‘Hairspray Live!’ – Neil Meron, Craig Zadan on the Cast, the Music, and a Live Audience

Hairspray Live colorful poster

Hairspray Live! executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have been involved in all of NBC’s live musical productions. The producing team has learned important lessons while working on televised live musical events, including not to be daunted by the live aspect of the production. Meron and Zadan also produced the 2007 Hairspray film starring John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, and Amanda Bynes, so they’re not only veterans at live televised musicals, they’re also very familiar with this particular musical.

The cast of Hairspray Live! is led by newcomer Maddie Baillio and includes Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, and Derek Hough. NBC’s Hairspray Live! will air on December 7, 2016 at 8pm ET/PT and as rehearsals are getting underway, Meron and Zadan teamed up for a conference call to discuss the popular musical, their cast, and what fans of the movie and Broadway musical can expect from this live television event.

Neil Meron and Craig Zadan Hairspray Live! Interview:

How will you be integrating the live audience into the show?

Neil Meron: “We will be having a live audience and it’s going to be functioning in two ways, interestingly enough. Naturally story-wise there is an audience for the ‘Corny Collins Show.’ So, we will have that as kind of a natural extension of the story of Hairspray Live. Plus, in another location we will have just a general audience that will be there to watch, observe, react, and hopefully have a really good time.”

Can you talk about the casting process?

Craig Zadan: “Well, you know, the casting process for us depends on the kind of show we’re doing. In the last couple of years, we’ve done shows that require unknowns, so in the case of Hairspray Live we did a major search for our female lead. And last year for the Wiz Live we did a major search for our female lead. In those particular cases, it all started with looking for discovering an unknown talent that could sing, dance, and act, and carry a three-hour live show. So, that’s the beginning of the process.

Once we have had those people cast, the next step was finding the right people for the right roles. We’ve been very careful not to do stunt casting where you’re going and putting stars in roles that they don’t belong in for the sake of having names. I think that we have a lot of stars in this show, as we did in the Wiz Live, but they really were needed to be able to deliver the goods. I mean, they really needed to be the right people. And, you know, you go through each role and specify why each of these people were really special and really right for each particular part.”

Neil Meron: “If you look at the roster of the names that are in the cast, they’re a lot of them who have a history with us that are either friends or we’ve worked with them before which is always nice to be able to call on friends to kind of populate the cast.”

Which part was the most difficult to cast?

Neil Meron: “You know, it was, strangely enough, Link. We really looked and looked and then we found Garrett (Clayton). Garrett had amazing, amazing musical chops that we were not really aware of. We knew he came from Teen Beach Movie, but the depth of his talent we didn’t really know.”

Hairspray Live stars Maddie Baillio and Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein and Maddie Baillio (Photo by Brian Bowen Smith/NBC)

How did you find your new Tracy Turnblad?

Craig Zadan: “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. 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.

It’s also looking for the confidence level. 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. This person has to not only fit in, but even stand out from the crowd. It’s quite a weight that’s on their shoulders. Not to be redundant, but 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.”

What are the logistical challenges of this production?

Craig Zadan: “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. We’ll be using them and we’ll be using the backlot for exterior shots and scenes and musical numbers.

It is quite an enormous endeavor. 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. 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. You know, I mean I think that the other shows were more contained in their conception. This show is not contained. Neil and I had the privilege earlier on 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: “I think the footprint of this particular production is probably the biggest of any of the live musical set-up that’s been done on television, ours included and Grease Live included. What’s wonderful about it is that we learn and we grow from each iteration. 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. We follow that up with learning what everybody else has done before us and doing something unique again.

That’s what’s so wonderful about doing this entire genre. It’s that sense it’s kind of a new genre. We’re kind of creating it and building out with it as audiences continue to like it.”

What’s it been like working with Derek Hough as 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. But speaking about talent, it’s also our privilege and honor to have Harvey Fierstein kind of like preserve his iconic performance from Broadway. It’s something that we are thrilled to be able to do. His performance is so strong that it should be preserved and we’re glad to be able to do it.”

Can we expect any new original songs for this production?

Craig Zadan: “We’re not doing new songs, but we are adding a few songs from the movie that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote for the film and that we all fell in love with when we did the movie. So, there will be a couple of moments where we will use some of the material from the movie. But otherwise it’s basically the material from the Broadway show.”

You discussed reviving Wiz Live on Broadway after the live broadcast. Do you have any intention to do that with Hairspray?

Neil Meron: “Of course the goal was to get the Wiz Live to Broadway. But as anybody on the call that knows about what’s going on in the theater, there is always a log jam in terms of the available and appropriate time that we need for the show. So, it’s kind of like jets lining up on the runway. Unfortunately, we’re still on the runway with that. And in terms of a Hairspray revival, we haven’t even discussed that.”

What are the similarities and differences in how you’re approaching this production from how you approached the movie?

Neil Meron: “You know, it’s an entirely different approach since we have an original screenplay that was written for the movie and with this Harvey Fierstein re-examined the original Broadway book and wrote a new adaptation of that. So, it is more akin to doing the Broadway show as opposed to an original movie. Some of the plotting that was in the movie was written specifically to the movie, so we revert mostly to the plotting of the way it was done on Broadway. I would say that we kind of are based upon the Broadway show and took what worked on the Broadway show and then added to it and made it our own. And, mostly everything that was done on Broadway worked. It was a great show.”

Craig Zadan: “Also, the other thing you have to remember is that making a movie is so different an experience from mounting a Broadway show. Like, in certain cases you can go throughout a tremendous amount of locations outside in a movie. You can go anywhere. Here we’re thrilled to be outside, but we’re also on a backlot of a sound stage. Basically, we are limited to movement in terms of where we can go in limited space that we have is outdoors.”

You’ve mentioned that Ariana Grande won’t be singing until the end of the show. What went into that decision?

Neil Meron: “It’s a very easy answer. That’s the way it was scripted. It’s that Penny is a very, very shy kind of school-booky type of character that eventually is able to find her voice when she joins this group of kids that are trying to, in essence, change the world. So, in the end through love she’s able to find the voice and the voice is able to emerge.”

Craig Zadan: “The other aspect of the Ariana Grande question is that when we started casting, we hadn’t gotten to those roles yet. We got a call from her manager saying she would like to play Penny. We did not contact Ariana or her representatives. She contacted us and we were overwhelmed and thrilled and pinching ourselves. We’re so excited that Ariana wanted to be part of it and that she wanted to play Penny and that she didn’t come in and say, ‘Write me a new song. Give me more to sing. But, you know, I want a bigger part.’ She said, ‘I love Hairspray. I love the role of Penny. I want to play Penny. Don’t change anything. Don’t make it bigger. Let me play the part as it exists.’ I mean, which showed her passion for doing this and for the project and her not wanting to come in and say, ‘You know, make it bigger and better.’ She said, ‘I want to play what’s there.’”

What would say is the biggest take-away from the Wiz Live which may have influenced your creative decisions for Hairspray Live?

Neil Meron: “I think one of our biggest take-aways which we knew going into the Wiz Live but are still continuing with it is working with Kenny Leon on this, the director. He is just superb to work with and there’s no better actor’s director. Nobody gives production a sense of stability and vision and better than Kenny. So, we’re just thrilled to be working with him again.

Every time we’ve done it we have learned different things and get more comfortable with this genre. I think that not to be as daunted by the live aspect of it all, as we were going into it starting with Sound of Music.”

Craig Zadan: “The other aspect of it was that we had Harvey Fierstein write the book, the new book for the Wiz Live and he did an incredible job. And when he said he’d love to write the adaptation of Hairspray Live we were thrilled. That became the close collaboration as Neil pointed out between our director, Kenny Leon, on the Wiz and now our director Kenny Leon on with Harvey again on Hairspray Live.”