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Hairspray

[The following feature and sidebar was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric, under the title, "Hairspray: A Comedy for Undertain Times."]

It was 1962, an uncertain time somewhere in-between the assuredness of the '50's and the polarization of the late '60's: Big cars were still prevalent, but compacts were making their mark; the charismatic Camelot of JFK and Jackie was in full swing, while the United States and the Soviet Union went to the brink over the Cuban missile crisis; and despite the integration of the Armed Services during WWII and the desegregation of public schools ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954, Federal marshals were required for James Meredith, an African-American Air Force veteran, to enter the University of Mississippi.

Photo of Carly Jibson and Austin Miller
Carly Jibson and Austin Miller.
Photo: Paul Kolnik
As always, it was music that was the saving grace for those coming of age at the time; but this was not the well-tempered music of their parents-the jazzy Broadway crossovers of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald-it was rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. The backbeat was tribal and the moves were more frenetic. It seemed with every new 45-rpm single, up popped a new dance craze.

The Twist, popularized by Chubby Checker, was the rage, and big hair still held sway. The post-war baby boomers were growing up and starting to see themselves as a connected generation via TV, on such shows as The Mickey Mouse Club and American Bandstand. They were ready to act in unison.

A quarter of a century later, John Waters, a quirky filmmaker from Baltimore, decided to capture the heady issues and revolutionary shift in music and mass media in a quirky movie, a musical comedy based on events in his hometown. Comedy has a wonderful way of helping us face difficult situations and musical comedy takes this a step further, with catchy songs and dances that carry us along the journey. There's no finer example of this than Waters' Hairspray (1988), now a cult classic.

Waters' unique style and his sometimes dark, off-beat troupe blended together in a farcical montage that leveraged the catchy pop tunes of the day into a remarkably optimistic approach to the challenges we faced as a society and as a nation. Every era has its mythology, though it isn't always recognized as such at the time, but at a distance of 23 years from the original movie, Hairspray turns out to be a bona fide metaphor for the idealism of the times-and, moreover, for our own time.

The stage play, by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, has been lightened up-the movie was the first of Waters' films for which he received a PG rating-no surprise given the wider target audience; but Hairspray has undergone other significant changes in the process of its adaptation from cinema to stage, not the least of which is that the entire score is original. The music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman sound and feel like the pop hits from Waters' film, and hold their own as infectious dance numbers, but speak to the dramatic stage moments in a way that the Billboard chartbusters rarely do.

Another major difference in the musical is the energy emanating from the large cast-an astounding 34 members, the second largest in Arvada Center's history, after A Christmas Carol, according to producing artistic director Rod Lansberry.

The auditioning process was full of fun surprises, says Lansberry. "With our Equity contract, we have to audition in either New York or LA, as well as our own city, for every chorus musical that we do. We always audition Denver first, and if we're not able to find what we're looking for, that's where New York comes in. On top of that, once every three years, I have to do LA as well, and I thought this was a good show to do that. In three and a half weeks there, we auditioned over 700 people. We had some of the strangest people come in, including Jerry Mathers (Leave it to Beaver), Barry Williams (The Brady Bunch), Gennifer Flowers (the one-time Bill Clinton paramour), and Jim J. Bullock (Too Close for Comfort, Hollywood Squares)," who Lansberry cast as Edna.

None of this star power came into play in Lansberry's casting decisions. "In the Denver market, star names are really not a selling point, so I was looking at Jim as just another auditioner. He had done the role of Wilbur, Edna's husband, on Broadway-he was one of the replacements-but he never played Edna," the cross-dressing role made famous by Divine (in Waters' film), Harvey Fierstein (on Broadway), and John Travolta (in the 2007 film based on the stage version).

"Jim was so easy to work with, with his comic background; he was so quick and immediately picked up on nuances in the character. He would go right there with anything I asked him, which is especially important to me when I'm going into a production that is this character-driven."

In addition to Bullock, Lansberry's cast is a blend of veterans and newbies.

"It's a unique cast. In the kids section, they are age appropriate-in the 18 to 21 range. And then I've got some of our regulars as well as New York cast coming in, which I think will bring a very fresh approach to the show."

Landsberry sensed that creating wardrobes for Tracy and Edna, as well as for the rest of the distinctive characters, was the perfect opportunity for Arvada Center costume shop veteran Mondo Guerra to design his first show.

"There were certain things in the (Waters) film that I wanted to play with in the musical version that weren't necessarily there, just subtle things that I find so unique in Waters' style that I wanted to incorporate into our production. The costumes in both the original film and the musical are so unique and I thought Mondo is perfect for that. He'll bring a completely fresh, non-Broadway look to the show." (See sidebar for a close-up of Mondo.)

Costumes aside, the notion of "the right look" in Hairspray extends to shape and weight as well, and carries with it prejudices that advertisers played no small part in perpetuating. Tracy and Edna not only challenge these commonly accepted norms, but, in the story's upbeat through line, make "pleasantly plump" a commercially viable alternative.

This is all great fun, but not fluff. The story is based on actual events. The Corny Collins Show that Tracy and her friends watch religiously for the newest dance moves and role models was based on the Buddy Deane Show from Baltimore, which competed with Dick Clark's American Bandstand in Philadelphia, but was not integrated with black and white teenagers, as Clark's show was, and eventually went off the air rather than integrate.

As we are reminded, the process of social progress is often trying, whether it involves integration, immigration, or legal and medical protections for same-sex partners, but a little humor goes a long way. Tracy and her friends and supporters aren't forcing us to change-they're making change fun. Enjoy!

Bob Bows

 

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