Hairspray’s genesis begins in 1988, when openly gay underground filmmaker John Waters released the original movie. Like his prior films, including Pink Flamingos and Polyester, Hairspray, (by far his most mainstream film at the time), quickly became another comedy cult classic.
The film starred newcomer Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad and the legendary drag performer Divine (aka Glen Milstead) as her loving mother, Edna. This was a story that only John Waters could have told (and cast) in his own inimitable way.
Hairspray tells the tale of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager with all the right moves, who is obsessed with the Corny Collins Show. After one of the stars of the show leaves, Corny Collins holds auditions to see who will be the next person on the show. Against all odds, Tracy makes it on the show, angering the evil dance queen Amber Von Tussle and her mother Velma. She then decides that it’s not fair that the black kids can only dance on the Corny Collins Show once a month, and with the help of her friends she decides to integrate the programme…. without denting her ‘do!
“I wrote it on my bed in my kind of slummy apartment in Baltimore,” says Waters. “I lived a lot of this movie growing up in Baltimore in the early ‘60s. I used to watch the local TV teen dance show, The Buddy Dean Show. I, like all the other white kids, was listening to the black music back then. We had three black radio stations.”
“To me, Tracy, the fat girl, basically represented every outsider, and her dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show represented the dreams of anyone facing discrimination of any kind,” says Waters.
In 2002, Hairspray: The Musical, the smash hit Broadway adaptation of Waters’ film debuted. The show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical. It continues to attract audiences to Broadway and to productions all over the world (including an up-coming local version).
Now, in 2007, the third generation of John Waters’ story has been created. Neither a remake of the 1988 film nor a filmed version of the 2002 stage musical, the film is a “re-invention” based on the hit Broadway show. It is produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, veterans of the musical genre, having executive produced Chicago.
“All three incarnations of Hairspray have the same DNA, the same bloodline,” says Meron. “This film utilises the building blocks of the original movie and combines it with the energy and fun of the Broadway musical to create a singularly different translation of the story.”
A new twist on tradition…
This new version of Hairspray continues at least two traditions: the role of Tracy Turnblad has always been played by an unknown talent; and the role of Edna Turnblad has always been played by a male actor. First it was Ricki Lake and Divine, then Marissa Winokur and Harvey Fierstein and now, Nikki Blonsky is Tracy and John Travolta is Edna.
“Come to Mama.” With arms wide open, those were the first words actor John Travolta said to his latest leading lady, Nikki Blonsky, upon meeting her for the first time back in August 2006.
“Their connection was immediate,” recalls Meron. “That first meeting exemplifies the relationship they had from the get-go. It was a bit overwhelming because it was like these two people were destined to be together in some way.”
The chemistry between Travolta and Blonsky may have been instantaneous, but the casting of Edna was not accomplished quite as quickly. In fact, it took about a year for producers Zadan and Meron to convince Travolta to star in the film.
“John… was reticent for a long time because he was concerned about a return to the genre that made him a star,” says Meron. Zadan adds, “Understandably, John was hesitant for many reasons, but we kept telling him that this was his role, that it would be unlike any role he has ever done in his career.”
“For quite a while, though, it was hard for me to grasp the concept of being a leading man for 30 years, and now I am being sought out to play a fat woman from Baltimore. But after many, many months of indecision, they successfully convinced me to shake my booty again, but this time as Edna,” says Travolta.
Travolta has come under fire from some quarters because he is the first straight man to play the role (which has become something of a gay icon), as well as for the fact that he belongs to the Church of Scientology. Critics have said that the controversial church is deeply homophobic, something the actor, who has long been at the centre of gay rumours himself, has denied, stating that, “Scientology is not homophobic in any way. In fact it’s one of the more tolerant faiths. Anyone’s accepted.”
Shankman, also reacted angrily to the claims: “Everybody involved in Hairspray – all the creators are gay. So John has no problem with people being gay – me, the writers, composer, John Waters – all gay. John’s personal beliefs never walked onto my set. I never heard the word Scientology,” he said.
For the characters of music-loving mom Motormouth Maybelle and the scheming Velma Von Tussle, the filmmakers went straight to their first choices, Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both actors are big stars, beautiful women and, thanks to some hair-raising wigs, blonde.
“Being blonde brought out a whole other side of me,” says Latifah, smiling. “It was a side I didn’t even know I had. I felt like a superhero with all that hair. I felt powerful.”
Television station manager and not-so-merry widow Velma Von Tussle is played by Michelle Pfeiffer.
“I think calling her the villain would be a very fair assessment, if not a glaring understatement,” says Pfeiffer, laughing. “I didn’t really know how to approach such a hateful character…whenever I would get too ‘actor-y’ and question ‘my motivation,’ Adam would just say ‘Honey! It’s Vaudeville!’ That would always put me back in the place I needed to be to be Velma.”
Another casting coup was the addition of Christopher Walken, and hunky actor James Marsden, who portrayed Cyclops in the three blockbuster X-Men films to the cast. Marsden makes his feature film musical debut as Corny Collins, the host of Baltimore’s American Bandstand-style show.
Shankman agrees that if there is one musical number in Hairspray that characterizes the collective experience of everyone involved, it would have to be the film’s finale, You Can’t Stop the Beat.
“Yes, I’d say that You Can’t Stop the Beat is probably my favorite number in the movie,” says Shankman. “As much I love the beginning of the movie with Tracy riding in on the garbage truck singing Good Morning Baltimore,” says Shankman, “I absolutely adore the finale for its truth and humor. It is really a celebration of the power of one teenager’s dreams. And who doesn’t love a happy ending?”
Hairspray opens in cinemas across South Africa on August 17.