Awards Daily TV talks to producer Neil Meron about his 7-time Emmy®-nominated live musical Hairspray Live! which aired December on NBC.
Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan just can’t stop the beat. The Wiz! The Sound of Music, and The Oscars are just a few of the shows the duo have produced. Last December, they brought Hairspray Live! to NBC about Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who aspires to be on TV and appear on the Corny Collins Show. Set in 1960’s Baltimore, the show’s message about racism and division couldn’t be more timely. The event boasted an all-star cast that included Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Short and newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad. It received seven Emmy nominations.
I caught up with Neil Meron recently to talk about giving Hairspray the live experience and how he and Zadan are expanding into plays with A Few Good Men.
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, we were discussing The Wiz!
And this year, it’s Hairspray Live!
We were teasing Hairspray Live!
We are ecstatic
When we spoke, we were in the election year and Trump happened. Hairspray suddenly became so timely.
I think we were incredibly aware of the time we were living in, as opposed to the message of Hairspray and how they both collided and impacted on one another.
Sadly, the message of Hairspray is still a very strong message, and we wish it were even louder and that it would get to Washington in a louder way.
What is it like for you to go from discussing it a year ago, casting it, and then seeing your work come together?
It’s the most gratifying thing in the world as a producer to see what’s in your head manifest so beautifully by such remarkable people. It does take a village to create these events. I just thought the work that everybody did was extraordinary.
With each of these live musicals, we’ve taken a different point of view in terms of the production. We keep on learning more and more how to play with this form. To have this opportunity to do it year after year has been a great learning curve and a playground to experiment. Being able to manifest these ideas is thrilling especially when it comes to the musical form.
You’ve made musicals accessible to people. You’ve done this great thing. What have you learned from Sound of Music to Hairspray?
The biggest thing we learned was how deeply ingrained the musical is in American culture. It isn’t just a big city phenomenal. Musicals have impacted everybody’s lives. When they’re brought into people’s homes, they get to experience something that they can’t get to New York to see. It just furthers the cause of this American art form which we so love.
The constant reaction we get is that people say they’ve grown up or are growing up on these musicals, and it encourages them to seek out other musicals. That for me is something that was deeply impactful.
Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande.
I mean talking about a cast of all-stars. Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, and Martin Short, it doesn’t get better than that. To be able to introduce Maddie Baillio was thrilling.
At what point did you say, “Okay, let’s have Harvey reprise his role?”
The first person we cast in the whole project was Jennifer Hudson. Bob Greenblatt, Kenny Leon, Craig, and I had discussions as to how much sense it makes to have Harvey reprise his role that he didn’t do in the film. It just seemed to be the right thing to do.
We’d just finished working with Harvey on The Wiz so he was fresh on our minds, and we loved working with him. When you think of Hairspray you think of Harvey. So, adding to the poignancy of it all was to be able to give Harvey that opportunity to preserve one of the most iconic performances in Broadway history, and now we have it forever.
Jennifer Hudson in a word slays.
There are no words for how great she is and how hard she worked and how much she delivered in that role. She was the emotional center of the entire piece. When she got to that number “I Know Where I’ve Been,” it’s roof raising.
It’s going down in musical history. This was one of the top performances in live musical history.
We think that moment in Hairspray will. I think it’s iconic in terms of what a musical performance is like and what it does to people and how it takes the drama of the piece and takes it to another level.
What is that like for you as a producer watching that moment?
The first time we heard her do it, we were in a rehearsal and Jennifer doesn’t know from holding back. We were very close to her and we had to hold on for dear life because we would have been torn out of the set. Everybody collapsed in tears, sobbing beyond belief. We were in the truck, and we thought, “America get ready because you’re going have a moment.”
What is that like for you?
Once we start the show, there’s very little for producers to do other than to be on the tightrope and hope for the best and be prepared for anything that might go wrong. There was a moment when the hairspray can didn’t open on cue, and those are things you just punch your fist on the table and there’s nothing you can do. You have to have these moments of calm, and you just say, “Damn.”
That’s why we do these shows live because people get in on the tightrope walk and that’s what makes thrilling TV. It’s what happens in the theater. Once that curtain goes up, the train leaves the station, and you can’t stop it.
It’s up to the performers from that point. And the crew. We are in the truck with our great TV director Alex Rudzinski, and he’s marshaling all the forces in terms of the technical stuff and seeing it through, trying to refix things before they happen and it’s thrilling.
Was there a particularly challenging number to put together? Here you are at Universal Studios with a huge cast.
What was difficult was getting the timings. We never knew that after “Good Morning Baltimore” we had to have some of the dancers go into “The Nicest Kids in Town,” and so to time that so they could get from Baltimore Street to the Corny Collins show with cameras and golf carts, and clothes being changed it took us a while to get the timing down. We never thought we were going to make it.
The same with “Run and Tell That” which moved from location to location. I don’t think it’s been done before moving from location to location in numbers. There’s always that danger that something is going to happen. I think the technical achievement of Hairspray Live! is unlike anything that’s been done before.
The costumes are spectacular.
The hair and makeup is on every sort of level and everyone is on their A-plus game.
You love taking on the big ones, and you have Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Rock musical. It’s Easter. How do you decide what to do next?
It was always on the list.
I need to see that list.
That list. It was always on the list of titles we’ve discussed. After Hairspray, we wanted to move forward because we like the contemporary feel, and we thought that Jesus Christ Superstar would have that energy and the familiarity with the subject matter, of course. It just seemed to be something different than what we’ve done before. We’re trying to create a unique presentation we’ve done before.
You’re also being different by taking on a play with A Few Good Men.
Again, the whole live presentation is a form we are taking on under our wings to reinvent. We want to try it all. That includes plays because they did live drama in the 50’s.
You’re making musicals accessible to those not in the big cities.
Right. With all stars and the star power that we’ve assembled is really the way into people’s homes. That they want to see these stars in these pieces.
Something we’ve not discussed, what’s your first musical memory?
The first Broadway show I ever saw was How To Succeed In Business Without Ever Really Trying, and it really had an impact on me. The irony is that Craig also saw that show. We didn’t know each other then.
We recently produced it five years ago.
There’s that connection there.
We share similar passions for material, and we know each other well enough to navigate notes we have about various projects. We can argue back and forth about how we are proceeding on things, and it’s a very good collaboration because it’s a sounding board.
Consider Hairspray Live for your Emmy voting in the following categories:
Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction or Reality Programming
Outstanding Costumes for Variety, Non-Fiction or Reality Program
Outstanding Makeup for a Multi-Camera Series or Special (non- prosthetic)
Outstanding Hairstyling for a Multi-Camera Series or Special
Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Special
Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video Control for a Limited Series, Movie or Special
Outstanding Special Class Program