There's more grit than glamour to Manhattan's theater district these days, between the body-painted desnudas and Dave & Busters flotsam littering the gutters. But tucked away on 44th Street is a relic of Broadway days gone by: Sardi's, the near century-old restaurant known for the hundreds of caricature sketches that line its walls and keep a watchful eye on every patron who crosses the threshold.
On a muggy August afternoon, the hot concrete sidewalks teem with tourists. But step inside Sardi's — nearly empty at lunchtime on a weekday — and the plush booths are cool and sequestered. Stars of the stage used to gather at the upstairs bar after their shows wrapped for the night; now, the cavernous space feels at once dated and timeless. I'm thinking about that when the future of Broadway walks in the door, pink-cheeked and shyly smiling.
You may not know her yet. But come December 7, 20-year-old Maddie Baillio will be singing and dancing her way though living rooms across America, as the star of NBC's latest musical theater special, Hairspray Live! Baillio beat out thousands of other potential Tracy Turnblads for the coveted role earlier this year. As if that weren't already impressive enough on its own, this was the first-ever professional audition for the Marymount musical theater major, who is taking some time off to work with the likes of Kristin Chenoweth and Ariana Grande, fellow Hairspray cast members who have become close friends since last spring.
Refinery29 gabbed with Baillio about her early roots as a singer, navigating a budding Broadway career, and how she got over feeling self-conscious and learned to love herself exactly as she is.
So, you landed your first professional part this year, at 20. Where did your singing bug begin?
"My first show was The Wizard of Oz. I really wanted to be Dorothy, but they forgot to cast me, so they made me Mrs. Gulch, which is like the lady before the Wicked Witch; they split that part in two. The next year I was in The Little Mermaid and I was Ariel, and the next year after that I was Ursula in The Little Mermaid. But I really got into the dancing side and the singing side in sixth grade, when I joined another community theater and I was in Grease with older people.
"I’ve always been aware of my body and not so confident with it."
"I was a cheerleader. That was really surprising to me because I’ve always been a bigger girl, and so the fact that I was Ariel when I was younger and then a cheerleader in Grease: I thought that was so strange. I’ve always been aware of my body and not so confident with it. Tracy [Turnblad], my [Haispray] character, is the complete opposite. She doesn’t know that she’s supposed to hate herself and her body. I felt the opposite way: I did not love my body. But recently I started to accept myself, to love myself. A lot of that has to do with Hairspray actually, when I saw the movie first, before anything else. I watched clips on YouTube of the Broadway version, and I fell in love with this girl: There’s self-love in almost every scene. Hairspray, in general, I think is just a body-positive masterpiece."
I recently went back and watched the original movie, before it even became a musical, and was struck by the same thing. It's hard to be a woman who doesn't stack up to society's version of "ideal."
"I was bullied a lot. But I didn’t feel like I should hold back anything when I was on stage. When I got the [early] parts, I was like, 'Why would they cast me as this?' But when I was on stage, it didn’t matter. I think a lot of [my] self-hate came from bullying, whereas Tracy: She’s not oblivious to it. One of my lines in the show is, ‘Everybody says that a girl who looks like me can’t get this guy, but I know that he’ll look inside of me.’ So I know that she looks at people in a certain way." Flash-forward from the early days: How did you wind up auditioning for Hairspray Live! this year?
"I was in my sophomore year of college and I saw ads on Facebook that there was an open call for Tracy Turnblad. I really wanted to do it, but I was also really nervous because this would be my first professional audition, and I was thinking: If I can’t get Tracy, what can I get? What is there for me? "I woke up at 3 a.m. and prepared my short portion of 'Good Morning Baltimore,' my favorite song from the show. I went to the audition at 6:45 a.m., and the audition started at 10 a.m. I was already 343rd in line. I started at the beginning of the line, and as I was walking there were girls who looked like me, who were singing similarly to me. I was so nervous — girls were wearing like wigs and skirts and I was wearing a sweater and pants. I think I was the only girl that had pants. Then I got into the audition room at noon and I sang; I felt confident with it and I was asked to sing the end of 'Good Morning Baltimore,' which I did not know, so I made up most of the words."
"'Hairspray,' in general, I think is just a body-positive masterpiece."
Do you recall what you made up?
"I don’t — that’s probably a good thing, I’ve cleared that part out of my mind. Then I got a callback, they told me in the room that they wanted to see me again. So I came back two days later and read parts of the script. Then they said they wanted to see me again, and I didn’t hear back from them for two weeks. So I thought: Surely that’s the end of it, they’re done with me. But once I got the third callback the director was there, and the creative team. That same day they asked me to do a dance audition by myself. I had one more callback [after that]. They told me that I got the part and just —tears came down. It’s been so great ever since." There have been a lot of versions of Tracy over the years. What sets yours apart?
"I don’t want to copy any of the Tracys. I think [my Tracy] — she’s a little bit cooler. I’ve even been working with a costume designer; Tracy is always fashion-forward and she’s always ahead of everyone. So I’m really taking that and using that with my Tracy."
"Everyone! I’ve looked up to Kristin Chenoweth for so long. And Ariana Grande is, like, my favorite singer in the entire world. During the table read, she was holding my hand half the time because she was nervous, too, and I just thought that was crazy that she was nervous. She gave me the biggest hug, and she's so tiny and so cute and a little fireball, and she says, 'I've been waiting so long to meet you!' And I'm like: You've been waiting to meet me? Then she handed me her phone and she was like ‘Hey, follow yourself on my Instagram.' Like: Okay!... Hashtag blessed, though, this is amazing."
And then there's Martin Short —
"Comedy legend! I’ve been listening to his audio books on Audible, he is so funny and he’s playing my dad. And Harvey Fierstein, who won a Tony for his role as Edna, will be my mom. He’s been like an actual mom to me: He’s constantly emailing me and checking up on me, making sure my journey is going smoothly. And Garrett Clayton who’s like, super hottie — can’t wait to make out with him [laughs]. He’s awesome. I loved him in Teen Beach Movie, and we’re playing Pokemon Go with each other a lot. He’s a higher level than me, but I’m getting there. And Derek Hough is Corny Collins and the sweetest, funniest guy ever. Love him. This is an amazing cast."
Is there anything you've learned from this show that you wish you would have realized earlier, any life lessons to impart?
"I just wish I would have had someone to tell me that it’s okay; that I am beautiful. I had to find that in myself. And I want people — young people — to know that they can follow their dreams. I don't want anything to stop them. Anything, ever."