NBC said “Good Morning Baltimore” in a major way Friday (August 19) during the Olympics, dropping a first-look at their next big live-musical broadcast, “Hairspray.” Starring Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth, Ariana Grande, Martin Short and others, the TV event hopes to follow in the footsteps of such watercooler-worthy broadcasts as “Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”
Aside from continuing to provide steady employment for the Hough siblings (Julianne starred in “Grease,” Derek will play Corky in “Hairspray”), the recent wave of network musical broadcasts have done a tremendous job at reviving beloved stage productions that often tour regionally, giving them new life as a worldwide must-see. But out of all of NBC’s broadcasts so far, “Hairspray” might be the one with the longest, strangest trip.
From John Waters to Harvey Fierstein to Amanda Bynes … to, well, back to Harvey Fierstein, here’s a brief history of “Hairspray.”
Any discussion of “Hairspray” should naturally start and end with the name John Waters. Long before he was hanging out with Alvin and the Chipmunks, Waters gained a reputation as “The King of Bad Taste,” writing/producing/directing indie films like “Pink Flamingos” (which ended with the drag queen Divine eating dog feces), “Polyester” (which featured a glue-sniffing character who gets aroused by stepping on women’s feet) and more. All of which were midnight-movie trailblazers, set in his beloved hometown of Baltimore.
By 1988, Waters’ tastes had grown slightly more commercial, and he longed to tell a tale based on his ’50s/’60s upbringing. The result was “Hairspray,” a film originally called “White Lipstick” and intended to star Divine as Tracy Turnblad — but eventually came to be known as “Waters’ most accessible film” and starred a then-unknown teenager named Ricki Lake.
“Hairspray” was a hit with critics, made a modest $8 million at the box-office, and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Then, it presumably danced away for good.
Tracy the rising star
In 1998, theater producer Margo Lion saw a television broadcast of Waters’ film, and thought it would be perfect for a musical re-imagining. When Waters gave his blessing, she acquired the rights from New Line Cinema and things quickly came together as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote “Good Morning Baltimore” and future “Chicago” filmmaker Rob Marshall agreed to direct it.
At this point, two “Hairspray” traditions were established: The starring role of Tracy would go to an unknown (Ricki Lake had become a major star after the 1988 film), and Tracy’s mother would be played by a man in drag, honoring Divine (who had played Edna in the movie).
After Lake, Marissa Jaret Winokur (who has since appeared in projects ranging from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Stacked” to “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Talk”) portrayed Tracy in the 2002 Broadway production. A 2007 film that stuck closer to the musical roadmap debuted 19-year-old Nikki Blonsky (the later star of ABC Family’s “Huge”), who was working at a Cold Stone Creamery at the time of her casting. NBC’s “Hairspray” will star 20-year-old Maddie Baillio as Tracy — like her predecessors, in her first major role.
The show’s a drag
Of course, one of the most fun aspects of “Hairspray” is the tradition of agoraphobic Edna being played by a man in a house dress. Divine set out the blueprint, but it may have been perfected by stage legend Fierstein (who received a Tony for the Broadway show). The stage production also featured such notables as Michael McKean (“This is Spinal Tap”), George Wendt (“Cheers”) and Bruce Vilanch (“Hollywood Squares”) in the role.
Fierstein received only a brief cameo in the 2007 movie, because New Line execs were so thrilled to land “Grease” legend John Travolta for the Edna role. Wearing prosthetics and a fat suit, Travolta stole the movie, got his own action figure, and was even nominated for a Golden Globe.
In the new NBC production, fans are cheering the return of Fierstein, whose joy in once again playing his signature part should make for quite a performance.
You can’t stop the beat
With each new incarnation of “Hairspray,” certain elements are tweaked and refined, new traditions are established, and Waters’ DNA can still be felt. So, what story will the production have to tell this December? Hopefully, it will be half as entertaining as the one that got “Hairspray” this far.