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Remote Controlled: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on Reinventing ‘Hairspray’

Variety logo Variety 12/3/2016 Debra Birnbaum
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Welcome to Remote Controlled, Variety’s podcast series featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.

This week’s episode features Variety executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum and editor-at-large Michael Schneider in conversation with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, executive producers of NBC’s upcoming “Hairspray Live,” slated for Dec. 7. The producers talked about assembling the star-studded cast, incorporating a live audience, as well as their plans for “A Few Good Men Live.”

“Hairspray” is the fourth live musical they’ve done since the “Sound of Music” in 2013, and they’ve been playing with the format with each iteration.”With ‘Hairspray,’ this is the first time that we’re going outdoors and using the backlot of Universal as downtown Baltimore,” reveals Meron. “Forty percent of the show is going to be outdoors.”

This is also the first time a live audience will be incorporated into the broadcast, who will be seated in the audience in the Corny Collins show. “We couldn’t even contemplate doing ‘Hairspray’ without a live audience,” adds Zadan.

The musical boasts an impressive lineup of stars, from Harvey Fierstein and Kristin Chenoweth to Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson. “It’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of this cast,” says Meron.

Although some stars like Ariana Grande contacted them and offered to do the show, others have been reluctant to sign on for the live musicals, say the producers.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of friends who are stars who could be great and they say to us, ‘Look, if you were doing a movie musical, and we could pre-record and lip-synch, sure. But live? So if we hit a bad note it’s there for posterity? We’re not going to go out there without a safety net.’ People are scared to death of that,” says Zadan. “There are lot of people who want to do these shows, but they don’t want to do them live.”

They also discussed how “Hairspray,” with its themes of racial unity, feels particularly relevant right now. “When we did the movie, we always talked about the movie being a period piece,” says Zadan. “It feels like these issues are current, but sadly. We feel like it will bring a much needed evening of entertainment and healing when we broadcast this.”

And while they’ve already lined up “Bye Bye Birdie” for next year — thanks to Jennifer Lopez — they admitted it’s a challenge to find the right musicals, given the family-friendly theme demands of the holiday season. “We can’t do ‘Rent,’ for instance,” explains Zadan. “It does limit the amount of shows we can do. There’s another show we’re in negotiations for that would happen after ‘Birdie’ if the deals would work out.”

The producers are working, too, on “A Few Good Men Live,” although they have yet to cast it. It’s dependent, they say, on finding the right stars and making sure their schedules work.

“We’ll wait until we get the right casting,” says Meron. “We don’t want to fail, because it will be the first play that we’ve done, and it has to be right.”

Listen to this week’s podcast below:

New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday.

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