“Hairspray,” like no other story, has lent itself successfully to all of these media reincarnations. The original movie is a testament to Waters’ unique filmmaking vision. Starring the late, great drag performer Divine as Edna Turnblad, Waters created a unique world where misfits outdid the popular kids and all things new-fashioned were roundly celebrated.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century, a time when nearly all Hollywood movies were potential for a musical theater retellings, each enjoying varying degrees of success.
“Hairspray, the Musical” got it right. With the casting of Harvey Fierstein in Divine’s role of Edna, Broadway embraced the conceit of a man portraying a reclusive mother, with no necessity to hide Fierstein’s signature, and decidedly male, vocal gravel. Fierstein became a Divine for Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Actor. Maintaining enough of Waters’ irascible humor and open-minded worldview, the musical added what Broadway musicals do best: optimism and hopefulness.
The musical’s closing number is an impossible-to-resist clarion call for the progressive thinking and forward momentum Waters espoused in more sardonic ways: “Yesterday is history, and we’re never going back,” because “you can’t stop the beat.”
This past fall, my Temple University theater students threw their hearts and souls into the positive themes of the perky Broadway version of the “Hairspray” story, dumbfounded by how much the piece’s lessons about racial inclusion and gender liberality were still necessary today.
The 2007 movie musical “Hairspray” also became a success in which to revel. Former teen heartthrob John Travolta starred alongside contemporary teen heartthrob Zac Efron in an adaptation that maintained all the shiny Broadway hopefulness, but also gave us a delectable Waters-faithful villain in Michelle Pfeiffer, and a quirky Waters-like Wilbur in Christopher Walken. Edna Turnblad, originated on film and stage by giant personas Divine and Fierstein, was rendered in the movie musical by a delightfully sensitive and shy John Travolta.
It is exciting to imagine what the upcoming live television version will bring us. We will see Harvey Fierstein reprise his role, camping it up alongside comedic legend Martin Short, as well as iconic LGBT heroes Sean Hayes and Rosie O’Donnell. In a Waters-inspired turn, Jennifer Hudson, who played Effie in “Dreamgirls,“ will grace the small screen boasting her signature powerhouse vocals. Some newer teen heartthrobs are in the mix as well, with Broadway diva Kristin Chenoweth leading the way. Maddie Baillio, a previously unknown face, will make her debut as the story’s heroine Tracy Turnblad, following in the footsteps of Ricki Lake, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Nikki Blonsky. My students and I look forward to tuning in for another Broadway event live in our homes, a trend that’s “beat” we hope won’t stop anytime soon.
Peter Reynolds is the Artistic Director at Mauckingbird Theatre Company.