. What he brings to the choreography and the energy of the cast has been unforgettable and so necessary.
Craig: The only thing that has been entirely disappointing is that Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] have been in London working on MARY POPPINS and haven't been able to come to LA. They haven't been able to see anything or be a part of anything. It's all been over email and Skype. They might not even be able to see the show when it's broadcast live.
What are you hoping audiences will take away after watching it next week?
Craig: I think that they're going to see the next stage of live musicals. What we started with has greatly changed with each show, and also changed yet again when FOX did GREASE. So it's been an evolution, and what we're doing with HAIRSPRAY is beyond any of it. From the production point of view, I think it's going to be a thrilling, family experience watching it. From an emotional point of view, we really do think it's a very healing show and it's a very funny, touching and emotional show. I've gotta tell you, when we rehearse the scene with Motormouth and she sings "I Know Where I've Been," if you looked at the faces of the cast... they were not only having tears rolling down their faces, they were weeping openly. You just can't even imagine what it's like watching Jennifer Hudson doing that scene and that number, live. It is unbelievable.
Neil: When we first started doing this, we were trying to create this new form for TV. There was a lot of online criticism and brick-throwing. But thank goodness we have been allowed to continue, and we're thankful that audiences have allowed this to happen. To pick it apart right from the get-go is a disservice to what theatre is all about. We're all allowed to create, reinvent and go forward with something. To please everyone is impossible, but we've somehow managed to get through it all and form this new genre, which we're very proud of.
Is there pressure to go bigger than last year? Or is it just a natural evolution and one of the next ones could be a smaller show?
Craig: I think BYE BYE BIRDIE will be as big as this, if not bigger. I think maybe the most important thing that we have to say, is that people don't often talk about network executives being brave. You don't talk about them as having integrity and a higher purpose, because it's a job... except for Bob Greenblatt. He is a theatre person. He loves and understands it. He's a producer of several shows right now and he is remarkable in his love and adoration of the theatre. That's what gave us our first chance of working with him, with SMASH. We were all in it together. When that didn't work out after two seasons, instead of Bob saying, "Well, we tried the theatre thing and it didn't work out. Let's move on," he didn't want to abandon it.
What we're doing now is all because of Bob's passion and belief in the musical theatre. It allowed us the opportunity to do this. Without his belief they wouldn't exist. What people are getting out of this, and not just people in New York or LA, but people on their couches in the midwest, the south, everywhere... they're getting to see Broadway performers and people from Hollywood and the music industry. It's all because of Bob Greenblatt.
And are we still getting A FEW GOOD MEN in between these two musicals?
Neil: Since it will be our first live play, we want to do it right and we want to help guarantee its success. The first part of that success is getting a proper cast. It's been a bit of a jigsaw puzzle with people's schedules, including the schedule of Aaron Sorkin, who's directing his first film. We've been reaching out to the cast that we think would be great for the parts and knowing that they're involved in other projects. It's constantly finding a way to fit all the pieces together and when's the proper time to do it. The answer is yes, but we have to make sure all of the pieces fit together.
Craig: We're finding that the casting of A FEW GOOD MEN is different from the musicals because the kind of actors that you need to do it are movie actors, basically. Those movie stars are booked for multiple films in advance. So, we went to Bob and said that rather then set a date and try and cast it around a date and end up comprising and not having the cast we want and need, let's cast it and figure out when the actors are available and then let's set a date. He agreed, so that's what we're doing after HAIRSPRAY... we'll go back to casting A FEW GOOD MEN and trying to get the people we know we want for the roles.
I ask this every time we do an interview - when do we get you back to Broadway?
Craig: Oh, very soon I think, because we're making great progress, which we can't really talk about yet on putting together the team for BOMBSHELL. And we're making great progress securing the rights for the Shubert deal. Once the deals is closed, we're putting the creative team together, and probably within the next few months we'll announce our plans for Broadway. And then we've got several other projects that we're putting together and we'll be announcing those for Broadway in time.
Neil: And all of these projects are something that we're incredibly creatively passionate about and so are the teams that we've been assembling. Even if we're not doing specific things for Broadway, Broadway is still at the heart and soul of all the projects and how we approach our material that we do in other mediums, so it's always there in our background. And, it will be great to get to that street again!
Craig: And the biggest thing for us this year is that we are now members of the Broadway League and we're gonna be Tony Voters for the first time!
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron produced all three of NBC's recent holiday musicals - THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE, PETER PAN LIVE and THE WIZ LIVE - as well as the big-screen adaptions of "Hairspray," "Footloose," "The Bucket List" and the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Chicago." Last year the pair produced the 87th Oscar telecast, which was their third consecutive Oscars. In addition to Emmy Award nominations for "The Sound of Music Live" and the Oscars, Zadan and Meron have been nominated for TV works that include "Gypsy," "Cinderella," "Annie," "The Beach Boys: An American Family," "Life With Judy Garland" and "A Raisin in the Sun." Zadan and Meron were also Tony nominated in 2011 for their Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."