The live televised musical—entertaining, campy, addictive—is a genre that’s rarely applauded for its artistic merits. That began to change last year, however, when Kenny Leon directed NBC’s "The Wiz Live!" a production that managed to be both theatrical and cinematic. And on December 7, Leon will attempt to do it again: his next TV musical production is "Hairspray Live!", a “hybrid of an idea” that Leon calls one of the scariest and most exciting things he’s ever done. “It takes the best of theater, the best of film, the best of television, and creates something completely new,” he tells Vanity Fair.
Read my full article on Vanity Fair and excerpts from my interview with Kenny Leon below.
If you were to sum up the visual experience of watching theater and the visual experience of watching television, what similarities and differences do you notice?
In live theater, you sit next to strangers. With TV, you sit next to friends or family. So that’s a different experience. I direct very cinematically, even if it’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway or a TV movie. It means that I’m trying to control where 1200 people in a Broadway theater will look to create emotional feelings in every single moment. So when I direct a play on Broadway, I orchestrate the movement on stage to what I call, “the controlled focus”. It’s done with the movement of the body. You can change the light; you can change the color. When I do television, I have different tools – a dolly or a handheld. I can create a real close up. With this production, it’s a project that needs two directors. So you have Alex Rudzinski who worked on Grease and is working on this with me. He does the handling of the cameras. He does things like Dancing with the Stars and awards shows. And then you have me who’s in charge of the tone of the piece, the staging, the relationship with the actors, the relationships with the designers. Alex and I have to be on the same page. If we have too many close-ups, it’ll weaken the real close-ups. So for instance, I want the viewers to know Tracy’s heart. So from the first song, I want to get in close on her eyes. I want the audience to fall in love with her. She can’t be mistaken for fake acting; she has to be believable. It’s all about how to have television viewers feel that this is the most honest thing they’ve ever witnessed. Theater allows us to be larger. The style is more expressive because you’re trying to reach that back row. You can’t do that on television, but you still have to find the truth that will translate through the camera.
What interests me is that NBC (and Fox with Grease) really emphasize the live element of these televised theater productions. The word Live is in the title with an exclamation point. But, as a director, do you feel like ultimately the show has to satisfy first as a TV experience? In Grease Live! I noticed how many camera angles and different locations it featured.
It’s both. What I think is how to remind the viewer – just like in a sporting event – that it’s happening now. And that we’re watching in real time. So shooting here in LA, it’s important to remind them early on that this is now. So, not to give anything away, but just know that in the first few minutes, I’ll be working hard to have the viewer feel that this is now. It’s no different than when I did A Raisin in the Sun, audiences walking into the theater heard an interview with [the playwright] Lorraine Hansberry. I wanted that so they could feel who Lorraine was. I’m setting them up for what they’re about to receive. I’m doing the same thing for Hairspray. I’m preparing them for how I want them to receive the story. Like, it takes place in 1962, but we’re looking at it through a lens of 2017.
Will this production happen on a single stage or a film set?
With The Wiz, we shot it on a proscenium stage because I wanted the viewer to experience live transitions with the use of LED screens. We just played in that area so it was really theatrical. With Hairspray, this story doesn’t lend itself to that. What it does is allow itself to move to many venues, so we’ll do transitions, but we’ll use exteriors and interiors. When Alex did Grease, maybe 15% of it was exterior [outdoors], for Hairspray, 40% will be exterior. So it’s how to make use of nighttime. If I was shooting a film, I’d be in 200 locations across LA. Here, we’re on the backlot. How can we make it theatrical and cinematic. We got 4 or 5 different areas outside, and then get to the interiors as quickly as we can.
Some fans of musicals and film feel that the original version of classics are so iconic there’s no point in remaking them. When you direct a classic show, do you feel an impetus to bring a new element to it?
I’m always trying to bring its truth to a new audience. I never look at it as a revival. I look at everything as a new play. I’ve got guys who did the Broadway musical and guys who did the 2007 film on this, so we can pick the best of it and come up with something different. And I remind everyone of the world we live in now. So the Raisin in the Sun that I did on Broadway in 2004 had nothing to do with the one I did in 2014. I’m looking at Hairspray like Harvey wrote it yesterday. We are divided in terms of racial issues and this is a happy, entertaining musical that reminds us that we are better when we respect each other.
photo credit: Courtesy of Trae Patton/NBC