Harvey Fierstein and Jennifer Hudson on 'Hairspray Live' and the Song That Almost Never Was

Harvey Fierstein Edna Turnblad Hairspray H 2016
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Fans anticipating Hairspray Live! learned this week that two new names, Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Hayes, would be joining an already-impressive all-star cast that includes Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Martin Short, Kristin Chenoweth and newcomer Maddie Baillio.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 cult movie, the musical is a sock-hop confection that won eight Tony Awards and spawned its own big-screen adaptation in 2007. But beneath the clever irony of songs like “Good Morning Baltimore” and the buoyant optimism of “Welcome to the Sixties” lie serious themes of tolerance that may resonate more deeply in the current racial climate.

“We want to make sure this isn’t paying lip service. That there’s something real to it,” says Fierstein, who plays the mother of the main character, Tracy Turnblad, and is adapting the book for the small screen.

Motormouth Maybelle, who runs a record shop frequented by African-American kids, becomes instrumental in integrating The Corny Collins Show, a teenage TV dance program. Fans of the 2007 movie remember Queen Latifah in the role, which Hudson will tackle in the new cast.

“I like to have my own touch, my own approach on it, but I do like to reference it and look back just to get the gist of it,” says Hudson of previous interpretations. Her big number in the second act, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” an anthemic reflection on repression, is a song that almost never made the original Broadway musical.

“The original producers said it’s a light comedy and we can’t do heavy here,” recalls Fierstein, who dug his heels in to save the song, banding together with composer/co-lyricist Marc Shaiman, co-lyricist Scott Wittman and librettist Mark O’Donnell. "We just kept fighting and fighting. We had a producer who said, ‘Before we go to Broadway, you’re taking that out.’ And of course it stopped the show every night.”

A 2006 Oscar winner for Dreamgirls, Hudson made her Broadway debut last year in The Color Purple. And though she has little experience in musical theater, her approach hasn’t changed since her days singing in the church choir. “That song is not a song to me,” she says of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” “It’s a movement, it’s a feeling, it’s more of an emotional journey. So I’m curious where that’s going to lead me.”

Fierstein is curious as to how they’re going to pull it off. They’ll get two months of rehearsal time but the run up to the Dec. 7 airing on NBC will feature two full dress rehearsals a day, every day, for about two weeks. Aside from a three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl back in 2011, Fierstein hasn’t played Hairspray hausfrau Edna Turnblad in 15 years, which makes him a tiny bit nervous. 

“Martin Short isn’t a little wallflower there. I’m going to have to deal with that stuff,” he says of the comedian who will be playing his husband. Still, Fierstein won a Tony for the role and isn’t too worried about being upstaged — not by Short or anyone else.

“When I was a kid and really starving, I went up to Tom O’Horgan,” says Fierstein, recalling the time he begged the director of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair for a role in his new production. “He said, ‘There’s no role for you, Harvey.’ I said, ‘There’s the chorus, put me in the chorus.’ He said, ‘Harvey, if I put you in the chorus then I no longer have a chorus.’ I think you have to know who you are. And I think I have to accept that I was not going to be a chorus girl.”