Kenny Leon hits
a new beat with
Tony-winning, Atlanta-based director
brings the hit musical to TV
Kristin Chenoweth grabs Kenny Leon’s arm and leans into him, laughing, as she glances at notes on a clipboard.
Leon huddles with her, talking quietly and providing director-ly advice.
It’s the first day on the Universal Studios set for the diminutive Broadway vet, who, on Dec. 7, will don a slinky gown to portray snooty stage mom Velma Von Tussle in NBC’s “Hairspray Live!,” the latest all-star enterprise to bring live theater to TV.
On this brisk November afternoon, Chenoweth is wearing gray exercise gear, a sporty contrast to Leon’s eternal dapperness in a midnight blue, velvety jacket, cocoa-colored fedora and his trademark kicks (today, they’re low-top silver Adidas).
Pacing the Skittles-colored set of “The Corny Collins Show,” Leon pauses to lean his left armatop a Westinghouse prop TV as Derek Hough (Corny Collins) leads a troupe of dancers into a pseudo commercial break.
“You’ve got to make it real every time. Keep it real,” Leon advises the actors as he observes their motions for the umpteenth time and absentmindedly unfurls a red yo-yo from his right hand.
As rehearsal heads into its third hour – and Chenoweth practices a baton-twirling segment for Velma’s signature number, “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” – Leon steps over cables and into a shadowy corner to exchange an affectionate handshake and hug with an old pal.
Denzel Washington, whom the Atlanta-based Leon directed in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” is visiting. (The Leon staging of the August Wilson play earned Washington a Tony Award; the actor reprised his role and directed a film version to be released Christmas Day).
He sits quietly in his plaid flannel shirt and black New York Yankees cap, watching the cast rehearse Chenoweth’s musical number several times before making his presence known and thrilling the fledgling dancers and stars, including Chenoweth and Ariana Grande.
For a few minutes, Washington addresses the cast, too soft-spoken to be heard from the nearby bleachers on the set. But it’s obvious he’s presenting the sort of pep talk that could only come from one of the most respected actors of his generation.
“That thing with Denzel today?” Leon said later that evening. “That was no accident. I wanted him to stop by (so the cast could) see him and experience that energy and know that he worked hard to get to his place in our field. It’s a process.”
Photo: Jennifer Hudson (center) will take on the role as Motormouth Maybelle in the music "Hairspray Live!" Posing with two of her cast mates, Shahadi Wright Joseph (left, in the role of Little Inez) and Ephraim Sykes (cast as Seaweed)
“Hairspray Live!” is the biggest live TV musical yet, boasting a glittery cast including Ariana Grande (Penny Pingleton); Jennifer Hudson (Motormouth Maybelle); Martin Short (Wilbur Turnblad); Andrea Martin (Prudy Pingleton); Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed J. Stubbs); Dove Cameron (Amber Von Tussle); Garrett Clayton (Link Larkin); newcomer Maddie Baillio (Tracy Turnblad); the aforementioned Chenoweth and Hough; and reprising his role as Edna Turnblad, the inimitable Harvey Fierstein.
The magnitude of the event also puts Leon, artistic director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, in a searing spotlight.
A year ago he helmed the NBC production of “The Wiz Live,” an update of 1974’s Broadway show, “The Wiz,” a reimagined version of “The Wizard of Oz” with an all-black cast.
The show fared well, garnering about 11.5 million viewers. The resurgence of star-driven live TV musicals launched in 2013 with the Carrie Underwood-fronted “The Sound of Music,” which nabbed 18.5 million viewers, followed by the relative disappointment of “Peter Pan” (starring Allison Williams) in 2014 with 9.1 million viewers).
“I really do think this is a revolution, this new musical television,” Leon, a sleek 60, said as he crouched on the studio lot a few feet from the stoop of Motormouth Records, the R&B record shop run by Hudson’s Motormouth Maybelle. “It’s not really like playing small TV or a big stage. Just speak the truth, speak it loudly and we’ll get the technology to work with you.”
He admits he’s not necessarily the first person one might think of to direct this musical.
“It was an honor to be asked,” he said.
“Hairspray Live!” marks the fourth time Leon has worked with executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who shepherded Leon’s TV directorial debut with 2008’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the Broadway version of which garnered Leon a Tony Award. Leon is also a producer on “Hairspray Live!” and is working closely with live television director Alex Rudzinski.
“Kenny brings a deep understanding of how to work with actors,” said Zadan, sitting outside with Meron near the pastel-shaded storefronts that comprise the setting for much of the live broadcast. “You’ll find that more than almost anybody, he gets honesty and real performances out of actors in a musical. Sometimes musicals have great musical performances, but the acting is just OK. Kenny really makes them be truthful and work harder than they ever have before.”
Zadan means that literally.
Leon is a stickler for timeliness and those who flout his rule must hit the floor for sets of push-ups.
“There have been a significant amount of push-ups – it was that way on ‘The Wiz’ and going back to ‘Raisin,’” said Zadan with a chuckle.
As the afternoon turns to dusk, Leon, Martin and Fierstein walk a few yards from “The Corny Collins Show” set to the Turnblad’s apartment set to rehearse a scene.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Leon barks, jaw clenching as he chews gum and awaits the arrival of a couplestraggling cast members. “If everyone was here we’d be done by now.”
It’s as close as he comes to yelling.
A scene with Martin, Fierstein, Baillio and Grande is rehearsed half a dozen times until Leon is satisfied.
“We’re good. Let’s move on,” he says, flashing a smile and smacking palms with Martin.
“Hairspray Live!” will resemble the 2002 Broadway version more than the 1988 John Waters film (and its 2007 celluloid reboot), including choreography from Tony winner Jerry Mitchell — who crafted the original stage footwork – and a new teleplay from Fierstein.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, the musical’s theme of racial equality is still painfully pertinent today. for a modern audience.
Tracy Turnblad – played by the effervescent Baillio (pictured here), who leapfrogged more than 1,000 other hopefuls to score her first major role – dreams of dancing on “The Corny Collins Show,” which still clings to segregation. She improbably wins a spot on the show, which turns her into a local celebrity.
Tracy, with the eventual encouragement of her mother Edna, crusades to integrate “The Corny Collins Show,” which features segments such as Motormouth Maybelle’s monthly “Negro Day.”
“I think it’s cosmic,” Grande said about the timing of the musical. “I think it was meant to be. I think the universe had a plan and was like, OK, we need to show these people something uplifting and also that will make you get the point.”
Perhaps that’s why producer Meron tapped Leon to direct “Hairspray Live!” He sees Leon’s “deep humanity” and musical theater’s ability to “touch the emotional core of people” as an ideal marriage.
“I’m a storyteller,” said Leon, who heads to New York next for a workshop of “Children of a Lesser God. “I like doing it all.” That includes a new play for Broadway and a TV show in the works.
But first, Leon is eager to see this massive musical performed live, all in one take.
“I’m a lucky man. I’ve got the best cast I’ve ever had. No egos. My ego is the biggest,” he said with a grin. “And I control that.”