Robert Greenblatt spearheaded NBC's live musical projects as chairman of NBC Entertainment.
Robert Greenblatt spearheaded NBC's live musical projects as chairman of NBC Entertainment.
(© David Gordon)

In 2013, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt was begging for stars to risk their dignity for a spot in the network's first live musical. Now, he has international pop sensations banging down his door. "Jennifer Lopez called me and said, 'I want to do Bye Bye Birdie Live.' Two or three years ago we would have called her and gotten rejected immediately," said Greenblatt.

Just days ahead of the December 7 broadcast of Hairspray Live! — NBC's fourth live musical production — Greenblatt can see the institution he has built out of a whim, a prayer, and a pet project he created purely to satisfy his inner musical-theater nerd. "I started doing these for basically myself," Greenblatt freely admitted. "I thought, 'I want to see Sound of Music live. I don't know if anybody else will.'"

Nearly 22 million viewers later, he found he was onto something. "Until we did that first one and woke up the next morning to those extraordinary ratings, I really thought that it could be the most embarrassing thing I ever do in my career. Lo and behold it's become this crazy phenomenon. God bless Carrie Underwood for saying, 'I'll do that.'"

It was no easy feat, with television and film regulars weary of the dreaded "live" element. But now with three successful cycles under NBC's belt, collecting a dream cast for Hairspray proved a simple task according to Greenblatt, who said, "This year, everybody we called said, 'I can't wait to do it!'" Those phone calls landed Greenblatt with one of his starriest casts yet, with Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Derek Hough, and Kristin Chenoweth filling out the group, just to name a few. Even the most screen-credentialed member of that list, however, has a foot in the theater world, which could be the recipe for not just ratings, but critical success.

Kristen Chenoweth plays Velma Von Tussle in NBC's Hairspray Live!
Kristen Chenoweth plays Velma Von Tussle in NBC's Hairspray Live!
(© James Monohan)

Chenoweth, one of Broadway's greatest commodities and Hairspray Live!'s Velma Von Tussle, is certainly no stranger to live performance. She was just beginning her journey with the blockbuster musical Wicked in 2003 when she first saw the Hairspray onstage, and even set her sights on a spot in the cast. "I was looking at the role of Amber Von Tussle — and now I'm playing her mother," joked Chenoweth. "But I remember sitting in the audience. I had done Wicked in San Francisco and we had a month off before we brought it in. I saw the original cast and I thought, 'Man, one day I would sure like to be in that show.'"

Now, not only is she in the show, but she doesn't have to fly her entire family of Oklahomans to New York to see her perform it. "They rely on me," said Chenoweth. "I try to bring them in when I'm in a show but I can't bring everybody. I have six aunts and twenty thousand cousins. [laughs] This has become a family tradition at my mom's house where everybody sits around and watches. We did it last year with The Wiz, they loved Peter Pan, and The Sound of Music was one of the reasons I even wanted to be in music theater, so it's ironic to me and beautiful that NBC started four years ago with Sound of Music."

The choice of Hairspray also seems to hold some poetic symmetry, with its message of acceptance and racial equality coming at a time the country seems to need it most. "Maybe it was a little prescient," said Greenblatt. "I always want to downplay the heavier side of these things because you want it to be a joyful experience. But this musical packs a punch because of what it is ultimately saying. We now live in a world that is really challenging. We've always had a racial divide, but it has really peaked this year with all of the dialogue that's going on. Hopefully we'll be part of that dialogue in a healing way."

And according to the ever-optimistic Chenoweth, there's no better remedy than musical theater. "It's the most healing thing — and when it's done well, it can't be beat. We're getting ready to do it right."

Hairspray Live! airs December 7 on NBC at 8/7c.
Hairspray Live! airs December 7 on NBC at 8/7c.
(© Trae Patton/NBC)