Hairspray Live! is the latest of live television musicals following The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Peter Pan and Grease. Bringing Broadway to live television gives theater access to a wider audience.
Jerry Mitchell really knows how to shake a leg.
When NBC’s live musical producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and Entertainment Chairman, Bob Greenblatt, decided to do Hairspray Live! Mitchell eagerly stepped outside his “proscenium box” to bring Hairspray Live! to television last December.
Mitchell is a two-time Tony award winning choreographer (La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots), and eight-time Tony award nominee. He has been involved with more than 50 Broadway, Off-Broadway, West End and touring productions, starting as a dancer for Agnes de Mille in Brigadoon.
His Broadway debut as choreographer on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown led the way to The Full Monty, The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray, Gypsy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Legally Blonde, Catch Me If You Can, On Your Feet and Kinky Boots.
Mitchell knew his fate early on. “Honestly, I think it was in my DNA from the very beginning. As a young kid back in Paw Paw, Michigan where I grew up, I was choreographing Community Theater at 14, and later for my high school and Webster University shows.
"When I came to New York, as a dancer, I was immediately working with the choreographers, being their assistant and learning from them. When I was 25, and in my fifth Broadway show, I realized, ‘I want to be the choreographer’ because I was looking at the whole picture, not just what I was doing as the actor.“
Hairspray Live! takes place in 1962 Baltimore where teenager Tracy Turnblad has a dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV program. Tracy is a curvy, against-all-odds longshot who wins a role on the show, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Hairspray Live! starred Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson and Martin Short. USA Today touted the show as having “a message about accepting ourselves and each other while celebrating and embracing our diversity, this Hairspray felt more relevant - and maybe even important - than ever."
Mitchell describes choreographing Hairspray Live! for television versus the live show on Broadway.
“The big difference is that the camera tells people where to look. Choreography on film and television is a little less limited in that you can look at it from the front, the back, the side, above and below. On a stage, you are working with one proscenium so you have to keep it inside that box, facing front, most of the time.
“On the live telecast, I was able to go from inside to outside, cross the street and travel to Motormouth Maybelle’s. On stage it was a lot more theatrical. That was lot of fun.”
Mitchell, who is also a fight choreographer, has choreographed for films such as Camp, In & Out and Drop Dead Gorgeous, but live television was a new, exciting medium for him, “I was so, so eager to do this! I knew the story (musicals are my life) so the question was, how do I meet the challenge of using what film and television have to offer?
“I find that live theater on stage is more impressionistic, while film and television is more realistic. So being able to use the tools to differentiate the two was a big part of it.”
Mitchell puts the differences between choreographing the two succinctly into perspective for viewers, “On a stage you’re working within a very small box so you know how to fill that box with your cast. In television and film, where you are on a back lot, you have to work to fill the space with a limited number of dancers.
"What is the angle of the camera? Where are my cut offs? You’re dealing with multiple prosceniums – it’s switching all at once and that’s a big challenge.”
Hairspray Live! is the latest in the live television musicals following The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Peter Pan and Grease. Bringing Broadway to live television has proved a hugely successful movement.
Mitchell sheds light on a few of the reasons for this by looking back to his childhood, “I remember when I was a kid we would watch The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night. The whole family would get together to see it. It was a big event in the house.
"Musicals pull families together to watch something together. Look, Kinky Boots is worldwide. Wicked, Book of Mormon, Hamilton, these huge productions are all over the world. People want to sit together and have that experience together. Musicals fulfill that. They give hope.”
Mitchell also gives huge credit to NBC’s Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt’s love of musicals and his absolute passion to put those on television.
“I don’t think television musicals would have happened without Bob. He really was the mind behind the first one, Sound of Music, which set off the fire. (Executive producers) Craig (Zadan) and Neil (Meron) love musicals, but it was really NBC that wanted to do this.” Greenblatt is currently producing the breakout hit Dear Even Hansen on Broadway.
Choreography continues to get more recognition in the industry. Recently, The Television Academy announced a new Choreography Peer Group which will serve as an official home for hundreds of choreographers working across the industry.
“We are thrilled to recognize choreographers and their contributions to television with a peer group of their own,” said Television Academy Chairman and CEO Hayma Washington. “Inclusion of all professionals creating content in our medium is a top priority for the Academy, whether they are working in a significant artistic or technical segment of the industry, in established formats, or evolving digital platforms.”
Mitchell is thrilled about this, calling it “Spectacular. In New York, choreographers are in a union. In Los Angeles, for example, they are freelancers, with no representation or acknowledgement in awards. Most recently in films like Chicago and La La Land, choreographers make an impact in film and need to be recognized.”
Mitchell keeps a busy schedule and that includes his charity work with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“I have always wanted to get involved and give back,” says Mitchell who created and for many years directed the annual Broadway Cares benefit for BC/EFA, an organization that helps men, women and children who have been affected by HIV and AIDS across the country receive medications, health care, nutritious meals, counseling and emergency financial assistance by drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community.
Mitchell doesn’t seem to want to slow down anytime soon. He was most recently in Sydney, Australia working on the premiere of Kinky Boots which opened April 19, and is currenty working on his next project, which is, interestingly, another live television musical.
NBC will air Bye Bye Birdie Live! In December 2017 starring Jennifer Lopez. Mitchell will be the co-director with two-time Emmy Award winner Alex Rudzinski.
Bob Greenblatt credits Mitchell and Rudzinski, who worked together on Hairspray Live! with “elevating our live musicals to a new height. Jerry is the cream of the crop of Broadway director/choreographers with two hits running on Broadway right now, and Alex is peerless in the world of live television direction."
Mitchell loves what he does and it shows. “I love (my shows) all so much. They all hold a very special place in my professional career. I don’t get involved in a musical unless I believe in the story and I want to share it with everyone.”