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Tony Award-Winning Director Kenny Leon on Hairspray Live!, The Impact of Diversity, & More!

Broadway Black

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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 eventAll 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.

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Photo Exclusive: Step into The Light with Broadway Black

Drew Shade

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Have you seen The Light by Loy A. Webb at MCC Theater? If you haven’t, then you need to and Broadway Black has got you. Join us on SUNDAY MARCH 3rd for the BWAYBLK Experience!

Use code BWAYBLACKMCC and pay $35 for any seat on Mar 3 at the 7:30 performance

Not every marriage proposal goes as planned. LOY A. WEBB’s THE LIGHT  introduces us to RASHAD and GENESIS on what should be one of the happiest days of their lives, but their joy quickly unravels when ground-shifting accusations from the past resurface in this gripping two-character drama. Can their relationship survive the growing divide between them over who–and what–to believe?

Also, get into this amazing photo series of playwright Loy A. Webb & the cast of her play The Light.  Photos by Curtis Brown were taken in the new elegantly designed and strategically welcoming Robert W. Wilson MCC theater space. Located in midtown New York on 52nd and 10th ave (511 W 52nd ST
New York, NY 10019)

On another tip, some really dope creatives will do a talkback after the Saturday matinee performance that you might be interested in attending. Make sure to RSVP.

Panelists include: Nissy Aya, Cristina Pitter, Alicia Rodis & Kavita Mehra

THIS WEEKEND SAT FEB 23rd

LOY A. WEBB’s THE LIGHT at MCC Theater delves deeply into one couples’ reckoning with an encounter with sexual violence that has left audiences asking: as a partner, a family member, a friend, how do we support sexual assault survivors? And what responsibility do artists have to create work that is trauma-informed? On SAT FEB 23 at 4:00 PM for an in-depth conversation about the power of allyship rooted in love and healing – in our lives and on our stages – in the face of trauma.

SAT FEB 23 at 4PM
THE ROBERT W. WILSON MCC THEATER SPACE
511 W52 ST

RSVP HERE.

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A Superhero On & Off The Stage, Camille A. Brown Brings ink

Drew Shade

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Camille A. Brown Photo by Whitney Browne

Camille A. Brown Photo by Whitney Browne

Camille A. Brown‘s dance company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, tours nationally and internationally and will be presenting six performances featuring the debut of ink at The Joyce Theater NYC Feb 5-10th 2019.

Propelled by the live rhythms and sounds of traditional African and handmade instruments, Camille A. Brown’s ink celebrates the rituals, gestures, and traditions of the African diaspora. Highlighting themes of brotherhood, community, and resilience, the work seeks to reclaim African American narratives and is the final installment of Brown’s dance theater trilogy about identity.

In addition to her company works, Ms. Brown brings her passion for storytelling to her award-winning choreography for Broadway, Television, and Off-Broadway. Productions include Tony Award Winning Once On This Island, (Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Chita Rivera award nominations), Emmy Award Winning Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC, A Streetcar Named DesireChoir Boy, the upcoming Magic Mike The Musical, PAL JOEY. 

We had the chance to probe a little bit into the world of Camille A. Brown, and we’re grateful for the insight and wisdom with which she was able to bless us. Check out the interview below along with an excerpt from ink.

Broadway Black (BB): After forming the idea, what was the process of building ink?

Camille A. Brown (CAB): After the creative process for BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, I held a desire to dig even deeper and tell more stories of ritual, gestural vocabulary, and traditions of the African Diaspora. I was immediately drawn to two albums that had a significant impact on me when I was growing up. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, and Like Water for Chocolate by Common. I tasked myself with creating a movement language that embodied the same raw authenticity, and vulnerability that fuels those lyrics and music.

As I began to develop the concept for ink, I wanted the dancers to represent superheroes. I couldn’t figure out why I had the urge to play with this idea until I read Question Bridge: Black Males in America. One of the men interviewed said, “I see Black people as comic book heroes because they always keep rising.” That was it! It is about showing that in our basic survival, and natural attributes we have superhuman powers. Powers to shift, overcome, transform, and persevere even within an often hostile environment. The seven sections of ink represent super powers of spirituality, history and heritage, the celebration of the Black female body, Black love, brotherhood, exhaustion, and community.
The process involves a deep collaboration with the dancers and my direction is guided by their choice making.

The space is very organic and fueled by research. My dancers, musicians, dramaturgs, and I are in constant dialogue throughout the process about the work and how it’s progressing. We don’t move forward unless we’re all on the same page.

We are building the work together. As a disclaimer, I let everyone know the process will be exceptionally tedious. Like a fine comb, I go through each beat, gage the temperature of storylines, and make sure the movement and music are always in conversation (whether aligned or in contrast).

BB: What made you want to start your own dance company and how have you sustained?

CAB: I found my love of choreography in college because I struggled with body image, and found that creating my own voice was a safe and empowering space. After graduating, I danced with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence for 5 seasons and during my second year with The Company, a friend from college (Amy Page) sent me a flyer for the Hubbard Street 2 competition which picks 3 choreographers to create work on the Company. I was chosen! That gave me the encouragement to pursue choreography. My first idea was to take an alias like female writers used to do because even at 22, I knew the playing field was not leveled and women (particularly black women) did not get as much exposure as male choreographers. Dance is revealing and vulnerable so taking an alias wasn’t a realistic option. People would have to see me as I am, but I also needed the confidence to withstand the obstacles. Not only that, having a company seemed daunting.
Ron wore so many hats. He was the director, choreographer, teacher, and also took on administrative duties. He never got a break. I wasn’t confident I could handle all of the duties.

I set work on other companies, but soon realized it wasn’t for me. 1-4 weeks working with a Company wasn’t enough time for me to really hone my skills, find my voice, and discover my personal creative process. I desired a more intimate relationship and space with my dancers and collaborators. I had my first show at Joyce SoHo in 2006, and committed to having a company in 2010.

What sustains CABD is my team. I have a company agent (Pamela Green), Managing Director (Indira Goodwine), Company Manager (Michelle Fletcher), and a production team who holds things down.

In the beginning, I was doing ALL the jobs! As time went on, my team slowly formed. It’s really about patience and perseverance. Nothing happened over night and everything is a progression.

BB: How have you had to be a superhero in your own life personally and professionally?

CAB:

Personally
Last year, I had a life-threatening experience. My appendix ruptured on tour. Appendicitis is when they remove your appendix before it ruptures, but mine actually did and the fluid was in my system for at least a week. I survived the “fatal” stage- which the doctors told me isn’t common. This started a very long year and a half which included 4 hospital stints and two surgeries (my second one was in April). This all happened during Once on This Island (I was in the hospital the first week of rehearsal and had my first surgery during tech), Jesus Christ Superstar Live, and my Company touring. I had to access my “superpowers” and push through, but thankfully I had my team and community to help me.
I’m going to be writing about the entire ordeal because it was such an integral part of my life. People see the “success”, but if they only knew the hardships I had to overcome to get to the other side.

Professionally

Being a Black female Choreographer and Director is hard. People ask me to do I feel like I’ve arrived. Absolutely not. I’m still Black and a woman- two underrepresented groups- particularly in theater. The playing field is still not leveled and I’m clear I have to work twice as hard.
I’ve had to build up strength and confidence. It is an ongoing process of gathering those superpowers. In many spaces, I’m sometimes the only woman (I was the only woman on the creative team for Jesus Christ Superstar Live), and the only black person in some rooms.
Recently two black girls at different events asked me the same exact question: How do you navigate spaces where you’re the only one.

It’s quite easy to feel intimated and shrink yourself. I know I have done that in the past. Now, I’ve found if I think about the black women before me in similar spaces, black women who are currently in similar spaces, and the next generation of black women coming after me, it makes me more confident. When it’s not just about you, it becomes a responsibility.

And even when I don’t feel like I have any superpowers, this happens…

and it refuels and encourages me to keep going. Someone is always watching.

“Turf” (Excerpt from “ink”) – Camille A. Brown & Dancers – Grace Farms (2018) from Camille A. Brown & Dancers on Vimeo

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