Friday, November 16, 2007


I hadn't started my blog when I saw the Broadway musical "Hairspray" on tour in May, or when the movie came out in July, and I'm not sure the Internet had even been invented yet when the original John Waters movie came out in 1988. So, with the DVD of the movie musical being released on Tuesday, it's a good time to catch up.

I watched the original movie again a few months ago, after seeing the musical for the first time. Let me just say that the story of plus-size Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad's attempt to integrate a television dance show is captivating in any form.

Nikki Blonsky, plucked from obscurity at a Long Island ice cream parlor, makes a plucky and sweet Tracy in the musical version. While I love Harvey Fierstein's gravelly-voiced Edna Turnblad on the Broadway cast CD, John Travolta does a good job in the movie, especially in his duet with husband Wilbur, played by Christopher Walken.

But while I enjoy all three versions, I'd have to say that the stage musical is my favorite. There's just nothing as thrilling as seeing the songs performed live. You simply don't get the same sense of energy, the same adrenaline rush, seeing it in a movie theater. Although the movie is still a lot of fun.

For me, "Hairspray" really brings home the optimism of the early 1960s, in the years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There was a sense that America was becoming a better place, a more inclusive place, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans. And the move toward greater freedom and equality was unstoppable.

"Hairspray" is all about the power of music to bring people together, to galvanize a movement, to change lives. Writing partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who have also been life partners for more than 25 years, have created some brilliant, catchy pop tunes.

Here's a good interview with Shaiman from last spring, when he received the ASCAP Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award in Film & Television Music. And here's a 2005 interview with Shaiman and Wittman in Washington, D.C.'s MetroWeekly, where they talk about how they became involved with "Hairspray."

Ok, I know I'm partial to pop-oriented Broadway scores, but I especially love the music from "Hairspray." I never get tired of listening to it. Perhaps the music, and the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, make "Hairspray" more mainstream, more saccharine sweet, but I think they also make it better.

Songs like "Good Morning Baltimore," "The Nicest Kids in Town," "You Can't Stop the Beat" and "Run and Tell That" perfectly capture the spirit of 1962. Plus, "I Know Where I've Been" is such a great civil-rights anthem, it sounds like it could have been written in the '60s. After hearing and seeing it performed on stage, I wanted to jump up and give the song a standing ovation. (And Queen Latifah performs it beautifully in the movie).

Another thing I like about the musical is that it has great roles for white and black actors. It would have been too easy, and wrong, to make "Hairspray" a civil right story told solely from the perspective of a white teenage girl. But "Hairspray" truly is an integrated musical, in its characters, its storyline and its songs.

Shaiman told MetroWeekly that the creators of "Hairspray" were preparing to license it for high school and middle school productions. There was concern, Shaiman said, that some schools might not have enough black students to put on "Hairspray." They've been asked if "we wanted to think of how to rework the show so that it's not about the black civil rights movement but [something else]. But no, it is what it is. John wanted to make a musical comedy about racism, so it's important."

The two-disc version of the DVD, which of course I plan on getting, sounds like it has some great extras. There are two documentaries, one on the making of the movie and a second tracing the evolution of the original film and the Broadway stage show. There are also two commentaries, one with producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and a second with director Adam Shankman and Blonsky, as well as deleted scenes and a feature on the music of "Hairspray."

The message of "Hairspray," about standing up for what you believe in, about believing in yourself, seems to have staying power. In movie theaters, "Hairspray" made nearly $200 million worldwide. When a strike hasn't shut it down, the show plays to near-capacity audiences at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. It continues to tour across the United States. Stage versions are also being enthusiastically received in London and South Africa.

I'm just glad that the story is finding such a wide and enthusiastic audience, no matter what form it takes. It's been 45 years since the events depicted in "Hairspray," and while much has changed for the better in America, it's still worth a trip back in time to see how far we've come and what it took to get there.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Hairspray. I saw the movie earlier this year and loved it. There was so much energy. It's the only movie I've seen in six months, and it was a good choice. Sometime, I hope to see the stage version.

Esther said...

Thanks anonymous!You're certainly right about the energy in the movie, and you feel it even more on stage!

I checked, and the show is playing across the United States through the middle of May, so maybe it'll make stop near you.