“NO, IT’S HAIRSPRAY!”

August 15, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

The musical Hairspray opened on Broadway fourteen years ago today. August openings are a particularly rare thing, though for its star, Harvey Fierstein, they have been something of a good luck charm. On August 21, 1983, his adaptation of the film La Cage Aux Folles opened at the Palace Theatre. He wrote its book, and although he didn’t appear in its original production, he was a huge part of that musical’s enormous success (and eventually played the role of Albin in the 2004 Broadway revival).

La Cage ran on Broadway for four years, but Hairspray ran for six and a half. It actually ran just a bit longer than The Producers, considered one of the biggest hits of the first part of this century, so Hairspray is no slouch in contention for that same title. Based on John Waters’ low-budget cult classic which starred his muse, Divine, as Edna Turnblad, it seemed a highly unlikely film to be musicalized and embraced by diverse audiences. Funnily enough, diversity was its calling card. Nearly half the cast of the musical was African-American, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell smartly created dances beautifully constructed to show off the differences between the white and black teenagers. It’s a shame Hairspray opened in the same season as Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out, or this would have been Jerry Mitchell’s first Tony Award for choreography in a walk.

The Tonys Hairspray won in 2003 totaled eight: Best Musical, Best Actor (Fierstein), Best Actress (Marissa Jarret Winoker), Best Supporting Actor (Dick Latessa), Best Book (Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell), Best Score (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), Best Costumes (William Ivey Long) and Best Direction (Jack O’Brien). The show spawned a film version in 2007 that grossed over $200,000,000 worldwide. It starred John Travolta as Edna and was directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman. Playing Tracy opposite Travolta (and cast out of an open-call audition), Nikki Blonsky, a young actress from my home town of Great Neck, was a genuine find and just eighteen when shooting began. Now history may repeat itself when NBC airs an all-new live production of the musical in December of this year with Maddie Baillio, a twenty-year-old, who (like Blonsky), was cast out of an open-call last April.

I’m looking forward to the NBC version, even though these recent musicals for television have had mixed results. Peter Pan, anyone? (Well, no one, actually.) The reason for my optimism is that though it may seem odd to re-do Hairspray so soon after the 2007 film, the producers are rightfully allowing Harvey Fierstein to recreate his performance as Edna. I saw him in the original Broadway production, as well Bruce Vilanch in the national tour and Travolta in the film. Though all three have their virtues, Fierstein is the only one who doesn’t come off like a man in a dress. His Edna is a full-fledged woman, infused with a robust and sweet persona. It is a wholly unique characterization, unquestionably aided by Fierstein’s former life as a drag queen, when as a young man he performed in clubs in New York City under the names Virginia Hamm, Kitty Litter and Bertha Venation.

Hairspray has proven a hit in nearly every city in the world in which its played. Except for Las Vegas, that is, which didn’t take kindly to it, in spite of Fierstein’s return to the role of Edna. Performed at the Luxor Hotel, it was a ninety-minute version (all Vegas shows are shortened to get patrons back to the casinos) and audiences simply couldn’t have cared less. Considering that when its producers announced it was coming to Vegas and boasted to the press that “it will run four years,” closing in less than four months was a depressing and unhappy finish.

But why dwell on one such instance when the musical has been produced successfully in Canada, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Italy, St. Gallen, Switzerland, Brazil, Shanghai, China, Sweden, France, Israel, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Mexico! It has been translated into German, Finnish, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Italian, and Portuguese, which is not bad for a show about a young girl with big hair who wants to dance on television and does so by befriending fellow teenage African-Americans in a campaign against overt prejudice. I can’t help it, but whenever I hear Tracy say with such innocence and commitment: “Negro Day’s the best! I wish every day were Negro Day!” I not only laugh, but the smile that takes over my face is one I never want to go away.

One last note. It has sort of been forgotten since Harvey Fierstein has been in the collective show business consciousness for more than thirty years, and such a vital and active spokesman for the LGBT community, that once upon a time there was no place for an openly gay actor to achieve any measure of the level of success possible today. There’s still a long way to go, but remember it was Fierstein who discussed his sexuality on television (with Barbara Walters, less) while starring on Broadway. That had never been done before. And he has stood up for his gay brothers and sisters time and again, forever on the right side of controversial issues, at least to my way of thinking. He is to be congratulated, praised and honored for all he has contributed to human rights, not to mention his work for the theatre: the books for the musicals A Catered Affair, Newsies and Kinky Boots, as well his most recent play of two seasons ago, Casa Valentina, which was a gem.

One of my favorite stories about Hairspray and Fierstein has to do with his well know penchant for professionalism, especially with regard for never missing performances. When the show began previews at the Neil Simon Theatre, Fierstein saw to it that the entire Hairspray company of more than thirty actors had their head shots put up on a wall backstage. He announced that if anyone missed a show, their picture would come down. Fierstein never missed one, so his head shot remained up until he left the show. At the time of his exit… there was only one other cast member whose photo still adorned the wall.

Remember that the next time you go to the theatre and a tiny white slip of paper falls out of the Playbill informing that “At this performance the role of _______ will be played by _______ .”

Brava, Harvey. And bravo Hairspray.

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