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.