Ariana Grande Really Wanted to Play Penny in 'Hairspray Live!,' Specifically Requested the Part 'as It Exists'
By Jennifer Drysdale
Ariana Grande really, really wanted to be a checkerboard chick.
During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Hairspray Live! executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron revealed that it was Grande who reached out to them about playing Penny Pingleton in the upcoming NBC musical.
"When we started casting, we hadn't gotten to those roles yet, and we got a call from her manager saying she would like to play Penny," Zadan dished. "We did not contact Ariana or her representatives, she contacted us, and we were overwhelmed and thrilled and pinching ourselves. [We were] thrilled that she wanted to play Penny and didn't say, 'Write me a new song.'"
"She said, 'I love Hairspray, I love Penny. Don't change anything. Don't make it bigger. Let me play the part as it exists,'" he added. "It shows her passion for doing this and the project."
Part of playing Penny "as it exists" meant that Grande would have to stifle her powerful pipes until one of the musical's final numbers.
"That's the way it was scripted," Meron explained. "Penny is a very shy kind of school booky-type of character that eventually is able to find her voice when she joins this group of kids trying to change the world. Through love, she's able to find her voice."
While Grande quickly offered herself up for the part of Penny, finding actors to fill the remaining roles wasn't as easy. Newcomer Maddie Baillio was cast as Tracy Turnblad through a nationwide casting call, but surprisingly wasn't the hardest role to cast.
"It was Link [Larkin]," Meron revealed. "We looked and looked, and we found Garrett [Clayton]. He had amazing, amazing musical chops that we weren’t aware of. We didn’t really know the depth of his talent."
As for how Derek Hough is fitting into his role as Corny Collins, the musical's EPs say that "what you see, is what you get."
"[He is] someone who is one of the best dancers in the world, charming, talented, always there," Meron raved before expressing his excitement over Harvey Fierstein's reprisal of his Broadway role as Edna Turnblad.
Fierstein may be the only Broadway cast member taking his talents to the NBC special, but Meron and Zadan haven't ruled out the possibility of bringing back familiar faces -- including a few Tracy Turnblads.
"Like in the past, we always nod to what's come before," Meron admitted. "We're still trying to figure that out at this point. There's so many people that have walked through the portals that there is a strong possibility that we will acknowledge that."
Looks like Marissa Jaret Winokur just might get her wish after all.
Hairspray Live! will air Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.