On Wednesday, December 7, NBC premieres its latest live musical offering: the much-anticipated Hairspray LIve! Following on the heels of The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live!, this new production boasts a book by the legendary theater talent Harvey Fierstein, and songs by the creators of the original Broadway soundtrack, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Hairspray tells the story of the efforts of teen Tracy Turnblad and her friends to integrate the local dance broadcast, The Corny Collins Show, in 1962 Baltimore.
We spoke with the following cast and creative talent behind this television event:
• Harvey Fierstein (Edna Turnblad)
• Maddie Baillio (Tracy Turnblad)
• Garrett Clayton (Link Larkin)
• Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed J. Stubbs)
• Dove Cameron (Amber Von Tussle)
• Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Producers
• Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, Directors
• Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, Songwriters
• Jerry Mitchell, Choreographer
• Derek McLane, Production Designer
• Mary Vogt, Costume Designer
The cast also stars Kristin Chenoweth (Velma Von Tussle), Jennifer Hudson (Motormouth Maybelle), Derek Hough (Corny Collins), Martin Short (Wilbur Turnblad), and Shahadi Wright Joseph as Little Inez. Sean Hayes, Rosie O'Donnell, and previous Tracy Turnblads Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur also appear.
USTownhall.com speaks with actor HARVEY FIERSTEIN, who wrote the teleplay for this production, and JERRY MITCHELL, the choreographer (November 21, 2016):
USTH: My first question is for Harvey Fierstein. I just want to know the backstory of how you came to be involved in this new production of Hairspray and also how you agreed to write the book for this musical. Did you feel any kind of trepidation for going back and redoing something you had done in the past?
Harvey Fierstein: Okay. Yes. Well, I’ll tell you. Last year I wrote The Wiz. I wrote the teleplay for The Wiz presentation last year, and I worked with Kenny [Leon, the director, who is interviewed below] and had a wonderful time working with Kenny and Craig [Zadan, the producer, also interviewed below]
And then they called me. And they said, “Would you mind writing the teleplay for Hairspray even if you’re not acting in it?”
And I said, "Not at all" because truthfully I’m one of the original writers. I’m uncredited, but I’m actually one of the original writers of the [Broadway] show. I also wrote the adaptation that we did in Las Vegas. And I wrote the adaptation we did at the Hollywood Bowl.
So I’m pretty familiar with the show and then working with Jerry [Mitchell, choreographer] of course because Jerry and I had worked together in Las Vegas – you know not only Broadway but the Las Vegas and the Hollywood Bowl.
So, you know, I felt very relaxed about that. So, I had no problem at all stepping in as the writer of the teleplay.
USTH: Jerry, because there is such a wide range of experience in terms of your actors and their dancing background, how do you approach each actor and nurture them along when you see one actor who can take to choreography a lot more easily than another, and then, on the other end of the scale altogether, you have Derek Hough who won awards for his own choreography?
Jerry Mitchell: Well, just probably what you’re saying – I pay attention to each actor. And I look at their scale of ability and how they operate. And I try to figure out how I can best serve them and when they’re ready for more and when they’re ready for less and when I need to push them and when I need to back off and let them live in it for a bit.
So, I do have a lot of experience with dance and different kinds of actors in film, television, and stage. So it’s basically working with the actor. And what can I do to help them be the best that they can be.
Derek has been sensational. And they’ve all been sensational. But, also educating them a little bit about the 60s and what [dance] movement was like in the 60s compared to what it is like today. So it’s been fun.
USTH: Can each of you just talk a little bit, and we’ll start with Harvey, about how your love of musical theater began? And with this cast of young actors, what advice would you give them in their careers going forward?
Harvey Fierstein: Well, I was brought up in Brooklyn, New York, and I had a mother who loved art. We went to a museum. We went to a Broadway show. We went to a premiere movie every weekend. Tickets back then for the balcony [in a Broadway theater] were $3.00. So she could buy tickets for the four us, my brother, my father, she and I for $12.00. We could take the subway into Manhattan and see a Broadway show.
So, we saw everything. And I can actually go into the theaters, into the Broadway theaters, and show you the seat I sat in to see Oliver, to see How To Succeed [in Business without Really Trying], to see Sound of Music, to see these Broadway shows that are now the classics that we think of as the Golden Age. I saw them all. So, of course, I love them.
But, I was a painting student. And I got into theater really because I thought maybe I would do some set design or something. Everything else just sort of happened.
But, I always loved theater and was brought up in theater. And that’s the reason that I’m so in love with this idea of bringing theater into people’s homes.
Jerry Mitchell: Well, I grew up in a very small town in the Midwest where there was one stop light. And I started dancing and got involved in everything I could possibly get involved in from the age of 8 when I joined the Paw Paw Village Players to do The Music Man until I left town at 17 to be doing national tour of West Side Story.
But, you know, I think the thing that I would tell young people, and I tell them often is that they have got to be passionate about being in this business. If they’re not passionate about it, it won’t show up on the screen. It won’t show up on stage. It won’t show up anywhere.
And there are too many people who are passionate so if you really want a career in this business you got to love it more than anything else. And really dedicate yourself to that on every level. And the only other piece of advice that I’d give them is learn to project.
And when Harvey does something on set Harvey does something 110%. And all of the young kids who do it and then they don’t – and then they mark the next time, they see Harvey leading by example. And so, you have to step up to the plate. You have to step up to the plate.
Your performance can never be, "Oh I’ll do it the next time." That isn’t the way it works, not in live theater. It’s every time full out all the time. And if you don’t have the energy for that then you really have to question are you in the right business because that’s what it takes.
The one difference between film and television as opposed to theater is it’s quiet because the camera picks everything up. And a stage performance needs more than a television and film performance. It needs projection. And that’s what I mean by I would teach them the difference between projecting for the stage and projecting for TV and film. They’re two different worlds.
USTH: And is that true even in rehearsal that you should do the rehearsal as if you’re doing the actual show?
Jerry Mitchell: Why not? Like you’re stretching your muscles. Why wouldn’t you use everything you’ve got every time you’ve got a chance to use it?
USTH: Jerry, has it been difficult for you or challenging for you to work around everybody else’s schedule because right now Derek Hough just finished Dancing with the Stars? So have you had a lot of chance to work with him yet?
Jerry Mitchell: No, no. He finished actually a couple weeks ago. But we scheduled our schedule based on their schedules. So, I’ve had tons of time with Derek. And Derek is amazing. Derek comes in and he is full out. He does it. He learns it quicker than anybody else. And then he gives it back to you.
And Derek has never once in all of our rehearsals said, "Oh, I don’t like that step; can I try this?" He has been unbelievable, unbelievable. I mean really like super, super talent and a super sweet man. And I’m really excited to have this opportunity to work with him. All of the kids – all of the kids are great. They’re really great.
USTownhall.com speaks with the Nicest Kids in Town!: MADDIE BAILLIO (Tracy), GARRETT CLAYTON (Link), EPHRAIM SYKES (Seaweed), and DOVE CAMERON (Amber) (November 21, 2016):
USTH: All of you seem to be living a dream right now, and Maddie in particular you seem to be living a Cinderella story. Can you just describe for us, each of you in turn, your audition process, and how you got the role. Maddie, how did you hear about this to begin with since you just attended an open casting call? Just kind of relive it for us how you each won your role.
Maddie Baillio: Totally. Good morning, first of all. So, I was in New York for two years for college, and I saw an open casting call. I saw an ad on Facebook that there was going to be a big open audition for Tracy for Hairspray Live. And this was one of my dream roles, so I really wanted to do it but I was also really, really nervous because it was my first professional audition. It was my first audition outside of school.
And I decided at 3:00 am the morning of the audition to get up and get ready and go do it. And on the sheet – on the ad, it said that you should also prepare a short portion of "Good Morning Baltimore," so I prepared my short portion on the subway ride to Telsey & Company, which is the casting agency where they were holding the audition in New York.
So I got there at 6:45 thinking that I was going to be one of the first girls in line because it started at 10:00, and I was 343 in line and there were over 1000 girls there by the end of the day. And I sang my short portion of "Good Morning Baltimore," and I thought I nailed it, and then they asked me to sing the end of the song, which I did not know so I made up a lot of the words. But they still asked me to do a callback a couple days later. And then four callbacks later, I got the part. So I am living my dream. I'm so thrilled and blessed to be a part of this amazing cast.
USTH: Well congratulations! Garrett, why don't you tell us your story?
Garrett Clayton: So, I had been poking and prodding my reps when I found out the show was even happening, and after – I kind of let the notion go that I was going to be able to audition just because nobody ever thinks they're going to get their dream part. And they said that the production asked me to send in a self-tape. And so it took me about a week to make the tape that I was solid and felt good about sending.
And after about two months of hearing that I'm still in the mix, they set up a call back with the whole team behind it that ended up getting cancelled because somebody couldn't make it to LA, so I figured somebody else got the part. And then about two weeks after that, they e-mailed me the night before and said, "Can you come to a dance audition?" And it was with Brooke, the assistant choreographer, and we FaceTimed with Jerry Mitchell, the choreographer, and he watched me do a little bit of "Nicest Kids. "
And about two weeks later, they offered me the part, which is kind of a little bit surreal because the night I found out I got it, I was at A Chorus Line at the Hollywood Ball and I was just checking my phone on the way to the bathroom and my reps kept freaking out saying, "Call us" and "Kiss Today Goodbye" came on. So me, as the big theater nerd that I am, had a little bit of an emotional moment because I was listening to "Kiss Today Goodbye" at A Chorus Line at the Hollywood Bowl when I got Link.
USTH: Congratulations. And Ephraim?
Ephraim Sykes: Yes, mine is not so quite involved. It was really weird. I first heard about – well, my agent gave me a call – I think it must have been early July or something like that, maybe even late June or so, like very early on – saying that, "Hey, they would like you to send in a tape for Seaweed." And I was doing Hamilton at the time [on Broadway]. I thought there was no chance in hell that I'd be cast in this, honestly. I was like not a superstar name – because I heard that Ariana Grande was going to be in it; I had heard that Jennifer Hudson was going to be in it – all these other people.
I was, like, "There's no way in this world that this is going to happen for me," and I don't even know if I can sing that high because, you know, his [Seaweed's] song's kind of crazy. So, I actually turned it down at first. I was, like. "No, I think I'll hold off because I'm in the middle of a crazy eight-show-a-week," and I don’t feel like killing myself for something that I didn't think I would really get.
Cut to literally maybe two months later – like early August – and I get a call from my agent again saying, "Hey, Ephraim, casting really would like to see if you'd just send in a tape – just submit – they just want to see and hear you do this." Because I guess they were having a hard time finding somebody or matching somebody up with tiny Ariana [Grande]. So, I was, like, "Okay, well, I guess I'll give it a shot.: So, I feel because they asked me again, they would have to at least consider me or have to at least look at my tape and not just throw it out the window.
So I was in my living room. I had one of my best friends come over. I was like, "Look man, we've got one take for this [audition tape] because I don't know if I can sing it twice." I happen to collect records, like old records, and I have them hanging all over my wall. We were going to shoot it in my apartment. Badly lit. You guys [other cast members] have to see this audition tape; it's really terrible.
Yes, so my friend shot it for me. I went ahead and just like screamed it out one time. He was like, "All right man, I think that was it," one take and sent my tape with that song and the audition material and sides. And literally like a week later, the day that I stopped doing Hamilton, I found out that I got this part, and I collapsed. So that's what happened.
Dove Cameron: In terms of my audition story, it was a very, very long one, so I’ll give you the short version.
Basically, I was in talks to play Amber for like three months before I got the role. And I just knew that it was something that was sort of being talked about, but I’m typically kept on the other side of those conversations. I think a lot of actors will tell you that.
But I was wrapping up Season 4 [of Liv and Maddie for the Disney Channel] – subsequently the last season of the thing that I started my career with which was Liv and Maddie. And I found out – I went back and forth and I had Skype and I had phone calls and things like that.
And I got the call that they offered me the role of Amber like half an hour before we went on for our final curtain call for Liv and Maddie. So that was a very emotional moment for me because I was wrapping the thing that has taken up most of my young life and my career while also starting something [new].
That was something that I had wanted for a very long time and that I was anticipating doing for a long time.
And then – this is funny, I haven’t told you this Ephraim – but they said that they couldn’t offer me the role because I was going to go do Descendants 2, and I was just going to miss too much rehearsal time and they didn’t feel safe letting me do something live with that little rehearsal time and so they took it back.
And you know we fought and fought and fought and went back and forth and did that for a long time as I was shooting Descendants 2. Or I was about to go off and shoot Descendants 2.
Then I went to go see Hamilton in New York while I was promoting my EP. And the night that I saw Hamilton I had like five missed calls from my reps. And they said, "All right, they want to see you one more time for a dance audition and then they’re prepared to actually really offer you the role."
And so, I walked out of Hamilton and I flew back to L.A. the next morning and I got like three hours of sleep. And I went in to audition for Jerry Mitchell and he said, "I’ll see you at the table read on Monday. "
Yes, so that was one of the more scary moments of my life. Because especially, I’m not a dancer. I’m much more a singer. So to audition for Jerry Mitchell for Hairspray Live on three hours of sleep, just walking off a plane, was horrifying.
So it was a good couple of months for me. It was a good, stressful couple of months with a happy ending.
USTH: You’ve all talked about how you had been familiar with the previous productions of Hairspray in one form or another. Did you take anything from those earlier productions to inform your version of the character? Or did you deliberately want to stay away from that and recreate the character without thinking of how it was done before?
Maddie Baillio: Well I looked – I’ve seen clips of Broadway productions and both of the movies. Something that I see is Tracy’s optimism. And that’s something that I’m definitely talking away.
But besides that, I’m looking at the script and that’s how I’m deciding who Tracy is. I’m not basing it off of anyone else. And I’m bringing myself into Tracy. So, that’s how I’m going to make my Tracy different.
Garrett Clayton: I’ve watched the John Waters version, the 2007 movie musical version, and the Broadway version. And the one thing that I try or tried to make sure – because this is such an iconic character – I’ve tried to find a through line through all the Links that I think me as a fan in getting to do the part and knowing diehard fans will be watching – I want to make sure there’s certain aspects of him that still exist within the character. But also making sure that I put my scent on it.
So maybe where there’s a lot of tongue-and-cheek on stage or in the movie or whatever incarnation, I think we all want to make sure that the message of the story is – I don’t know if I would say more serious – I think that’s too abrasive of a word. I think grounded is more important – grounded and very real. Because with everything that’s going on in politics and everything going on within our country socially, economically, social standards – the way people are treating each other – we’ve all had a lot of conversations on why this story is important.
The message it sends – and how lucky we are that we get to send it at this specific time – because it’s not like the show is being done three years ago when we thought it was a relevant story. We’re doing it now when it’s so much more apparent of how relevant this plot is. And how important it is to show not that it’s just inclusion because that’s a singular message.
It’s a blanket; love is more important. Looking beyond someone’s differences, and maybe taking a second to understand why someone is the way they are. And if we need to inform them differently, maybe you need to get to know them first so that you can help change their opinion. So that’s kind of my view on my character and the situation that we are in.
Dove Cameron: Right. I tend to want to put my own spin on a character while also treading lightly in terms of the relationship with the fans. You definitely want to honor past incarnations.
But I definitely have seen a lot of productions of remakes. And, if I’m going to go see it again, I want to see something different. And, you never really want to see an actor – at least I don’t – I don’t really want to see an actor do the exact same thing as someone else, because that was the last person’s interpretation. And art is supposed to be forever living and moving and breathing and growing. So I try to do both in whatever project I’m in. I will definitely be trying to do that here.
I’m taking a more comedic route with [my character Amber]. Comedy is something that I have had a lot of fun with in my career. And so I tend to skew in that direction anyway.
USTownhall.com speaks with composer/co-lyricist MARC SHAIMAN and co-lyricist SCOTT WHITMAN (November 3, 2016):
USTH: Since you both also wrote the original Hairspray Broadway score, what were the challenges in writing this score in terms of deciding what you were going to include in the NBC production from the original? Which songs are going to make it through to the final NBC production, and what new songs are you going to add? And was it challenging to come up with new material that equals the classic original material?
Marc Shaiman: We basically the Broadway production. And then took the film songs that we most enjoyed – songs that we got to write for the film -- and have incorporated them into it. So it’s now it’s become a real nice hybrid of the Broadway version and the movie version. And there’s one or two things from Broadway that are not included and there’s maybe one or two things written for the movie that are not included. I don’t know that I’m at liberty to say specifically. But it will be very nice to see it all put together as one.
What was such a blessing is all these stars came in and if someone had said, "Hey, I want to have something new" or, "Write something just for me" or, "Change this part a little bit more because I’m who I am." But no one said that. Everyone wanted to play the parts as written. And Scott and I have actually had a pretty nice time of not having to work strenuously.
Scott Wittman: We’re so lucky that this is even happening in our lifetimes. That it’s fun here, too – to go back and explore the material again.
Marc Shaiman: We may be the first songwriters of a live musical in the modern age to be alive when the [television] shows are put on.
USTH: When you look back on the old material, do you look back on it with pure fondness or do you think, "Oh, I wish I would have changed something"? How do you feel when you re-visit the old material?
Scott Wittman: Looking back on Hairspray, I wouldn’t change a thing. But for television, the act breaks are different. Harvey’s [Fierstein] done a wonderful job reshuffling the cards in that area.
USTH: The Hairspray soundtrack is basically filled with one showstopper after the next. But in particular the final song, "You Can’t Stop the Beat" – which encompasses the whole cast – how did you come up with that particular song?
I refer to it as "You Can’t Catch Your Breath" because it seems like a very difficult, challenging song to sing. It was so memorable, but how did you come up with such an intricate, great song? What is the backstory on that song?
Marc Shaiman: Scott and I were talking, and Scott came up with the idea of how the beat sort of symbolized both the show and the idea that it just goes on and on and sort of relates to life and America and just about everything you can think of.
We had been working all day and Scott was about to leave to go hang out with his friends up at Angus’s bar that is no longer [there]. We had sort of settled on something about the beat. And can, you know, can you stop the beat. We weren’t quite sure what those words were.
And Scott left and it must have been 10:30, but I was at the piano and I started playing a rhythm and then that song just started pouring out of me like hot lava. And I called Scott like 20 minutes later. I said, "Scott, come home because you’ll be mad at me if I write any more, and it’s just like flowing out of me."
And so he turned right around and came home and we wrote that song like, you know, they say how songs are floating there in the air, and songwriters just have to capture them. And that one came out that way. I mean there were like three inner rhymes within lines that just came out with rhymes. But, we weren’t even trying. It was just coming out of our mouths that way. And then the idea of just keep writing more verses for all the characters and figuring out later can we really sing all these verses? And luckily our collaborators, Jack [O'Brien, director] and Jerry [Mitchell, choreographer], were brilliant at figuring out how to make it all work.
USTH: Were there any actors that had a difficult time with that song because it is so challenging?
Marc Shaiman: Well, the truth is that it’s somewhere online if you [search] "original demo of You Can’t Stop the Beat" believe it or not it was faster. Because I do remember that was one of my main thoughts was to try to write one of those songs -- what’s that other one called – "Life is a run, but the radio rolls"? It’s like a long list of names. And I was like, "Oh, this should be one of those songs that you just – can you get all the lyrics out? Can you spit them all out? And if you do it’s just like this huge accomplishment. So musically speaking, I did almost make a test for the singers. And they do well, [but] they do call it "You Can’t Stop to Breathe."
And I’ve always thought breathing was overrated.
Scott Wittman: And Jerry’s staging of it is just incredible. Because it just builds to everyone doing the exact same step. Which is what the show is about.
USTownhall.com speaks with producers CRAIG ZADAN and NEIL MERON (October 13, 2016):
USTH: Let's get into the cast a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about Maddie Baillio, your new Tracy Turnblad, and Garrett Clayton, your new Link Larkin? What does each actor bring to the character that made them pop for you in their auditions?
Craig Zaden: Well, let's see. I mean the Tracy that we've cast – we saw a lot of people who lined up for the open call and we saw a lot of people who submitted themselves online. The actor had to be able to really sing really well and obviously come in and sing "Good Morning Baltimore" gorgeously, but also do the scenes and really be right for the role as an actor. And then it’s a big dancing role. So she had to really dance really, really well. And when you look at a lot of people, the strange thing is that you find that there are either a handful or even less people who could actually fulfill the triple threat.
And it's also looking for the confidence level. Because you're taking an unknown and you're giving them the lead in a big musical and they're working with all of these professionals and these, in some cases, stars who have done it all and this person has to not only fit in, but even stand out from the crowd. So it's quite a weight that's on their shoulders.
We encountered the same situation last year with The Wiz Live! because we had the same requirements for our Dorothy as we did for our Tracy.
Neil Meron: With Link, it was basically we looked at the more [obvious] names and either they were unavailable to do it or there was some other conflict that was going on.
So we did our auditions. And again there were a lot of guys that wanted to play it, but in terms of having all of the chops that we needed, we found Garrett.
And Garrett looks like Link Larkin. I mean, when you imagine Link Larkin – that teen idol – in your mind – that's Garrett. So, not only did he look like him, but he had all the musical chops. And he also has great chemistry with Maddie.
USTH: Can you talk about the logistical challenges of this production? I understand you're going to be [doing some] shooting outdoors and how many sound stages are going to be using? How has it been logistically for you to organize all of that?
Craig Zaden: I'll just say that logistically it's the biggest production we've done so far in so many ways.
Universal's building two brand new sound stages on the Universal lot. And we are going to use them as soon as they're done. They will be done just before we need them, which is any minute. And we'll be using them, and we'll be using the back lot for exterior shots and scenes and musical numbers.
And it is quite an enormous endeavor. In the previous shows we've done – we did them out of New York on Long Island – and they were done on a sound stage that was much, much, much smaller. And here we have two huge sound stages and an exterior. So we're going much, much bigger this time.
A lot of it also has to do with the show. I think that the other shows were more contained in their conception. This show is not contained. You know, Neil and I had the privilege earlier of producing the movie of Hairspray. And we got to do a big, huge movie musical which turned out really well and was very successful.
We're looking at this as almost as big in size and scope. The only difference is that we're doing basically the show of Hairspray. We're not doing the movie of Hairspray. And so, a lot of people have said, "Oh well you're repeating yourself. Why would you do Hairspray again?" But, I think strangely enough, we don't feel like we're repeating ourselves. We feel like we're doing something that we haven't done before because they're different projects, in a way.
Neil Meron: Yes. I think the footprint of this particular production is probably the biggest of any of the live musical set-ups [that have] been done on television – ours included and Grease Live! included. And what's wonderful about it is that we learn and we grow from each iteration. So we grew in terms of the three that we did. Grease Live! basically honored us in terms of doing it live and then taking what we've done and putting their own mark on it. And we follow that up with learning what everybody else has done before us and doing something unique again.
And that's what's so wonderful about doing this entire genre. It's that sense it is kind of a new genre. We're kind of creating it and building out with it as audiences continue to like it. And that really goes to the size and to the amount of sets. And one of the sets that we are going to be using is actually – we're shooting in the Back to the Future Plaza with that clock tower, so we're going to be redressing that as Baltimore.
USTH: Can you tell us what it 's been like to work with Derek Hough in the role of Corny Collins?
Neil Meron: Derek is, you know, what you see is what you get. You get somebody that – first of all – is one of the best dancers in the world, totally charming, totally eager, has a depth of talent, always cooperative, always there.
And, speaking about talent, it's also our privilege and honor to have Harvey Fierstein preserve his iconic performance from Broadway, and it's something that we are thrilled to be able to do. And his performance is so strong that it should be preserved and we're glad to be able to do it.
USTH: Craig and Neil, can each of you just talk a little bit about yourselves and how you developed your love of musical theater? And, which musical productions – either in theater or on film – were meaningful to you?
Neil Meron: Wow. As far back as I can remember, I've always loved musicals. And the first musical my parents took me to see was the original How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which funnily enough we produced on Broadway – the revival with Daniel Radcliffe.
So, it's something that is hard to explain – your emotional and kind of soulful connections to musicals. And, in terms of movie musicals, it's always been The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz – the traditional great movie musicals.
I believe that there's no better entertainment, and there's nothing as emotional as a musical that works. And it just kind of lifts the spirit – it's informative. It's a brilliant artform when it's done at its height. And we're thrilled to be able to do this.
And I think when Craig and I first met all those years ago, it was kind of an unspoken mission to grab hold of our individual passion for musicals and to try and get it out there and push it out there to the general population. Because we never for once believed that movie musicals were a dead genre. We always believed that if they were done correctly, there'd be an audience.
So we found that with doing our TV musicals which started with Bette Midler in Gypsy and then that led to Cinderella with Whitney Houston, and that led to our passion in terms of doing it on feature films with Chicago and Hairspray. Which then brought us back to doing kind of this interesting hybrid of the live musical for television.
So we've been able to push that passion into very, very different forms of expression.
USTH: Craig, do you have an answer for that, too?
Craig Zaden: It's very hard to answer the question, because in thinking about it, I mean, we both have this passion for musicals, but it's hard to answer where it came from. I mean, it was always there.
So I remember as a little kid – you know, the funny thing is that no one could have guessed that when Neil and I first met, it turned out that the first show that he had seen was How to Succeed, and the first show that I had seen was How to Succeed. Now, what are the odds of that? I mean, it was just crazy that that was the case.
There's always been that desire and passion and love for musicals. And one of the earliest memories I have, when I started going to the theater as a little kid, and that's because my parents were very into musicals on Broadway.
And growing up in New York that's something that meant a great deal to my family. I don't remember when it was or how old I was, but I was a kid, I was a little kid, and they took me to see a show that felt like a life-changing experience for me. And I didn't even know why. I mean I certainly didn't know. I was too young at the time to even know that, but in retrospect it was.
I remember sitting as a child in a Broadway theater and seeing Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. And my life was never the same after that. I just thought this is something that I wanted to come back and see more shows. I wanted to see more, and more, and more, and more.
And, you know, as time went on, you know, that passion just grew, and it didn't diminish. And we are so lucky and fortunate that we got to do TV musicals, then big-screen musicals, then live TV musicals.
I mean, all of these things are lucky, because most people would never have had the opportunity. And we did have the opportunity. And we did have a passion for it – we wanted to do it, and we were met with lots of brick walls.
People did not share our passion and we had to go back, and go back, and go back, and go back to convince people that these shows could work. And nobody initially believed it at all. They thought it was foolish, and that they would not do well. And to our great fortune, they did well.
So we were able to do more. So, it's one of those things that just worked out. But it came from our passion for wanting to bring musical theater to the small screen and to the big screen instead of at the time thinking, "Oh, if you want to see a musical you have to go to New York, and you [have] got to go to Broadway."
We thought there was nothing like that. So, it's nothing like going to Broadway and seeing a show. But we also wanted to make available those shows for people sitting in any town in America who watch TV. They could see those shows, too.
USTH: You mentioned about running into brick walls at points during productions. Do you ever run into brick walls from the legal standpoint in terms of just getting to license the material to begin with? Is everybody always willing to license material to you when you want to mount a production or revival, or are there legal challenges there?
Neil Meron: There's always a challenge with getting material – especially the material that we have been lucky enough to produce because we have been able to present world class titles. They're incredibly important titles, and they're important to the rights-holders and to their estates, and to the living authors. We always have to approach them with great respect and a way that we're all going to profit from it.
So, it's always tricky working your way through all of that to come out with the rights to be able to do it. We've been managing to do it so far.
USTownhall.com speaks with directors KENNY LEON and ALEX RUDZINSKI (October 20, 2016):
USTH: Kenny, you’re the director, and Alex, you’re the live-television director of this production. Can each of you just talk a little bit about your respective role – just sort of give detail about what you are actually doing on this production as director and live-television director.
Kenny Leon: Sure. Well, what’s amazing about doing these live musical events is that we’re part of a revolution. So, we’re sort of figuring things out every go-round.
What I do is, I’ve been largely involved with the casting process, and I approach it as if I’m directing a musical for the stage. So I work with Jerry Mitchell, who is the choreographer, and we work with Lon to do the music and the dance and the scene work.
So, I basically stage it, set the tone and texture of the broadcast, visually set up the story, and then we interface with Alex, in terms of how to get the cameras in there and how to tell that story.
One director can’t do this. You know, I have an experience; my experience is in directing television movies and directing live-theater productions.
Alex – he’ll tell you what he does – but Alex has done Dancing with the Stars and wonderful, live television events. So, we actually need to collaborate and work together and get the best of what we both offer.
So right now [mid-October], we’re in the process – I guess I’m doing 80% of the work with the cast now, and then, in another week or so, then it will flip and he’ll do 80% of the work, and we cross each other a little bit.
Alex Rudzinski: Hey, Scott,. good morning. Yes, Kenny is spot-on there. It’s about a synergy of two people. And we both bring different skills to the table. But it’s a partnership all the way through the process.
And my role as the live-television director is ultimately to helm the broadcast on the night, to being in control in the truck, and to make sure that the video and audio quality is, you know, foremost at its best for the broadcast.
And to take the initial blocking that Jerry, the choreographer, and Kenny have done and visualize that in an exciting and dynamic way for the viewers at home so that they feel that the show is very much an immersive portrayal of the script.
USTH: Kenny, you’ve done The Wiz Live before And Alex, you’ve done Grease Live. And, as Kenny said, you were director on Dancing with the Stars for most of its run up until recently.
Can each of you just talk a little bit about those prior experiences and what you’re bringing from them to this new production? How it’s helping you – what you’ve learned from the past that is helping you helm this production.
Kenny Leon: It’s so interesting – when I started working on The Wiz Live, I had no idea of what to expect. I just knew how to approach storytelling.
And I reached out to Rob Ashford, because he had worked on Peter Pan [Live]. And so, in sharing that conversation, that helped me ease into it a little bit, and now after having completed The Wiz Live, now I’m able to go into Hairspray Live a lot more confident.
It’s scary as hell because it’s all live, and all that, but it’s helping me in terms of being able to set the tone in the room, being able to prepare the artists for what’s going to happen, and how the energy’s going to change.
Every night we get closer to December 7th, so it’s helped in that sense. And it’s given me a little confidence in terms of what we can and cannot do. And so, I’m excited because of working with Alex on this, and he’s taking the best of Grease Live, and I’m taking the best of Wiz Live, and putting that together and going into a territory that we’ve never been. And so it’s sort of exciting just in terms of the collaboration.
Alex Rudzinski: I think one thing, as Kenny said, one of the great things about each musical event is that each one is unique. No one is derivative of each other. We all look back, and we all appreciate and learn from everyone’s formidable challenges.
And if each of these shows – all the NBC shows that have been on, and for Grease [Live] – everyone has had fantastic experiences watching each other’s and learning from everything. And you take a little bit with you each time.
But each show is a very unique entity, and I think my background working a lot in dance with Dancing with the Stars [is helpful], in terms of making very immersive filming techniques. For me, it’s always about trying to put the viewer in the heart of the action and really trying to make them feel that it’s a little bit less of a proscenium production and a little bit more of placing the viewer right in the heart of that action.
So I always try and make camera give the viewers a camera perspective that is interesting and dynamic without being distracting. So that’s my challenge, and it’s just great fun being able to work with Kenny’s experience and with what Jerry brings to the table as well, and the three of us, you know, visualize what is just a fantastic musical score. It’s such an honor to be able to recreate it for live television, which is such a unique genre.
Kenny Leon: Also, I always say to folks that this live television event is a hybrid of an idea. It’s not really film. it’s not really television as we know it. It’s not really live theater as we know it. So my job in the room is to get the actors to be in the same story – to find the heart, if you will. And then, Alex interprets that in a technical sense, and puts that heart on camera for the viewer.
Alex Rudzinski: Yes, the chemistry of the cast is paramount. I think what Kenny talks about – when you get that base chemistry and that interaction between the cast right, then everything else falls into place.
But that getting that narrative correct at the get-go, which is what Kenny and me are working on at the moment – that’s everything because you’re building this family relationship, and that needs to be persuasive to the viewers at home.
USTH: Kenny, you said you’re working 80% now with the cast. Can you just tell us a little bit about what that experience is like working with this particular cast?
Kenny Leon: It’s crazy, but it’s so exciting, because everybody is up to the task. And I remind them every day, this is about reaching for greatness and trying to deliver something that is really, really special to the viewers, and we only get one shot at it. You know?
So, not everyone can do live because the songs have to be live, the movement has to be live, the cameramen are live human beings that can, of course, make mistakes, so it’s like, I equate it to the Super Bowl, you know? So, we’re preparing for the Super Bowl of theater on television. And that’s very exciting.
So right now, everybody’s excited because they feel they are involved in something that’s important, especially given the political climate of the country, and where we are in terms of race relations.
So, all of that makes this project larger than life, because they feel, and I encourage them to feel, that this is something bigger than just any old Wednesday night on television. This is an important time and opportunity for us to use theater and music in a way that can bring joy into the lives of Americans when they most need it.
USTownhall.com speaks with costume designer MARY VOGT, and production designer DEREK McLANE (October 27, 2016):
USTH: Can each of you discuss your process for designing the production and costumes for Hairspray Live? What did you draw upon for inspiration in order to keep things fresh while still honoring previous Hairspray productions?
Derek McLane: Sure. Mary, can I start?
Mary Vogt: Sure, Derek.
Derek McLane: For me, of course the first thing is really studying the script, reading the script, talking with our directors, Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, and our choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, and talking with them about the life of the story.
And then really immersing myself in research. Research of the period. Research of the later 1950’s and the early 1960’s and Baltimore. And really trying to get a sense of the way Baltimore feels. I went to Baltimore, took a lot of phonographs as well as looking up photographs of old Baltimore.
Mary Vogt: My process is actually similar to Derek’s. I really get into research a lot, because even though this is a musical, I think that you need to start from a basis of reality to be able to jump off because this is a heightened sense of reality, though it’s like a hybrid between a play and a film.
So in order to feel like you have a basis in something, I think going through the real research – and even like I looked at Reginald Marsh paintings of African American neighborhoods – I think it was in the thirties. But just to get a feeling for the period. And looking at Baltimore, and starting off with the real period. And then jumping off into a little more of an exaggerated look.
But I think to be grounded in the period. And then, as Derek says, going into the fifties. Because 1962 is really kind of late fifties. Things really don’t change in the 60s until ‘64, ‘65.
USTH: Was there any particular element of the production design or the costume design – maybe a certain character or a certain set – that was more difficult or more challenging for you than the others?
Derek McLane: Well, for me one of the great challenges, and also sources of excitement in designing this, is what Mary was saying – that it is grounded in reality. And because we’re shooting a lot of this outside – we’re using real structures, real cars, that kind of thing. That describes a certain kind of reality for our storytelling to begin with.
But then the musical does take these fantastic leaps of fancy that goes into really wonderful and silly musical fantasies. And so finding those bridges, finding those transitions from the reality to the musical fantasy I think is one of the big challenges of this piece.
Mary Vogt: Yes, I completely agree with that. Finding the tone was, and still is, an ongoing process. So it’s a heightened sense of reality, but they’re not costumes. And it’s not like in a play where you’re seeing things from a distance.
With this, the camera is right on top of the actors at all times. So the hair, the make-up, the costumes, they have to look real but a little brighter, a little sort of tweaked. Everything’s a little turned up. But it should look like real clothes. And we do sort of jump off from that a little bit. But it still has a rope to reality. We don’t want to get too far away from it, because it is a hybrid product of a film and a play together.
And then you have this amazing music that sort of brings it all together. And we have amazing actors on this. The quality of the actors are just incredible. And I try to incorporate - I always incorporate them in the design process as much as I can with their schedules. So finding the tone, to me, has been the trickiest thing. And it is kind of an ongoing thing as we do rehearsals we may change things up a little bit. And depending on how the actors are going to play the part.
I mean, with me, Harvey [Fierstein] was a big help because he knows the play just about better than anyone and he’s also writing the book.
Hairspray Live! airs Wednesday, December 7, 2016 on NBC.
USTownhall RoundTable The Fall 2016 sessions
Written by Scott Katz
The new fall TV season is upon us once again, and USTownhall RoundTable podcasters Scott, Kerry, and Brenda are back with another season of their pop culture podcast with pitiless and in-depth analysis of the 23rd season of Dancing with the Stars, among other happenings.
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(1) Aug 31, 2016: DWTS23 cast revealed. Our reactions.
(6) Oct 20, 2016: DWTS23 Week 6 - Latin night plus 5th elimination: Amber Rose
(2) Sep 14, 2016: DWTS23 Week 1 - Good premiere, reactions to Ryan Lochte protestors
(7) Oct 27, 2016: DWTS23 Week 7 - Eras night plus 6th elimination: Maureen McCormick
(3) Sep 21, 2016: DWTS23 Week 2 - TV night plus 1st elimination: Jake T. Austin
(8) Nov 1, 2016: DWTS23 Week 8 - Halloween night plus 7th elimination: Ryan Lochte
(4) Oct 6, 2016: DWTS23 Week 3 - Face-Off night plus 2nd elimination: Governor Rick Perry.
Week 4 - Cirque du Soleil night plus 3rd, 4th eliminations: Babyface & Vanilla Ice
(9) Nov 10, 2016: DWTS23 Week 9 - Showstoppers night plus 8th elimination: Marilu Henner
(5) Oct 12, 2016: DWTS23 Week 5 - Most Memorable Year night: no elimination
(10) Nov 15, 2016: DWTS23 Week 10 - Semifinals plus 9th elimination: Terra Jolé
podcast coming soon!
USTownhall RealStories presents MATT RYAN, star of CONSTANTINE
Written by Scott Katz
On Friday, October 31, we spoke with Matt Ryan, who plays the titular character in the new NBC series Constantine, based on the popular occult DC Comics character.
USTH: Matt, can you just take us a little bit through the casting process? How did you come to learn about this part and how extensive was the audition process for you before you got it?
Matt Ryan: Oh wow, it was quite a ride to be honest with you. I was doing Henry V in London in the West End with Jude Law and the Michael Grandage Company. It was pilot season obviously, so there were a lot of auditions coming up.
So, Kate Dowd was casting [the series] in the UK, so I went in for an audition, did a tape, we sat at the table. I actually had really long hair and a big, bushy beard. And I can remember my agent calling me and saying, "Look, they really, really like you, but they can’t really see past the beard," you know?
And I was like, "Well, you know, I’m in the middle of a play. There’s not really much I can do about that."
What was my favorite - I’d been on a movie called Sunday Paper about four or five years ago or something, and I actually bleached blonde my hair for that so it was kind of a similar look.
I think I’d done about four or five tapes or something, you know, with different notes. And I already had a conversation with Daniel (Cerone) and David (Goyer) [developers of the series] as well, via Skype, to give me notes and stuff.
So, kept on doing all of these tapes, but still, I had this big beard. And then, I was going to try and get a night off the play to fly over to test. But unfortunately, due to some circumstances with a member of cast in the play, I wasn’t able to take a night off.
So, I had to let that test go really, in a way. And I think they used my tapes or something. But I think they couldn’t see past my beard. I think they went back to the drawing board and started looking again.
And then they came back about a week or so later and said, "Look, we still really like you and we want you to retape." So retaped again. I ended up doing about six audition tapes or something.
And I think one of the notes which was really funny was my agent said that David Goyer had mentioned that we really liked Sasquatch. And eventually the play ended.
I ended on a Saturday night when I would have the wrap party, so to speak, of the play and jumped on a plane first thing in the morning, flew over. I think it was a holiday in America on that day so all of the hair salons were shut.
So I had to have a friend of mine come over and cut my hair. And then the next day, I went in and tested, and then went to the studio testing process, and then the network testing process.
And then eventually got there, man. It was quite a ride to be honest with you. You know, it was quite a long process – it’s definitely the longest audition process I’d been through. And it was such a thrill then when I actually got the job, you know?
USTH: Given that you’re the star of this show and this is a big American TV production, are you feeling any sort of pressure? How are you acclimating yourself to being the focus of this new series and all of the attention on you? How are you handling all of that?
Matt Ryan: It’s a new experience, you know? It’s something that I’ve never encountered before. So, there’s been different turning points in Constantine that I’ve never come across.
And I feel like you just throw yourself into whatever work you’re doing and you concentrate on that.
And we work so many hours as well that there’s not the time to stop and think, "Oh my God, what is this I’m doing?" which is kind of a good thing because you have to be in the moment and just go with it and keep your work going, which is what I love doing. You know?
[That's] kind of [my] perspective on it, then. And I think that if we had a three month break right now I’d probably go, "What the hell just happened," do you know what I mean? But, at the moment I’m still kind of right in the mix of it.
Kind of working every day. And that’s kind of where I like to be as well. You know, with my head in the work and concentrating on that, you know? I think it’s been a hell of a ride and it’s been really, really good fun as well.
And, I’ve really enjoyed it man. And I’m just taking it all in my stride and trying to enjoy it.
USTH: I know Constantine is on a different network than some of the other DC comic book shows like The Flash or Arrow, but has there been any discussion that you know of regarding the possibility of characters from each of those shows crossing into your show or you crossing over into their shows?
Matt Ryan: Not that I’ve heard of. I mean, I don’t know what goes on in the DC office or what all those guys talk about. But, so far I don’t have any information on whether that’s going to happen or not.
Our thanks to Matt Ryan for speaking with us today. Contstantine airs Friday nights on NBC.
USTownhall RoundTable podcast
Written by Scott Katz
The weather outside is frightful, and the conversation on the podcasts below is sometimes even moreso! The Winter chill has done nothing to curtail the opinionated antics of our podcast crew, Scott, Brenda, and Kerry, as they return for another round of pitiless dissection of television and pop culture happenings.
CELEBRITY APPRENTICE 14: FINALE NIGHT PHOTOS!
The Trump Family (l-r Eric, Barron, Melania, Donald, Ivanka, Donald Jr.) [Photo credit: NBC]
Celebrity Apprentice 14 eliminated contestants on Finale Night (not in attendance: Sig Hansen, Shawn Johnson) [Photo credit: NBC]
Keshia Knight Pulliam
Vivica A. Fox
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Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episodes 1-3:
Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episodes 8-9:
Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episodes 4-5:
Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episodes 10-11:
Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episodes 6-7:
Celebrity Apprentice 2015 Episode 12:
Pop Culture Spotlight: Adam Lambert news - solo career & touring with Queen:
USTownhall RoundTable podcast series
Written by Scott Katz
Fall is upon us once again, and so we begin our Autumn sessions of the fabled USTownhall RoundTable podcast. For this season, we'll be concentrating on painstakingly dissecting each episode of that fan-favorite reality series, Dancing with the Stars (Season 19!). Join us each week to listen to the deathless meanderings of our legendary podcast crew: Scott, Brenda, and Kerry.
Click on the triangular "Play" button to listen to the podcast. After a few minutes, the file should be fully scannable backwards & forwards. You can pause and resume at any time as long as this page is not refreshed.
Dancing with the Starspreview of Season 19:
Dancing with the Stars week 6, "Pitbull Night": Jonathan Bennett eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 1: Lolo Jones eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 7, "Halloween Night": Antonio Sabato, Jr. eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 2, "My Jam Monday": Tavis Smiley eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 8, "Dynamic Duos Night": Michael Waltrip eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 3, "Movie Night": Randy Couture eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 9, "America's Choice Night": Lea Thompson eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 4, "Most Memorable Year Night": Betsey Johnson eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 10, "Plugged/Unplugged Night": Tommy Chong eliminated
Dancing with the Starsweek 5, "Switch-Up Night": no elimination
Dancing with the Starsweek 11, "Finalst": Alfonso Ribeiro wins