Does “Hairspray” have what it takes to topple “The Sound of Music”?
It has become the eternal question every December as NBC prepares to mount another musical with the word “Live!” attached to the title. This year’s model is “Hairspray Live!,” which will take up all three hours of prime time Wednesday night (starting at 8 Eastern).
This production is the fourth consecutive live musical that NBC has presented in December -- a run that started in 2013 with “The Sound of Music Live!” starring Carrie Underwood.
The idea of a musical designed for live television at the onset of the holiday season would have died then and there if “The Sound of Music” had not emerged as the TV season’s biggest surprise.
It drew 18.62 million total viewers and scored a 4.9 rating in the demo (18-49) -- great numbers for a broadcast network on a Thursday night. For what it’s worth, critics liked it too, for the most part.
No musical since has come close to those numbers, but NBC continues to try. Fox has climbed on the musical bandwagon too, and ABC is rumored to be working on an adaptation of one of the Disney musicals for TV, which makes sense.
The ratings history of the live TV musicals after “The Sound of Music” goes like this: “Peter Pan Live!,” Dec. 4, 2014, on NBC -- 9.21 million viewers, 2.4 in the demo; “The Wiz Live!,” Dec. 3, 2015, on NBC -- 11.9 million viewers, 3.4 in the demo; and “Grease: Live,” Jan. 31, 2016, on Fox -- 12.18 million, 4.3 in the demo.
Another musical on Fox, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again,” which was not live, was the lowest-rated of the bunch with 4.9 million total viewers and a 1.2 in the demo when it aired this past Oct. 20.
And now, here comes “Hairspray Live!” This one would seem to have the pedigree to succeed. It has already been through three incarnations -- the original 1988 John Waters movie (which was not technically a musical), the 2002 Broadway musical adapted from the 1988 movie, and then the 2007 movie adaptation of the Broadway musical.
NBC’s production this week includes Harvey Fierstein in the show’s famed drag role -- playing Edna Turnblad –- a role he played on Broadway. The TV “Hairspray” cast also includes Martin Short, Kristen Chenoweth, Ariana Grande and Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, the central character first played by Ricki Lake in 1988.
The show is about racial tensions in Baltimore in 1962, and Tracy’s efforts to integrate a teen dance show on local TV -- “The Corny Collins Show” (Derek Hough plays Corny Collins in NBC’s version).
Projects about racial tensions seem to do well these days, and this one certainly tackles this issue in about as benign a manner as would seem possible. “Hairspray” might not have the legs of “The Sound of Music,” but it’s a better-known property than, say, “The Wiz,” and therefore has a chance at surpassing “The Wiz Live!” in the ratings. Can it beat “Grease: Live,” however? That is an open question.
We shouldn’t expect this musical trend to go away any time soon. If the ratings have never reached “Sound of Music” levels since that show in 2013, all of the numbers since have at least been respectable enough (with the exception of the non-live “Rocky Horror”) for the networks to persist with these.
And there would still seem to be plenty of titles out there worth adapting for television, including crowd-pleasers such as “Mamma Mia,” “The Producers” and “The Music Man,” for example (the latter having already been rumored to be on NBC’s short list for a future live show).
Maybe someday, after having exhausted these perennials, the networks might even get around to producing a live “Hamilton.”
“Hairspray Live!” airs on Wednesday (Dec. 7) at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.