Due to my early love for musicals (and my undying devotion to a High School Musical-era Zac Efron), eight-year-old me was ecstatic about the 2007 release of Hairspray. I remember recording it on our family DVR, where it remained until we moved years later. I had a CD of the soundtrack, which I would sing along to as if I was a 60s soul rocker rather than a suburban child. To this day I believe that it shaped my views on racial equality, with songs like “Run and Tell That” and “I Know Where I’ve Been” outlining the struggles of African-Americans in 1960s Baltimore.
So when NBC announced Hairspray Live! Would be their fourth live musical event, I marked the date and waited anxiously. On Dec. 7, I felt my dreams would come true, hearing the soundtrack I loved so much as a child come to life in real time.
Perhaps my expectations were just a bit too high for Hairspray Live! Perhaps nobody can execute the challenging vocal feats of Tracy Turnblad’s character while rushing in between sets in a studio lot. Perhaps Zac Efron is the only true Link in my eyes.
Whatever the case, Hairspray Live! disappointed in a few areas. Casting, for one. I knew Ariana Grande’s role as Penny was more for publicity and a teen demographic than anything else, but I was still underwhelmed by her performance. Her voice was good, as usual, but her lines were delivered with more “Cat from Victorious” and less “Penny from Hairspray”. At the end, I felt her redemption all laid in the moment she declares her love for a black boy, much to the chagrin of her mother, with the iconic line, “I am now a checkerboard chick.” But Grande failed to make the impression Amanda Bynes had, and I was left missing the Penny I loved as a third grader.
Newcomer Maddie Baillio made some minor blunders as Tracy, but those I am willing to attribute to her lack of experience and the fact that she was running between sets. The human lungs can only hold so much air.
My main issue was with Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin. My view on Link is that he has to be too perfect to be real. His lines have to be delivered flawlessly. His dance moves all have to hit without the barest hesitation. His voice has to be smooth as butter, with emotion that transcends his years. Hairspray Live!’s Clayton brought the talent, but he did not bring the charm. For the most part, his vocals and dancing were acceptable. But the most compelling moment in cinematic history remains Link’s apology after bumping into Tracy in detention. He says, his eyes alight with boyish intrigue, “Sorry little darlin’. Hope I didn’t dent your ‘do.” And Clayton simply could not compare to the effortless suave of Efron in that moment.
Still, some of the Hairspray Live! stars proved more than deserving of their roles. Notably, Jennifer Hudson (who could probably never disappoint even if she tried) as Motormouth Maybelle, Ephraim Sykes (Hamilton fans know him as George Eacker) as Seaweed, Kristin Chenoweth (basically, the queen of musical theater) as Velma Von Tussel, and Shahadi Wright Joseph (who made history at nine-years-old as the youngest actress to play Nala in Broadway’s The Lion King) as Little Inez. Despite a few awkward product placements, Derek Hough also played a convincing Corny Collins, but that may just be because I am biased in favor of anything Derek Hough ever does for the rest of his life. Dove Cameron (from Disney Channel’s Liv and Maddie and Descendants) surprised me with her vocal talent as well. And Harvey Fierstein, who created the role of Edna Turnblad on Broadway, was predictably well-equipped to handle her TV adaptation.
The theme of racial tension also brought on a whole new meaning in today’s context. Hudson’s rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been”, speaking of past injustices and the long road ahead, was timely and heartbreaking and necessary.
All in all, Hairspray Live! was enjoyable, but not exceptional. It lacked some of the iconic moments in the 2007 film, but the message was the same. The “You Can’t Stop the Beat” finale showed everyone dancing in a chaotic but joyful group, without inhibitions or injustice. If nothing else, Hairspray Live! honored the exact spirit that Hairspray embodies: Everybody deserves to dance.