The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, July 30, 2017


July 13, 2007,  New Line  116 minutes
I've already confessed that my favorite year is 1962, tho my unreliable memory of that time is undoubtedly buttressed by the record of movies, recordings, photos and historical arcana available ever since. Perhaps everything looked so golden, so stylish & modern to me then because it was the year I became "woke"--viscerally aware of the world outside my hermetically sealed home. I was, after all, nine. It was time to get acculturated (much of this was covered in my entry on The Music Man.) So, naturally, any musical set in 1962 automatically cues my primal pleasure zone. Hairspray was a particular balm--forty years after the fact, and less than a year after the national psychic wound that was 9/11. On top of my own challenging traumas, there was no better time for Hairspray to arrive. I had, of course, seen John Waters 1988 pic--several times--and the musical opportunities were obvious and many. And best of all, what could have easily been another jukebox tuner, was given a fresh, original score that recalled nothing less than the joyous bounce of Bye Bye Birdie. Who'd have thought it? Some might put Grease in the same category--but that show dispensed with adults for the most part and propped up a razor thin narrative with very simple, one-note declarative songs. 

One of the few truly radical cineastes of the '70s, was Baltimore's own John Waters, who saw his brand of comic outrage rise from the extreme edges of the indie market to cult appreciation to the Hlwd--or, "Off-Hlwd"--mainstream. Much of this was in tandem with, and thanks to, his muse: Divine--a 300 pound drag queen who expanded this ghetto genre into uncharted territory (both funny & grotesque). Having achieved their goals of making the trashiest, most offensive films possible, there was only one way to go: up. While Divine ran off to make disco records and star in legit Off-Bway (including plays by Dreamgirls author, Tom Eyen: Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman) he periodically returned whenever Waters had a new film financed. After the almost-but-not-quite-respectable Polyester (which was halfway to a Doris Day comedy, but did offer Scratch 'n' Sniff cards for its gimmick: Odorama) Hairspray was a jump into the American mainstream, albeit with some of Waters' trademark subversive touches intact. Yet still fit for the whole family!

John Waters' characters have long been off-the-chart outliers, whether psychotic killers, sexual maniacs or simply hopeless welfare trash. But Edna Turnblad was devoid of any such excess, nor had an ounce of glitter or glamour--this was the Real Housewives of Baltimore: fat, frumpy and agoraphobic. It was the performance of Divine's career--and sadly, too, his last film. And tho not quite the main role (he wished to play Tracy as well, and was initially going to) he made enuf of a meal of it, that a musical adaptation wouldn't even think of Edna as anything but a male drag role. And who better for Bway than Harvey Fierstein? Of equal stature, both physically and professionally, Fierstein's rep was made on Bway in his own material, Torch Song Trilogy (playing a drag queen--tho mostly out of drag).  He  followed that up with the book for Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles; softening its edges for a hetero mainstream Bway audience  (which  to  some was a sellout.) And tho he turned into a semi-regular musical librettist (Legs Diamond, A Catered Affair, Newsies, Kinky Boots) he was only a performer in Hairspray--whose book was by the even more prolific scribe, Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Elf, Young Frankenstein, Bombay Dreams, Chaplin, Rocky). Divine was shamelessly obese, but beginning with Fierstein, Ednas have mostly been enlarged with padding. But the show's nucleus and true star is Tracy Turnblad, the teenage "hair-hopper," whose enthusiasm is matched by her weight. Unlike Edna, whose costume is part fat suit, Tracy requires the real thing: a genuine fat girl. Ricki Lake began her career in Waters' original (later slimming down to widen her options). Marissa Jaret Winokur was a Bway find--a graceful-moving plus-size youth, with a Lesley Gore-ish voice. She won the Tony (as did Fierstein--as male lead in a musical) but hasn't parlayed her success into other Bway roles, unlike Kerry Butler who made Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton a springboard to musical stardom: following up with leading roles in Xanadu, Rock of Ages, Catch Me if You Can and as Audrey in the first Bway mounting of Little Shop of Horrors. Matthew Morrison set the pattern for dreamboat Link Larkins; and took his rank among Bway's leading men with A Light in the Piazza, South Pacific and Finding Neverland, building on his wider audience as the star teacher on Fox TV's Glee. Laura Bell Bundy was Amber Von Tussle soon to go Legally Blonde. As her mother, Velma, Linda Hart (one of Bette Midler's former Harlettes) made a meal of her "Miss Baltimore Crabs" mambo. And Jackie Hoffman began her reign as our latter day Alice Pearce with several bits here before heading off to Xanadu and then as Grandmama in The Addams Family tuner. It was a veritable New Faces of 2002. The century was still fresh and things were looking up on The Great White Way.

With a Bway run just short of My Fair Lady's, I finally caught up to it in NY in June 2008, tho I'd seen a road company in San Francisco in 2004. The show was irresistible on stage, from its brisk staging to its bright pop colors and wall of lights--again recalling the smooth professionalism of Gower Champion's Bye Bye Birdie. But Birdie was tinkered with and flattened by Hlwd, and chances were much the same could happen to Hairspray. Happily, the translation had fallen into the right hands: producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron whose Chicago revived the Hlwd musical as Oscar bait and box office performer, and who were the closest thing the aughts had to an Arthur Freed. (Tho more often than not they brought tuners to TV: Bette Midler's Gypsy, Cinderella, Annie, The Music Man). Rather than going to a major studio, they set the movie up at New Line--which also produced Waters' original. For director they chose Adam Shankman, a former dancer turned Hlwd choreographer who'd graduated to helming mid-level studio comedies.

As with Chicago, their casting was starry and mostly solid. The single carryover was Queen Latifah, a natural for Motormouth Maybelle. Michelle Pfeiffer, edging into middle-age, was a smart, if over-qualified pick for Velma von Tussle. Similarly, Christopher Walken seems like an egregious upgrade for Wilbur, Tracy's dad. Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow were teen stars who brought their TVQ to the table, and Zac Efron kept the objectified hunk component to Link Larkin intact. No less dazzling is James Marsden (he of the greatest smile in the universe) as show host, Corny Collins. And Alison Janney (who seems to never not be working) was given Penny's mother, to chew whatever corner of the scenery she could find. Fresh faces were found for Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), but the linchpin for publicity was the now-established drag role of Edna. Fierstein wasn't known outside NY, besides which his voice strains the ear. No, here was the choice hook: an unexpected Hlwd star. So why not John Travolta? Adept at comedy as well as musicals, here was a meal to make into a banquet. You can tell he's having the time of his life letting loose--but is he any good? It's a strange performance, padded in 
affectations as well as stuffing; his face so swollen as to render eyes too close together for comfort. And tho it shouldn't be, the best moments are when the iconic Travolta peeks thru the layers: a yodel riff in "Welcome to the 60s"; a move out of Pulp Fiction; a quick pose from Saturday Night Fever. But that's all a wink to the audience; he doesn't embody a character, he's playacting in a fat suit. You never for a moment forget Edna is Travolta, where even an undisguised Michelle Pfeiffer makes you believe she was Miss Baltimore Crabs, for at least the length of a number.

The elephant in the room--if you'll excuse the expression--is the show's take on obesity; a laudable defiance against shame and prejudice toward the overweight while simultaneously playing it for laughs. "I'm black & I'm proud" was a period mantra, but Motormouth Maybelle, amends that to "Big (read, fat), Blonde (but black) and Beautiful" (proud)--a blatant endorsement of caloric indulgence:

           Bring on that pecan pie
           Pour some sugar on it, Sugar,
            Don't be shy
            Scoop me up a mess
            Of that chocolate swirl
            Don't be stingy
            I'm a growing girl

Alas, obesity is a serious health issue, and while it's fine to extoll the equality of "all shapes and sizes," defending gluttony while making fun of it is a screwy message. Fat may be beautiful, but those whose initial fame came in part from their size, such as Ricki Lake, and the Jennifers, Holliday and Hudson, later slimmed down, transforming their images entirely. Divine did not, and died at 42 from an enlarged heart. Watching a person of heft move with ease & grace is unexpectedly eye-catching. (I might have first   noticed   this   with   either   Jackie  Gleason  or  The 
Borden Twins who tickled the nation as Teensy & Weensy on I Love Lucy since 1955--with whom I was so enraptured, I even painted them in oils many years ago.) Likewise, Tracy is a stand out on the dance floor. The girl can move--the part requires it. And whether Lake, Winokur or Nikki Blonsky, there's no denying a fleshy girl her natural due. Divine didn't dance, but Edna didn't either. That is until the pic, which of course capitalizes on Big John's moves. But there's no authenticity in Edna's "body"--it's transparently Travolta sashaying under all that stuffing. Good for a gag on Saturday Night Live, perhaps, but giving credence to Ethan Mordden's dismissal of the musical as clever, stupid junk--a latter-day "George Abbott show" (i.e. Pajama Game) but without a quality score. I certainly don't agree (about the score, at least); as part of the first wave of Musical Comedy resurgence in the 2000's, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman's score delivers just what's needed--and more so than Brooks' The Producers, makes for a sonic house party.

So, Travolta isn't quite right yet he's still eminently watchable. But if not him, who? Maybe Richard Gere--or is he too contained? Johnny Depp--too surrealistic; Alec Baldwin? John Lithgow? Not so obvious a choice, is it? Christopher Walken was an unusual pick for Wilbur, but he brings a welcome goofiness to the role contrary to his trademark intensity. Queen Latifah could play Maybelle in her sleep, and she's always fine company but that's nothing new here. It's Michelle Pfeiffer who adds the most to what's primarily a cardboard villain, making her spotlight number, "Miss Baltimore Crabs" better than anyone could expect  (with some flashback scenes to her teenage glory).   She looks magnifi-
cent in the era's styles; her hair a series of wind-blown sculptures; her clothes suitable for Jackie Kennedy. As her daughter, Amber, Brittany Snow hasn't the skill to add any shades to her nonstop petulance. That's in stark contrast to Amanda Bynes' Penny, whose expressions go a long way to filling in a character. Tho she's mostly sidelined, her subtle, but committed underplaying rewards those who pay attention. As her fanatical mother, Prudy, Allison Janney throws herself into John Waters mode and crazily overacts--if appropriately so. As does Jerry Stiller as a truly creepy Mr. Pinky (of Pinky's Hefty Hideway--plus-size fashion shop.) Zac Efron was still sporting baby fat in his dreamy face, yet his future hunk-status was obvious. But I've nothing much to say of Nikki Blonsky's Tracy; she gets the requisite points across, sings well, dances okay, but doesn't shine like the star she's meant to be. On the  other  hand,  Elijah Kelley's Seaweed
(great name, that), exhibits enuf resemblance and charisma to demand the lead in any future Sammy Davis Jr. bio. And most prominent among the chorus boys--er, teenage students--is Curtis Holbrook as Brad, who'd already joined the ranks of Buzz Miller, John Mineo, Scott Wise, Robert Wersinger, Sean Hingston and Jay Armstrong Johnson as my fantasy ensemble. Between James Marsden's smile, Michelle Pfeiffer's coif & couture, and Zac Efron's permanent curl, the film twinkles with plenty of eye candy.

The movie avoids the clever "overhead" shot that Jack O'Brien's stage scene opened on, looking down on Baltimore instead of Tracy, before reaching her bedroom. The infectious beat of "Good Morning, Baltimore" carries on thru Tracy's route from bed to school; hitching a ride on--not in the cab of--a garbage truck; a nod to the story's trashy badge of honor. (John Waters makes a quick cameo as the flasher.) Brief moments in class show Tracy's impatience until 4 o'clock and the Corny Collins Show   broadcast --and   with   James   Marsden   flashing 
those pearly whites and a room full of sharply dressed 1962 teens (boys in jackets & skinny ties; the girl's dresses twirling like toy tops) jumpin' & jivin'--I have no trouble believing Tracy & Penny's keen interest, for I could easily share it. Shankman wisely retains a good many scenes from the dance show--which paired with Shaiman's tunes, makes for some joyful noise. The movie dispenses with "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," altho split-screen film is well suited for the song's tryptich approach. "I Can Hear the Bells" benefits from roaming in numerous locations as a visualized fantasy. "Welcome to the 60s" builds into a giddy production number, complete with animated billboards and a fireworks climax, but might as well be another fantasy. "Run and Tell That" remains earthbound, but it meets its title and then some. I'm afraid I find "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" a chore to listen to, tho Queen Latifah does all she can with the barrelhouse tune, which begs the question of who she's enabling. The song makes a curious reprise for Velma in attempting to seduce Wilbur. Easy-listening is the best description of "You're Timeless to Me," an "adult" number that's intentionally meant to evoke the great songwriting era before rock; but the song is sadly pedestrian with lame jokey lyrics: "You're like a stinky old cheese, babe--" to which Edna recoils: what? "--Just getting riper with age." And so on. But "Without Love" is a real knockout, a rousing quartet that builds and builds to a sensational climax that takes a sudden left turn in the final bars and ends in a gasp! The musical's eleven o'clock number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," is a song I'm taxed to find a comparison to. It's a shameless feel-good finale that brings all the characters (even the evil Von Tussels--well, at least on stage) to their helpless feet for a blissful--integrated!--climax; and on and on it goes, spreading cheer and happy endings for all. Welcome to the '60s. Then credits roll with a new Shaiman/Wittman tune, "Come So Far/Got So Far to Go" that prolongs the house party atmosphere. The final track is "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" split among the three Tracys: Lake, Winokur & Blonsky as an aural easter egg. Virtually a whole score of tunes that can easily get lodged in your head.

The screenplay was consigned to Leslie Dixon a mid-level Hlwd writer who, 20 years earlier made big on a spec script that became a hit for Bette Midler (Outrageous Fortune) which led to other assignments, such as Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, That Old Felling and Pay It Forward. Dixon retained most of Hairspray's original jokes (Edna's "occidental laundry")  and dialogue ("....a whole lot of ugly coming at you from a neverending parade of stupid") adding a few visual gags as signifiers of our evolution (kids riding seat-belt-less in cars; the teacher's lounge engulfed in cigarette smoke; pregnant women sipping martinis--not to mention ubiquitous use of cancerous aerosol--the show's very title). Dixon also simplified an already slender second half, dumping "The Big Dollhouse" and any incarceration scenes (having Tracy locked up instead in Prudy's bomb-shelter--which has, incongruously, a window! Just one of several gaping lapses of logic. To wit: why would Prudy have the TV on at all, let alone tuned to Corny Collins "race music," long enuf to see her daughter, dancing with a Negro? Would yesterday's agoraphobe, Edna, really wear a short,  red  beaded  dress  and  jump  into a  teenage  dance  show as  
if she were Ann-Margret? Why does the protest march start in the morning and two verses later find itself a candlelight vigil in the darkest hour of night? These and other questionable choices (in design, editing and camerawork) first gave me pause after the precision and brilliance of Dreamgirls; but in the end--after several more viewings--it doesn't seem to matter as much with this material. It joyfully entertains in a primal way. And carping about details seems awfully petty.

Shankman's Hairspray looks even better in comparison to the 2016 live TV presentation. Harvey Fierstein was lured back to leave a record of his Edna, but 14 years on makes him closer to Tracy's grandmother; and his performance looked rather rusty. Jennifer Hudson was tapped for Maybelle, but what was the point now that she's as slim as a model? Kristen Chenoweth was an obvious Velma von Tussel but brought no subtlety to her villainy. Which put her more in line with the full-on cartoonish approach taken by Martin Short (as Wilbur), Andrea Martin (as Prudy) and Sean Hayes (as Mr. Pinky). But even here the show proves indestructible; a new century's Bye Bye Birdie. The movie nods to that '60s musical, having talent agents (Shaiman, Wittman, Shankman & Ricki Lake) at Corny Collins' Miss Hairspray show scouting for the 1963 Birdie pic. While his 1988 original was somewhat of a reach to a broader audience, surely John Waters never expected his baby--whose first title was White Lipstick--to evolve into a perennial crowd-pleaser, whether in amateur, regional or professional stagings. On top of that, Hairspray proved the most successful Bway musical on screen since Chicago, grossing upwards of $119,000,000, as counter-programming to the now-ubiquitos summer action or super-hero franchises. I saw it first on July 23rd--one of the last times I rushed to the cinema.

Filmed entertainment and public accessibility had changed so much by the mid-aughts that the traditional parameters were no longer valid. The internet was flooded with endless arcana such as the website Bluegobo, whose master had possession of rare video clips from Golden Age Bway musicals; many of them from Ed Sullivan shows, broadcast once and unseen for decades--a veritable treasure trove: Do Re Mi, Flower Drum Song, Henry Sweet Henry (Ed praising tiny Alice!) This was just the start of what would come to be a black market in Bway videos (legal and not). By 2005 my lifelong moviegoing habit had reached extinction. Flatscreen TVs with enormous monitors supplanted the need to venture out to increasingly costly cinemas, with evermore annoying audiences. Even the most prestigious and popular films were available for home viewing within months--altho those of interest to me seemed to be shrinking every year. At the same time, the proliferation of cable channels with their need for content made for a new, unheralded Golden Age of television. 2007 was filled with Big Love, Rome, Flight of the Concords, Little Britain, Pushing Daisies, Ugly Betty, The Office, among many others.

The same month Hairspray hit the screens, a failing cable network (AMC--American Movie Channel, which had decisively lost the battle for classic film prominence on cable to TCM) unveiled its initial original program, which being set in New York and starting in 1960 was of particular catnip to me. The creation of writer Matthew Weiner, Mad Men turned out better than I could imagine, becoming over 8 years and 92 episodes, what I truly consider The Great American Novel. Using an advertising agency as a mirror of midcentury culture, hypocrisy and morality, the show was painstakingly authentic in look, design, music, language and social conventions. And tho much of the latter were now painfully repressive and happily gone--the cultural explosion of the period has me forever pining for those carefree years of civil-rights riots and Cold War hysteria, so long as big-finned Cadillacs, girls in taffeta dresses, Roadshow Cinerama epics and Bway musicals are just the tip of a modern renaissance iceberg. Mad Men would traverse the entire decade--occasionally referencing various Bway hits. (But Weiner seemed to deliberately avoid mention of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, even tho--or perhaps because--Robert Morse was Mad Men's senior partner. What's wrong with a sly inside reference?) Mad Men wrapped after 7 flawless seasons leaving its characters on the doorstep of the '70s. But I knew by the second season, which was set--you knew it was coming--in 1962, that this was destined to be my all-time favorite television program. Hairspray doesn't qualify or aspire to such lofty status, but there's no denying its pleasures are rock solid and undiminished with age.

Next Up: Sweeney Todd

Report CardHairspray
Overall Film:  A-
Bway Fidelity:  B-
Songs from Bway:  13
Songs Cut from Bway:  3 
Worst Omission:  "The Big Dollhouse"
New Songs:  3
Standout Numbers: "I Can Hear the Bells"
               "Run and Tell That" "Without Love"
               "You Can't Stop the Beat"
Casting:  Starry, silly, stellar
Standout Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron
               James Marsden, Amanda Bynes
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Solid, competent, not overly clever
Choreography:  Super sock hop steps
Scenic Design:  Candy-colored, period pop
Costumes: Period adequate, lacking Wm Ivey  
     Long's (stage) humor and taste
Titles: Jetsons-age graphics over film bits--a 
     delight accompanied with new songs.
Oscar noms:  None

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