Did 'Hairspray Live!' win over reviewers with its message of acceptance?

NBC aired its latest live musical production with 'Hairspray Live!,' a show that tells the story of the efforts to integrate a dance TV show in 1960s Baltimore. Maddie Baillio, Harvey Fierstein, and Jennifer Hudson star in the program.

NBC
'Hairspray Live!' stars (from l.) Maddie Baillio, Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande, and Jennifer Hudson.

NBC aired its latest live musical on Dec. 7 with “Hairspray,” a show that tells the story of a group of people attempting to integrate a dance show in 1960s Baltimore, a narrative that many see as having continued relevance in the current climate of the United States.

“Hairspray Live!” stars Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, a teenager who loves to dance and scores a spot on “The Corny Collins Show,” a normally all-white TV program. Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, and Jennifer Hudson co-star. The nod to Civil Rights era integration resonated with many viewers who lament the resurgence of racial tension in the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that more than 860 incidents involving hate toward immigrants, black Americans, Muslims, those who are LGBT, Jews, women, and others took place in the 10 days after the presidential election.

The SPLC’s findings came from reports from victims and news stories. (Monitor writer Steven Porter notes, "The database, though it provides a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the SPLC's position, is of limited utility to statisticians.")

But in that environment, Ms. Grande told Playbill prior to the production, “We are going to be the light in the darkness."

The story of “Hairspray” serves as a reminder that the nation has managed to rise out of divisive times more united than ever. “Hairspray” also preaches a message of acceptance for people of all appearances, with Tracy’s mother, Edna (Fierstein), learning to love the way she looks.

“Our director Kenny Leon really wants to nail in those real moments – the moments that are just as relevant today as they would have been in the 1960s,” Ms. Baillio told Playbill. “It’s very hard, but I’m really hoping that maybe someone who is flipping through the channels on December 7, and they stop on Hairspray, if they don’t believe in equality, and they don’t have a lot of love in their hearts… I mean, it’s bold to say, but I hope we can change the world and change their minds.”

Did critics find the message of “Hairspray” relevant to today as well?

Entertainment Weekly writer Darren Franich called “Hairspray” “this beautiful, hard-edged fairy tale about fixing racism and classism and The Crushing Shallowness of American Culture with a local-TV dance show ... Hairspray’s fundamental message of diversity and tolerance feels radical and topical, an inspiringly sincere coda to this miserably angry year. Credit the show for its timeliness.”

And TV Guide writer Malcolm Venable wrote, “ 'Hairspray’ ... was decidedly subversive and political from the beginning and it's great NBC made no attempt to sanitize it. That protest scene, with Tracy and her pals carrying signs with slogans such as ‘No More Racism,’ was a powerful moment in a year already brimming with provocative statements about race on TV.”

But Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times wrote that “the musical’s story of social outcasts and racial barriers is set in 1962, and it should amaze and distress us with its continued relevance in 2016. The broadcast, though, didn’t generate as much power it could have because of all the shots of the cast members golf-carting from one set to another, of viewing parties in various cities and so on. Only Jennifer Hudson, who played Motormouth Maybelle, found the real strength of this Tony-winning musical, delivering a knockout rendition of ‘I Know Where I’ve Been,’ a gospel-infused power number, late in the show.”

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