After a season’s hiatus, the musical megahit strikes again, following much the same formula as its triumphant predecessor, The Producers. Take an excellent film of yesteryear, one already containing musical elements which can be built upon, iron out some narrative kinks in the plot, find contemporary equivalents of the iconic performers in the original, add vibrant choreography, scenery and design, and inflate the retro melange with a strong infusion of Broadway pizazz. Success on this scale is not easy to achieve, as last season’s musical misfires revealed. All collaborative categories must be first-rate and a master directorial hand must be present to make individual contributions part of a seamless whole. In Hairspray, as in The Producers, both conditions obtain. Whereas the latter had Susan Stroman as master coordinator, Hairspray has Jack O’Brien.
Moviegoers may recall that as a film Hairspray shocked by marking the unforeseen crossover of bad boy midnight movie director John Waters into PG-Land. Through the seventies into the eighties Waters had produced an outrageous series of in-your-face films such as Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble, and, most notoriously, Pink Flamingos. His oeuvre developed its own superstar: a startling transvestite who grew increasingly in both obesity and ferocity–Divine, ready to kill for a pair of cha-cha shoes. But surprise, surprise, in 1988’s Hairspray Divine shed her transgressive identity to emerge as the overweight but normal, if qvetchy and agoraphobic mother of an overweight, normal Baltimore teenager all agog about rock-and-roll in the era of its emergence. To further emphasize its PG credentials, the film, set in the transitional sixties, came out unequivocally for doing the right thing on racial integration by ending the separate but unequal TV dance shows for white and black youth. No lewd "rosary jobs" or "Free Charles Manson" scrawls on walls as in earlier Waters’ epics. Sadly, Divine died soon after the film was released and before her new, softer image could be developed in Waters’ later work.
The film is so well constructed that, with some refinements, the modern adapters have the good sense to follow its basic feel-good plot to its happy conclusion in which integration is achieved and the physically chunky master dancer Tracy Turnblat, wins everything in sight: the dance contest, a commercial contract, the respect of her peers, and the hand of the most popular boy in town. Here the skilled surgical hand of Thomas Meehan (who edited the book of The Producers) is again in evidence to cut away some of the film’s narrative overgrowth.
But every collaborator makes a creditable contribution. The full retro score in the styles of the 50s and 60s builds upon the musical samples quoted in the film without falling into safe and easy parody. Composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman succeed in making their period recreations find a sound that is contemporary as well as nostalgic. Similarly, Jerry Mitchell’s choreography–though built on past dance styles like the Madison–also goes far beyond mimicry to release a kinetic energy which nudges nostalgia into the hip-hop era.
Scenically, the governing vision is of a series of outrageous patterns and cartoons that seemingly morph effortlessly one into another. A shifting bank of lights like a Times Square screen display backs up the moving scenic elements. At the very opening, the audience seems perched, like an overhead camera, above Tracy in her bed. She throws off her cover, steps forward; everything moves and transforms into a Baltimore street scene, which shifts again into a microphone-laden TV studio where the local American Bandstand show, the Corny Collins Show, is airing.
The constantly on-the-move visual vocabulary now enabled by technology can be exhausting, but it offers ample opportunities for clever, exaggerated comic effects that designer David Rockwell does not miss in his effort to turn the ordinary into the baroque. Ditto the over-the-top costumes and wigs designed by William Ivey Long and Paul Huntley. The show delightfully offers a license to camp outrageously that the designers obviously relish: screamingly pink peignoirs and three-feet bouffants frozen by hairspray. As Waters himself noted, "You have to have great taste to do bad taste."
None of these contributions would count for anything if the performances were not up to snuff. Like Nathan Lane as stand-in for Zero Mostel in The Producers, there was only one really viable candidate to re-create Divine’s commanding presence in the film: Harvey Fierstein. More than anyone, Fierstein is the great gay crossover success story, having shepherded his Torch Song Trilogy in the 1980s from the backrooms of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club to Off-Broadway to Broadway to the movies. Like Divine, Fierstein has always been larger than life; but unlike his predocessor, his persona has always been cuddly and unthreatening, and, 20 years on from Torch Song days he is indeed (aided by a fat suit) more–ahem–matronly. The gravelly, kvetchy core of young Fierstein remains, however; only the self-pity is shed: voila, a perfect Edna Turnblat, mother of protagonist Tracy. But if Tracy is indeed the main character, Fierstein’s Edna–whose every entrance is a major event–really receives the grand diva treatment. One number ends with him delivering Ethel Merman’s defiant last line in "Rose’s Turn" from Gypsy: "For me!!!" What becomes a legend most? Fierstein savors each adenoidal riposte, each gravelly vocalization gleefully. And the sheer bulk of his lovability transfers to the entire show.
The greatest portion of praise must be reserved for the young actress who plays the central role of Tracy.Marissa Jaret Winokur is short, chunky, but compact. She begins her performance with a burst of energy that never wanes until final curtain. She obviously knows that this is her unique moment. After a respectable but unnoted decade as a sit-com extra, Winokur has found the one role she was made to play. She goes out a candidate for Weightwatchers but comes back a star, singing, dancing, acting up a storm. Let time tell what her professional future holds. For now she must be euphoric to be in Waters’ benign fable in which integration is painless, transvestitism is as American as apple pie, and the fat girl wins the best-looking boy around. The many pleasures of Hairspray combine to make us willingly forget that that’s not quite how things really are.