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Hairspray Live! is event television at its sloppy finest

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Let’s watch TV together

Paul Drinkwater / NBC

The nonsensical but utterly magical trend of major broadcast networks producing expensive and messy live musicals continued last night with NBC’s production of Hairspray. Thank goodness!

This production was based on the 2002 Broadway musical, which is based on the 1988 John Waters film (the definition of a cult classic), but Hairspray was most recently experienced by a broad audience in the summer of 2007 as Zac Efron’s post-High School Musical star vehicle. That film adaptation, directed by A Walk to Remember’s Adam Shankman, raked in over $200 million in the same month as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the original Transformers. (Explain to me why I don’t get to see a movie musical every summer?)

The beloved musical is set in 1962 Baltimore, and orbits around the American Bandstand-inspired daytime TV program The Corny Collins Show. That setting makes it ideal for the broadcast musical format — the live studio audience might as well be extras, as they pull double duty as Hairspray’s crowd and Collins’ screaming teen fans. It also anchors the 2016 show in a storied tradition of appointment television revolving around musical acts and a shared reverence of popular culture. The crushing popularity of DVRs and streaming services over the last decade and a half means moments like these are few and far between, yet they still feel familiar.

Justin Lubin / NBC

Though Hairspray Live! was three hours long and aired on a school night, it was clearly meant as a family affair. The cast was workshopped to include something for everyone — big-name Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth (as Velma Von Tussle, the villainous former beauty queen) and Harvey Fierstein (who won a Tony for portraying Edna Turnblad in the stage musical) for hard-core theatre nerds, Disney Channel ingenues like Dove Cameron (Amber Von Tussle) and Garrett Clayton (Link Larkin) for the teens, Hamilton’s Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed J. Stubbs), Dream Girls’ Jennifer Hudson (Motormouth Maybelle), and pop princess Ariana Grande for the Gen Y-ers and the tweeters, and Martin Short (Wilbur Turnblad) for dad.

But 1960s Baltimore is more than a backdrop for the musical. The story draws on the real fight for integration in America, particularly in the Maryland city. Hairspray’s misfit heroine Tracy Turnblad (played in this production by 17-year-old Maddie Baillio) spends most of the story fighting for her chance to be a dancer on live TV, but in the third act she realizes her opportunity means nothing if it’s not one that’s available to everyone. That’s when the show shifts its focus to be a celebration of peaceful resistance. The stakes are somewhat muted for the purposes of creating family fare, but this production includes a whole new monologue for Link Larkin (Disney Channel’s Garrett Clayton) that aggressively underscores the cowardice of sitting things out. “I could lose my job. I like these people, but why should it be my problem?” he whines pathetically, while a crowded room full of the people racism actually affects look on and fear that marching means real physical peril for them.

This moment, while a little ham-fisted, snaps Hairspray Live! into the present day and pushes against the idea that mass entertainment should (or even can) ever be polite or apolitical. It’s a musical that doesn’t so much argue that pop culture matters as assumes it does — the injustice of an all-white local TV station in a diverse city is presumed and potent, the cornerstone of the plot. The dazzling costuming, choreography, and spectacle of live theatre is as thrilling as ever, but what will be remembered better than the shimmering sets and quirky staging is Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The song is still hopeful and exhausted, as relevant to today’s fights for equality as any other.

People gather around the TV and shape their world views together, for better or for worse. Just think: families across America will be humming songs, in part, about the unstoppability of social progress, and reciting the words, in part, by John Waters, one of America’s finest and strangest provocateurs. And this show follows a passable staging of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on FOX, and The Wiz on NBC. With song and dance, it appears the most fascinating and forward-looking entertainment on network TV is, of all things, the live musical.

Though the lighting was terrible, Zac Efron was sorely missed, and nobody seemed to know their blocking, Hairspray Live! was a rare moment of joy and moral clarity that millions of Americans experienced at the exact same time. For that, it deserves designation as event television at its best and most useful.