After the excitement and success of last year’s live national telecast of “The Wiz,” it’s fair to say that expectations are pretty high for tonight’s live production of “Hairspray.”
That success, along with the high expectations, falls largely on the shoulders of Atlanta’s own Kenny Leon. The Tony Award-winning Artistic Director of True Colors Theatre Company was tapped to direct both “The Wiz” and now “Hairspray” for what is now NBC’s annual tradition of live TV musical broadcasts for the holidays.
Lois Reitzes spoke with Leon on-set before another 12-hour day of rehearsal. While he did not program this particular musical, he said he’s glad it was chosen because “Hairspray” is “timely.”
“It’s about respecting each other," he said. "It’s about embracing each other, regardless of size, or race, or sexual identity … and it’s a feel-good, fun musical!
But lighthearted does not mean lightweight. Those familiar with Leon’s work with True Colors in particular know that the director is an important voice both locally and nationally in America’s ongoing conversation on diversity. The morals in “Hairspray” reflect Leon’s personal mission, and the diverse casting is written in the script.
Kenny Leon is accustomed to working with renowned and respected actors, but he said he’s “never been blessed to have a cast this amazing.”
“Ariana Grande (who plays Penny Pingleton) is a pop cultural icon, but she is indeed a great artist, and a great, great actress, and the world just doesn’t know that yet,” he said
The world does indeed already know Jennifer Hudson’s acting chops, but Leon insists that we “haven’t seen the best of Jennifer Hudson yet. And Jennifer Hudson will do something in this telecast that will blow the world away.”
And as for the star at the center of tonight’s production? Leon once again chose to cast someone unknown, as he did with Shanice Williams in “The Wiz.” Newcomer Maddie Baillio will play Tracy Turnblad.
“This girl, she’s magic. She’s butter. Butter, butter, butter,” Leon said.
You can catch that magic on tonight’s production of “Hairspray Live!” The show airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on NBC.