In this multi-part series, Broadway Black interviews Poet Ntozake Shange.
The Legendary Blue Note Jazz Club located in NYC’s Greenwich Village was buzzing in anticipation of Ntozake Shange’s performance of Wild Beauties. Before the start of the show, I interview Shange’s friends, family, and long time fans, asking them “what they were most looking forward to?”
Although hard to believe, it has been over 40 years since the creation of Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Blue Note audience member’s stories span decades; set in New York City, The Bay Area and every town or city in between.
They recall the moments they felt visible in her poetry. They blush as they confess they performed in local productions of For colored girls as lady in red, lady in green or other women in the play. They smile reciting lines from sechita, pyramid and “no more love poems #1. #2, #3 & #4.” They are nostalgic as they tell me about seeing Shange’s work on and off Broadway. They compare the play to the 1982 PBS American Playhouse production, to the Tyler Perry Film with strong opinions about each iteration. Each felt ownership and protective of Shange’s work. Each came to see the artist whose work changed their lives.
At the end of their testimony, there is a pause. Their unending love for Shange is coupled with their concerns for her. I disclose I am writing about the performance and as a result, many ask me with caution in their eyes, about her health.
Is she healthy (enough to do this)? Is she too old to do this? Will this be her last performance?
These questions are caring and well meaning yet, problematic; heavily anchored in western cosmologies about health and our fears of a changing body. I graciously shift the conversation, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the show. As a journalist, I understand it is important to address these curiosities as it relates to Shange’s most recent performance and the legacy of her work.
I had the pleasure to sit with Shange the morning of her Blue Note performance. She candidly discusses her health, her body and her excitement to be performing again since recovering from stroke related medical complications over the last decade. It’s no secret that stroke rehabilitation has been an important part of recovery, as she shared the successes and setbacks on her journey towards wellness. “I went through a period where I didn’t write. I didn’t perform. I concentrated on my physical rehabilitation. I had to learn how to hold things, how to sit up how to stand.”
She is thrilled with the progress she continues to make in rehab. Shange who is a gorgeous 68-year-old woman glows when she talks about dancing. She approaches her physical therapy as if it were a movement workshop often asking her cab drivers to play Latin music and dances in the back seat as she rides.
In our conversation, she strikes me as a fiercely independent woman. She is a Black artist who takes pride in the craft of her poetry. Shange reluctantly depends on speech recognition software to write poetry as the software seeks to not only auto correct but colonize the beauty of black phraseology that is the essence of her work.
Her writing uses a Black talk that dances like jazz telling stories of the diaspora. Her work is the embodiment of Blackness moving in the air to manifest emotion, uniquely her own and there is no one on earth who can replicate. Software certainly can’t do what Shange can do and this is a source of her frustration.
Shange tells me Maya Angelou sent her children’s books to read as she regained her speech. She tells me about times when walking, moving and certainly dancing was impossible. How getting a typewriter helped her feel more connected to her work. She still has poems to write and desires this connection to her words.
She shares that rehearsals are going well and how she loves working with musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson, Michael Raye and Patmore Lewis. She is ecstatic to be back on stage in front of audiences. This is the conversation I am recalling in my mind as audience members whisper to me about her health. This is the reason I decline to speculate, I figure Shange would do what Shange came to do. Perform poems. Dance. Take Names.
The return to the stage at Blue Note feels like a homecoming for Shange. She explains ” I began working in night clubs with musicians reading my poetry. That is how for colored girls started. I feel like it’s the beginning again.”
At the start of the night, the announcer welcomes the audience to Blue Note, painfully mispronouncing her name. The audience rumbled, rolling their eyes in her defense while yelling “Its N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay. Her name is N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-ga!” said many voices from neighboring tables.
When the musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson & Michael Raye take the stage the audience tosses their annoyance aside and settles in for the show. Shange soon followed. The audience gives a standing ovation before she utters a word.
She came out swinging. Normally Shange likes to ease audiences into her work offering safety at the start of her sets but she had something to say about PRIDE. Her opening poem, ODE TO ORLANDO is about the Orlando Night Club Tragedy. In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded due to hate a crime inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shange lyrically takes audiences to the inside of Pulse nightclub where the black and brown queer bodies gather to celebrate Pride month. Her poem collages stories of her daughter who could’ve been there but wasn’t there. This poem is timely and tender, embracing the spirit of Pride season while not forgetting the need for LGBTQ liberation all year around.
She shares a poem titled LOOSENING STRINGS, OR GIVE ME AN “A”. Shange, a self-described Black girl who grew up listening to “white boys who sang weird harmonies that all sound the same” on the radio states “Yes, Eric Clapton made me want to have a child named Layla.” She has a sense of humor. The audience laughs in tune with her confessions.
Shange like a bandleader of a jazz orchestra moves us through experiences that are terrifying and soft. In THERE ARE NO MARKERS, she reminds us of the brutal reality of Blackness in America. She draws the audience into her world with I had five nose rings.
I had five nose rings
a gold circle
a silver circle
& a half moon
without these I am unarmed
not ready for arbitrary violence
There is no question that Shange captivates audiences. Her poetry, her presence her aura is magnetic. We have heard her words in cafes in local theaters, on Broadway and in Hollywood performed by some of the greatest Black actresses of all time, yet there is nothing like hearing Shange perform her own work. She is beautiful and particular. It is this closeness with her, her words, her journey that audiences are still yearning for 40 years after for colored girls took Broadway by storm at the Booth Theatre in NYC.
Full Performance: Amber Riley’s 1+1 Will Leave You Speechless
A few weeks back we shared a snippet of Amber Riley singing a cover of Beyonce’s 1+1. Now the full version of that video has arrived and is sure to take your breath away.
For those unaware of Amber Riley, she starred as Mercedes Jones, the “larger than life” powerhouse singer on the hit Fox show Glee for 7 seasons. Her performance on the show brought her much acclaim, earning her a Screen Actors Guild Award and several nominations from the NAACP Awards and Teen Choice Awards. Her career continued to blossom and in 2016, she played the legendary role of “Addaperle” in the NBC live version of The Wiz. From there she would go on to play the role of “Effie White” in Dreamgirls, at the Savoy theatre in London’s West End. She recently won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical at the 2017 Olivier Awards for her role.
Video provided by 42 Seven Productions #WestEndUnplugged
Exclusive: Denée Benton and Okieriete Onaodowan Talk Great Comet, Diversity & Artivism
Two Black actors leading a show that encourages inclusive casting and ignores gender norms set in Moscow in 1812. How “non-traditional.” But is it really?
Benton, who plays Natasha with whimsical naïveté, has the role of her dreams in her Broadway debut further inspired by her never having to deny her Blackness to do it.
“I remember having my hair texture was very important to [the creative team] and important to me. I was like, ‘I couldn’t let this moment pass by for a Black woman in all of her Blackness being Natasha.’ I thought it was just very important but the fact that there’s a creative team that shares the consciousness and none of them are people of color, it’s just… it was incredible to me.”
This same consciousness of the creative team was also very key throughout her audition process. Having auditioned previously for director Rachel Chavin and writer Dave Malloy, any initial hesitations about going out for Great Comet dissipated once she got her hands on the material and fell in love with the music and her character, adding “there was synergy and everything was right and that’s when I knew it was mine.”
On the other hand, Onaodowan was quite busy playing the tailor-turned-spy Hercules Mulligan and soft-spoken James Madison in Broadway’s hit Hamilton when he received the call. “Rachel called on my second to last show of Hamilton. We were talking about the Ghostlight Project and she told me, ‘Actually I want you to be Pierre.’
“I learned ‘Dust and Ashes’ and I played some for the producers and then I worked with a piano teacher. The main thing was to make sure I could play the piano.” Now in early stages of preparations, Onaodowan commits to getting the technicalities and nuances of Pierre out of the way before deep-diving into his story. We look forward to seeing “Oak” on stage again, but this time on 45th street, the same street declared “Broadway Black Street” during the 2015-2016 season where The Great Comet plays nightly.
“It’s just understanding. Broadway is in a weird spot because there’s only so many seats you can sell, and it’s a risk taking on something that may be culturally relevant or moving the needle along; but again, it’s business. It’s financially making your money back and making a profit.”
He adds the best part of the success from Hamilton isn’t its diversity, per say, but that Hamilton is “terribly profitable.” That “these people and this music, this style/genre of music is profitable so, hopefully, producers say ‘Hey I can make a dollar.’”
Similarly, Denée chimes in: “What I found is you have a lot of well-meaning creative teams who are liberal people, who have good hearts but haven’t necessarily done the research in what it means to break a system that was based on systematic racism.” That said, it will take creative teams like those of The Great Comet to step outside of the box, for there to ever be any true progress for actors of color.
Onaodowan is also aware it doesn’t solely fall on those who make the shows, but those who see the shows. “[Ticket-holders] buy tickets. If you see a show that is diverse, even if you’re not crazy about it, go out and support it because you’re saying ‘I support diverse theatre and there’s an avenue for this,’ it can be profitable.”
Still, both actors maintain hope for the future; hopefully, one that shines as bright as the light fixture in the finale of The Great Comet.
With the way social media has taken off, it allows some of our favorite stars to interact with fans about upcoming projects or simply enlighten them about issues that affect society, helping them stay optimistic and outspoken. It’s “artivism,” as the BAC calls it. Something both Benton and Onaodowan haven’t taken lightly. Benton, this past Black History Month, launched what she calls the “Black Princess Project” to highlight Black royalty that we otherwise wouldn’t have learned.
“That’s the only reason fame matters, because you have such a wide platform and, nowadays, if they won’t teach it in our history books, you can just post it and I like that. For me, it’s important. This would all start to feel meaningless if I couldn’t use [my platform] to change something or say something.”
As the son of Nigerian immigrants, Onaodowan has remained outspoken about immigration rights, giving the keynote address to a crowd of new citizens naturalized in New York City last September.
He also stresses the importance of artists using their voices to uplift communities and speak out about what matters. “I think artists do have a [civic] responsibility at some point. I always say as artists, you are responsible. If you have that platform you are responsible for what you put out there, and as much as you would love to just do your art, when you reach a certain level there’s [sic] certain things that come with your job.
“I don’t know how to write grants or run a non-for-profit or anything like that. But, in my lane, what I can do is use this platform of how many thousand people listen to me to try to put something positive out in my own personal way. It’s important to use your platform to say something because people listen.”
Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan joins Denée Benton in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on July 3rd.
For tickets, follow the Great Comet.
Darnell Lamont Walker: After Fences.
Our fathers, when they’ve seen all they care to see of this world, find solace in their doing better for their children than their fathers did for them, and the children are running laps inside a fence, figuring out how to hold them accountable for their wrongdoings and simultaneously forgive them because we know they’ve given their best.
My father told me another man, a man he respected, was my grandfather because, at 16, his father stopped being his dad. I was 16 when my grandmother corrected the narrative. Before my father was my father he was a kid who’d cry at the simplest things, my aunt says. My father says he became a man when he caught his father beating the woman who’d become my grandmother, and my father beat him. That man no longer had a son, according to my father.
So much of my dad pours out of me when I’m talking to my son and I’ve given up fighting those parts of him; those parts I hated when I was a kid but able to recognize emotional stunting and an inability to be vulnerable. I want to be a good father. I don’t want to be a good father just in relation to my mine. Just good for goodness sake.
The better parts of my father I’m mixing with the better parts of me. I’ve planted the broken parts of him in my empty spaces and giving him a second chance at growing with me. I feel whole, and maybe my wholeness makes him better.
You save the few things that didn’t burn in the fire, that didn’t get crushed under the force, that didn’t drown when he held them under, and you bring the rest to the ground. You always build it better the second time around.
-Darnell Lamont Walker
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.
Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.
As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!
Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th!
Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.
Exclusive Behind The Scenes: Morgan James, Shoshana Bean, & Alex Newell Rock Jesus Christ Superstar Concert
Alex Newell played “Mary” in a one night only concert of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, produced by Torya Beard, Morgan James, and Richard Amelius, Monday, at Highline Ballroon at 8:00PM (doors open at 6:00PM).
Illuminating the transcendent power of the human spirit, the Superstar Concert starred Broadway favorites Morgan James (Motown: The Musical, Godspell) as “Jesus” and Shoshana Bean (Hairspray, Wicked) as “Judas.”
Speaking to the genius of the cross-gender casting, James said:
Jesus Christ Superstar has always been one of my favorite shows, favorite scores; and I always wanted to know what it would be like to hear my favorite voices sing those roles. In fact, I had a dream about it and woke up desperate to make it happen.
And it happened. Some of the best and brightest voices you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing. So, just imagine hearing them all together. We were scooped away on a journey. View our exclusives of the evening below.
All photos courtesy of ©Kevin Thomas Garcia
Big Beat Records recording artist Alex Newell is best known for playing the transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on the Fox musical series Glee. As a singer, Newell released tracks with Clean Bandit, Blonde and The Knocks. “This Ain’t Over” is the first track on his 2016 debut EP entitled POWER. We’re excited to see his take on Mary in this highly anticipated production following a series of events so universally known.
Morgan James (Jesus) Original Broadway Casts: Motown: The Musical, Godspell (“Turn Back O’ Man”), Wonderland, The Addams Family. On Epic Records: debut studio album of original soul music entitled “Hunter”; and live Nina Simone tribute album, “Morgan James Live.”
Shoshana Bean (Judas) Her independent solo releases have topped the iTunes R&B and Blues charts in the US and the UK in peak positions 5, 3 and #1 with the release of her latest EP Shadows to Light. Shoshana is a veteran of the Broadway stage having debuted in the original cast of Hairspray and starred as the very first replacement for Elphaba, the green-skinned witch, in Wicked.
The cast of 13 singers performed the complete score, with accompaniment by a 5-piece band. directed by Richard Amelius and musically directed by Julie McBride will take on musical direction.
are Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte as Caiaphas, Tony Award nominee Orfeh as Pontius Pilate, Pearl Sun as Peter, Bryonha Marie Parham as Annas, Shayna Steele as Simon, Ellyn Marsh, Sydney Morton, Pearl Sun, and Jasmin Walker as Apostles, Crowd, Lepers, etc., and Ann Harada as King Herod.
Check out our experience from last night below! We had a blast with exclusive access backstage stage brought to you by Drew Shade!
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
Tony Award-Winning Director Kenny Leon on Hairspray Live!, The Impact of Diversity, & More!
When NBC’s The Wiz Live! aired on December 3, 2015, Kenny Leon, the Tony Award-winning Atlanta-based theatre director won laurels of praise from insiders and viewers alike. A co-production between Universal Television and Cirque du Soleil Theatrical with a script adapted for television by celebrated writer-actor Harvey Fierstein, critics adored the eye-popping Technicolor production, which was filmed mostly in front of a digital backdrop. That was until the Fox Broadcasting Company aired the all-star Grease: Live television special a month later on January 31, 2016. Executive produced by Marc Platt and co-directed by Alex Rudzinski (“The X Factor”) and Thomas Kail (Hamilton), the groundbreaking immersive theatrical production was shot on Warner Bros. Pictures studio lot in Burbank, California, and used two soundstages, 44 cameras and half of its backlot. Ultimately, the Grease: Live television special won a total of five trophies at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in September, including Outstanding Special Class Program.
Inspired by that production, Mr. Leon is now teaming up with Fierstein and Rudzinski on Hairspray Live!—a televised musical adaptation of the hit 2002 Broadway show. Airing on December 7, the heavily anticipated broadcast includes heavy-hitters like Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson, Tony and Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth, Tony and Emmy winner Martin Short, Tony and Emmy winner Andrea Martin, Emmy winner Rosie O’Donnell, Emmy winner Sean Hayes and Grammy nominated singer-actress Ariana Grande. Songwriting super duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have even returned to incorporate new material, and with a colossus celebrity artillery at his command, this could push Mr. Leon to new heights in TV and film.
In a telephone conversation, Broadway Black reporter Marcus Scott sat down to talk to the acclaimed director about the innovative endeavors in broadcast TV, his commitment to diverse casting, post-Black Lives Matter and the significance of Hairspray to the American zeitgeist.
The Wiz Live! on NBC was fantastic! What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way in the direction of bringing to Hairspray Live! to NBC this time around?
Thank you for your compliments of The Wiz! [It] was a real pleasure to work on that. The good thing about these live musicals is that it’s scary; I loved the challenge of The Wiz. And every time we do these musicals we’re learning from the previous musicals. So, when I did The Wiz, I learned from The Sound of Music and Peter Pan from what Rob Ashford did to those productions. Then, we did The Wiz and of course Fox did Grease, and I had the chance to work with Alex Rudzinski who worked on Grease, so now we’re working together on this. [It’s] the best of The Wiz and the best of Grease together, so that’s very exciting. So, to shoot it in L.A., on the back of the studio lot in Universal, to have four or five themes that are exterior combined with the interior scenes that makes it more challenging. How to get the actors from place to place, how to get the actors in costume during the commercial break, that’s all exciting. We’re part of this revolution where we are bringing live theatre to television: It’s not a musical, its not a television show, it’s not a film, it’s not a concert; it’s all of that combined and it is the best of all of those elements. I want to get into the eyes of our main character and we can’t do that in a live theatre setting. Hopefully people working on future musical broadcasts will learn from what we are trying to do with this production. Jerry Mitchell is doing the choreography (he did the original Broadway production). [Craig] Zadan and [Neil] Meron produced the 2007 film and they are here. Harvey Fierstein was the original Edna. We got Maddie Baillio, who is this young girl out of Texas going to school in New York; so we are continuing the trend of presenting a platform for new talent like we did for Shanice Williams in The Wiz. So, I’m really excited for this because we had 13 million viewers who tuned in and watched The Wiz and I am hoping we have 25 million watching this. The great thing about this is that anyone can watch this. There is a not enough [program] for families around the table, be it African American families, Anglo Saxon families, Asian families, gay families. I think this is a play that allows us, all of us, to embrace it because it is about being the best American we can be and certainly our country needs this politically and racially now.
What kind of work will the audiences have to do in order to make this change happen?
I just think we need a gentle reminder. The first part of the word “entertainment” is “enter.” For everyone who wants to “enter” through this door and wants to live in good, right and just country. Following the political season, coming off the heels of that, I think it will remind us that this is the good part of us, regardless of the skin they are in and the culture they are in… A lot of this is about fear and hate because we don’t know enough about each other, so I am hoping that when folks see this, they are going to want to share their lives with friends who are different.
This is quite similar to what happened with the Emmy-award winning Grease: Live, which aired earlier this year. Do you think this is the future of where the televised musical theatre is going?
I think different artists are going to find creative ways to make it different, but I do think we need to start casting the actors cross-generationally. I think we are lucky to have Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Harvey Fierstein—all of whom are different ages and draw different audiences. And then you have to get different actors who have never performed together. You have actors who have never done work on stage, some actors who have never worked in film, some who have never been a pop singer and that will encourage more people to go to the theatre because it’s like, “I can’t get this anywhere except this one time of year” to see this live television event. So, I think it’s a good win-win for convenience.
Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, told reporters that the musical will be filmed on the back lot of Universal Studios in Hollywood. This production of Hairspray Live! marks the fourth NBC live musical event. All three before Hairspray were filmed on a contained soundstage in Long Island, NY. How was the switch to L.A.?
I shot The Wiz on a inside a soundstage in New York in a very proscenium space and we used LED screens. Now, to do this, the challenge was how to break the fourth wall. In New York, in the winter, there would be no way to shoot exterior scenes on a backlot. Now, that we can go inside or go outside the studio and be at all of these different places within three or four minutes of a commercial break.
Two brand-new sound stages were built on the Universal lot and according to reports, you will also be shooting in the Back to the Future plaza with the iconic clock tower as a marker for Baltimore. How many months have you been planning and improvising to make this a reality? What’s the timeline?
I was hired in March, but I [started] working with [Production Designer] Derek McLane who designed the scenery, he also did some work for me on The Wiz, [beforehand]. Early on, I started [taking meetings] with Robert Greenblatt and Neil and Craig [to talk about] what we about to do and how we wanted it to look. We started casting end of March into early April. It terms of casting, it took us three or four months to do that. We started rehearsals a week ago in L.A. I’m actually looking through of my office window now and I’m looking out to the soundstage now, it’s beautiful and it’s almost done. But in three weeks, it has to be done because we have to transfer it from our rehearsal space onto the real backlot. It’s about an eight or nine month process to get one of these things up and done properly by December 7th. I always tell folks, it is previews opening and closing all in one day, so we don’t have a lot of room to make mistakes.
How did you come to discover Maddie Baillio? What made her stand out as the iconic Tracy Turnblad?
Maddie is great! Last year, we were looking for Dorothy for The Wiz and discovered Shanice Williams. We had 500 or 600 young ladies to come out to an open call. So, we decided to do the same thing this year and 1200 to 1300 girls came out for the role of Tracy. Maddie was one of those 1200 or 1300 young ladies and when she stepped into the room, she was immediately in the running because first of all, just like Shanice she had beautiful eyes. Eyes don’t lie, especially when the camera is close. You want the eyes to be authentic. This story is about a young woman who is not racist or sexist, she imagines a beautiful world that we all live in and should love to live in. She had youth working on her side and she has continued to just amaze me because she continues to get better and better. She also adjusts to working with stars easily. Inside she says she says she’s nervous, but she always demonstrates a level of comfortability; she is herself wherever she goes and that is very true to the character.
Mr. Greenblatt also said “The sun will be going down,” just as you “start ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’” and further stated that the broadcast would feature a live audience, with spectators filling in as citizens of Baltimore and as extras during “The Corny Collins Show” portions of the show. How has this process been? Imagine that this is a new terrain for you.
I learn from every project I do. I mean, I only choose difficult projects. If it’s not difficult, I don’t choose it. On Hairspray, there’s about 700 people in [various] departments (wigs, costumes, etc.). I’ve spent most of my life getting large groups of people to move in one direction, I pride myself on that and I pride myself on getting the actors into the same story. That will take some time because some actors come from film, some come from theatre, but on television you have to be smaller and I the way I see it, the crowds that will be [on camera], I see those people as being part of the story. I just want them to act like they would if they were on “The Corny Collins Show.” It’s a little nerve-wrecking; it’s like standing up to do a commencement speech in front of three thousand people. You want to be nervous because if you are not nervous, you won’t do a good job. So, I’m a little nervous and its a little overwhelming but I am excited by that.
This is a very unique production because there is a lot of focus on unknown actors who get equal screen time as A-Listers like Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande and Harvey Fierstein. How did you come to find Ephraim Sykes and Shahadi Wright Joseph?
I’ve done 10 or 11 Broadway shows, so I know the Broadway community. It took us a while to narrow down and focus on Ephraim, but he is amazing. He’s an up-and-coming star to the Broadway stage. I’ve seen Hamilton I don’t know how many times! And with School of Rock, Shahadi is in that. You want a good mix of TV and Broadway stars, so the fact that you have those young people coming from Broadway, Kristen Chenoweth coming from Broadway, and all these film stars coming to do this production—so you want a good variety.
But what was it about Mr. Sykes in particular? As you mentioned, he’s cut his teeth in a lot of Broadway shows (Newsies, Hamilton). Now he’s reimagining this iconic role in which Corey Reynolds was nominated for Tony Award?
It’s no secret that Seaweed was the last role we cast. It’s probably the most challenging role in the show; it’s so specific in what it is looking for. You have to be an incredible dancer, you have to be an incredible singer and you have to act really well. You can’t fake any of those. We saw hundreds and hundreds of people for this role. What comes to mind was what Elijah Kelley did in the 2007 film. He’s a good friend of mine and I just loved what he did, so that was the bar. He is someone you have to believe every moment of the day. So, we actually auditioned Ephraim in New York. He answered the bell. He’s an amazing dancer; he could do everything we required of him on that. He’s a great singer and we believed him as an actor and I believe it is his time to shine in this particular part.
Cast and crew-members will also be to spend a fair amount of the show outdoors, which NBC hasn’t done in previously. How have you prepared in the staging of this? Any last ditch staging protocols?
We are preparing this like it there is a 100 percent chance it is going to rain. Even though, I wish it would not rain. Jerry Mitchell is even choreographing it with umbrellas in case we need them in some numbers. Other numbers may need a little roof over their heads.
Songwriter Marc Shaiman also went on record to say that one of the four original Shaiman/Wittman compositions that was included in the 2007 Hollywood film would be in the upcoming production of Hairspray Live! and hinted at a new song. Details! Details! Details!
In television we only have X amount of time. We have three hours minus television commercials, and there are some things that work better in theatre and some that work better on film but I think we finally created ways to get the best that Hairspray has to offer. I don’t think anyone who has seen any version of this musical is going to miss anything. Especially with a cast like this, if you can imagine the voices of Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande and Kristen Chenoweth; I don’t think we’ll be wanting or needing for creativity of the human voice.
Hairspray, in addition to exploring sexual awakening, body image, racism, segregation, equal rights movement and interracial integration, it is a testimony to the city of Baltimore. In the wake of the civil unrest in that city, what are your thoughts on the broadcast of Hairspray Live!?
The thing that is important to me is, I’m an artist but I’m an African-American artist. When you run things through the lens of an African-American artist who understands what is happening to young black boys in this country and what’s happening with folks running for president and clearly what is happening with the end of Obama’s term, so there is a truth because I see it a different way. Working with like-minded people, I think without [a doubt], that we will have created something that is authentic and honest and I will be able to question what it means to be American. “Where are we now?” “Do we really respect each other like we say we should in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution?” So, I think through entertainment, because that’s what I do, we can ask those questions to all people and I think we can do that in a way that politicians cannot present it. I am hoping that that is what Hairspray will do, helping us take a step in the right direction because some folks don’t understand body type or what it means to be gay or what it is to be an African-American male. I hope we can get over those things that separate us from being as beautiful as we can, as humans and as Americans.