On day one of rehearsals for NBC’s Hairspray Live!, which hits television screens December 7, newcomer Maddie Baillio was the first to show up.
“I sat down, and I just wanted to watch everyone walk through the door one by one,” she says, “and one of the first people to walk through was Ariana Grande, who is one of my favorite singers. She walked in and said, ‘Maddie, I’ve been waiting so long to meet you! I’m so excited to meet you!’ [I thought], ‘You’re excited to meet me, this is crazy!’ And she handed me her phone and was like, ‘Follow yourself on my Instagram,’ and she’s not following that many people, so I’m very fortunate.”
Baillio and Grande have been cast as best friends Tracy Turnblad and Penny Lou Pingleton in the television musical event of the season. Grande is a two-time Grammy Award nominee and a Broadway performer, having made her debut on the Great White Way as a teenager in Jason Robert Brown’s 13. But Baillio is the new kid on the block; she was discovered from an open call for the coveted lead role.
Before landing the role, she had just completed her second year at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Now, she’s leading a star-studded cast that not only includes Grande, but Tony winners such as Kristin Chenoweth, Andrea Martin, and Harvey Fierstein, Disney stars such as Garrett Clayton and Dove Cameron, and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.
All have been giving her a few words of wisdom before she takes the sound stage at the Universal Studio lot in California this December.
“Kritsin Chenoweth is the sweetest person in the entire world,” says Baillio. “She’s honestly been like a second mother to me.” Chenoweth has a vested interest in her education—urging Baillio to go back to Marymount. “She said, ‘I think you would regret it if you didn’t. You’re going to be a star one day, Maddie. Just finish school.’ And Harvey is emailing me like every day and making sure that my journey is going smoothly.
“He says to not say no to anything—to say yes. That’s the best advice I could get because sometimes I can be very tentative, and scared of things, but he’s like, ‘Just go for everything. Do it all.’”
The best advice, though, has been from Tony Award-winning Tracy Turnblad Marissa Jaret Winokur, who originated the role on Broadway.
“She was [house-sitting for] Matthew Morrison, so I went over there, and I just sat on his couch, and she talked for four hours. I just listened and soaked it all up,” says Baillio. “She said, ‘This is the best role you’re ever going to play. This is an iconic role. It’s my favorite role I ever played.’ She talked about just her journey—she had cancer while she was in Hairspray. I watched her performance on YouTube; I didn’t get to see the Broadway version because I was stuck in Texas…and I [said], ‘I love this little part. Is that in the script?’ And she’s like, ‘No, I made that up—but you can steal it if you want to!’”
From Winokur’s side of the couch, she admits, “I feel like [Maddie is] so much cooler than me! I was like, ‘Girl, you’re going to love Los Angeles. You’re going to slide right into L.A., and you’re never going to leave.’
“She’s going to be great. I’m so excited. I’ve turned into such a mom that the night before they did the reading, I was like, ‘Just have fun! Remember they hired you for you. Be yourself!’ And I mean all of that. I just want her to do so well and have a good time. I know how hard it is when you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and I so understand that. She has so many wonderful people around her that just want her to succeed. Nobody wants you to fail.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.