HAIRSPRAY Through Three Incarnations

John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer 
at the New York premiere of 'Hairspray' 
Credit: New York Daily News/WENN/NewsCom

By: Nicole M. Lemery

Who would think that HAIRSPRAY, John Waters’ film comedy about racism, would have such staying power, such a continuing effect on audiences? It tells the story of a teenage girl integrating her local TV dance show in the 1960s. It’s about old family traditions coming up against new ideas and new expectations. It’s about all the angst that goes along with being a teenager. It’s about being yourself and being proud of who you are. It is told through the eyes of dance-crazed teenagers, who are equally interested in racial justice and first kisses. A child of the ‘60s, Waters based his original 1988 movie HAIRSPRAY (starring unknown actress Rikki Lake and massive transvestite Divine) on first-hand recollections The 2002 Broadway musical (starring Harvey Fierstein), and the 2007 movie version of that musical (top-lined by John Travolta) have filled their stories with fun homages to the kitschiness of the ‘60s. HAIRSPRAY seeks to deliver an honest message and important lessons through improbable situations, comic casting and joyous song and dance.

The basic story of both films and the stage musical goes something like this: In 1962 Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad wins a spot on the Corny Collins Show, despite her size and the scheming of Amber Von Tussle, the show’s most popular dancer. Placed into Special Ed class, Tracy befriends several of the Negro students, including Seaweed, who teaches her the latest dances. His mother, Motormouth Maybelle, hosts “Negro Day” on the Corny Collins show, and she is hopeful that it will one day welcome both black and white dancers. Tracy attempts to bring Maybelle’s daughter to the show’s “Preteen Day,” but Little Inez is turned away. A minor riot ensues, and the black residents of Baltimore decide to protest at the show’s live filming at Tilted Acres, a theme park owned by Amber’s dad. When the demonstration gets out of hand, the protesters manage to get on camera, but a riot ensues, and ultimately Tracy is arrested. She is in jail the next day when the show declares Amber Miss AutoShow 1962, an honor that should have gone to Tracy. Tracy manages to break out and integrate the show, despite the racist station manager’s best efforts.

There are subplots galore, such as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton’s futile attempts to break away from her domineering Catholic mother, eventually leading to her relationship with Seaweed. Tracy attempts to bring her mother, Edna Turnblad, into the ’60s by changing her attitudes about dancing--along with her hairdo. Then there’s Tracy’s theft of Amber’s perfect boyfriend, Link. 

Tracy never stands up and says “Today I am a protestor”; she is always a teenager, hair-hopper, girlfriend, daughter, student, best-friend and TV celebrity, all at the same time. But it is precisely this seamless transition from one plot to another that makes the message so subtle and the movie so much fun to watch.

Waters has explained that his original non-musical movie HAIRSPRAY was created as an homage to the ‘60s he remembers, not the prettied-up period presented in movies like GREASE. The Baltimore of his memory may have been filled with perfectly-coiffed women, but it also had big problems, the largest of which was widespread racism and discrimination. 

Edna comments nervously about this when she is dragged in front of the TV: “Oh, are there more problems with the Negroes?” This line was changed to “I don’t really believe they’re up there,” (referring to the moon landing) in the new musical movie version. 

That John Waters treats segregation and racism as facts of everyday life may make some uncomfortable, but it also rings true. The time is right before the civil rights movement began to hit the headlines, and everyone in the film knows what’s going on, even if they aren’t saying it out loud. After hearing that she is to be moved to Special Ed, Tracy exclaims “Special Ed! That’s for retards--and the black kids you try and hold back!” 

The movie deals with the precise moment in any movement when participants decide that talking is not enough and that now is the time to act. There is an undercurrent of violence in this film, which mirrors actual history. At the movie’s penultimate protest, counter-protesters display mock nooses and a Confederate flag, a grim reminder of the ugliness of historical segregation. Most of the movie’s images are light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek, but the attitudes portrayed are authentic to the period.

After viewing the original movie version of HAIRSPRAY, I was struck by how preoccupied the film was with general teen angst and problems. The teens of this film are just as catty, cliquey, and backstabbing as those I remember from my high school years. There is no soft Hollywood lighting and no carefully choreographed Broadway love scenes; the furtive back-alley kissings are just as awkward as those you remember. 

Tracy Turnblad may be an open-minded optimist, but she’s not above openly disliking Amber, declaring her a “tramp” in the first scene. Amber gives it right back to her, labeling Tracy a “slut” after Tracy wins a spot on the show. Interestingly, both girls then proceed to make out with their respective dance partners. 

John Waters has managed to capture perfectly the major preoccupations of teenagers. The sense of what is “wrong” and what is “right” is so clear to Tracy (who is so often “wronged”) that she never stops to question if she is indeed pursing the correct path to a larger goal, or if integration is worth the trouble she gets her friends and parents into. At one point, Edna shouts out “You can’t change the entire world in one day!”--but this admonition seems moot. Tracy doesn’t want to change the world; she just wants to dance with her friends, who happen to be black. If that means tearing down the walls of segregation, so be it—come on everybody, let’s dance! But she remains a teenager throughout, with no thoughts beyond the next dance, the next test or the next kiss from her boyfriend.

Tracy may be the symbol of the segregation movement in Baltimore, but Penny sees the situation more clearly. Penny is ruled by her strict mother, who chases her down time and time again before locking her up in her bedroom. But it is she who begins the chant “Integration now! Segregation never!” when the television station refuses entrance to Seaweed and Little Inez. Penny may appear to be a shy little girl, but it is apparent that she understands the larger ramifications of her actions. Earlier, a black couple attempted to enter the record hop, but they allowed themselves to be turned away after meekly protesting: “We just want to dance!” Penny realizes that it’s going to take more than politely asking permission to get her boyfriend on the air. Luckily, Seaweed is also up for breaking the rules: in the middle of a petting session he tells Penny they are now outlaws from both sections of society (which causes Penny to encourage him to go to “second base”), and there is no turning back now.

This mingling of teenage drama and protest marches gives the movie its tension. The teenagers are firmly in the foreground. Their parents try to help, understand, scheme or sometimes just hold on for the ride, but in the end it’s the kids who are making history. They are certainly caricatures, but through the parental misunderstandings, the audience is given more insight into the world John Waters has created.

The musical version of HAIRSPRAY opened on Broadway in 2002, to general acclaim. At first I was very skeptical, since I’m normally not a fan of musicals based on movies. But in the case of HAIRSPRAY, the creative team chose to take the basic storyline of the movie—make it bigger, brasher and bolder—and in doing so take advantage of the theatrical setting to tell the story. The musical manages to be bigger than life, while still remaining honest In musical theatre, there is always the problem of making singing and dancing looking natural within the overall story. Some plays achieve this better than others, and HAIRSPRAY solves this problem by making the songs so improbably outgoing that we understand we’re witnessing bursting emotions that can no longer be contained by mere spoken words. Link brushes past Tracy at one point, causing her to break into “I Can Hear the Bells,” which has her fantasizing about walking down the aisle by the end of the song. I remember wanting to applaud longer at the end of each number so the cast would have more of a chance to catch their breaths!

One of the themes that was given more attention onstage was that of self-image and self-esteem. Tracy is a large teenager, but her size is not something that bothers her. When Amber and her crew attempt to deflate her ego by making fun of her weight, Tracy shrugs it off. It’s not that she’s not aware of her size, but it simply doesn’t matter to her. Link, on the other hand, is aghast that Amber could be so cruel, and it is her cattiness which makes him realize that Tracy’s sincerity is more desirable: “Tracy, I’m in love with you/No matter what you weigh!” Tracy’s self-esteem is a foil to that of her mother, a big woman who is embarrassed by her weight and continually dieting. It’s only when she hears Maybelle’s exhortation to be “Big, Blond and Beautiful” that Edna feels pride in who she is. Only this isn’t some heart-wrenching soliloquy on what makes a woman beautiful; it’s a saucy, gospel-esque song comparing being desirable to being cooked up and eaten by a “man who brings a man-sized appetite.” The puns and comparisons are hysterical, but the message is sincere: Accept yourself for who you are, because we’re all human and all beautiful. Not only does this theme go a long way to making the characters stronger, but it also reinforces the anti-racist elements. “Well, ladies, big is back/And as for black it’s beautiful!/All shapes and sizes follow me…” sings Mama Maybelle as they storm into the studio to protest the segregation of the Corny Collins Show.

This, of course, is one of the messages under the larger banner Tracy carries: Segregation is wrong because we are all human. And, in the ultimate spirit of musical theatre, the thing which will unite everyone is the ability to dance and sing together. Penny underlines it best when her reedy soprano suddenly becomes a rich contralto after declaring herself a “checkerboard chick!”

The summer of 2007 saw the release of a musical movie version of HAIRSPRAY. It is fun to watch, and director Adam Shankman made a lot of smart moves with some of the musical numbers. I have often wondered what musicals I would show my potential son or daughter; what comes between “Joseph” and “Cabaret?” And, as I have already forbidden them HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, I’m relieved that HAIRSPRAY will fit the bill nicely. It is light, funny, saucy in some parts, and serious in others--but never too heavy-handed.

Some of the choices were surprising. Much has been made of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, and I have no real problem with his performance, but I was surprised at how much screen time Edna’s story gets. Her problems and lack of self-esteem are constantly getting in the way of the teenage stories. Tracy is successful at convincing Edna to buy new clothes and get a new hairdo, but “Big, Blond and Beautiful” has been cut up so that it merely serves as an introduction to Mama Maybelle and a dance number. In the original musical, this song was the Act One closer, a big number that left the audience wanting more But Hollywood seems to have an inherent distrust of the intermission. I’m not saying we should all go out into the lobby for fifteen minutes, but an Act One closer is usually followed by an Act Two opener—an even larger number that gets everyone back into the spirit of things. One following the other would be hardly noticeable. 

But in HAIRSPRAY—“Big, Blond and Beautiful” is chopped up, and the Act Two opener never appears. Edna is not convinced by Maybelle; instead she is enticed into the movement by a plate of fried chicken: an image I found vaguely offensive. Edna is an adult who can listen and be swayed by the arguments presented; she is not a caricatured fat person who is unable to prevent herself from eating. I suspect Edna’s screen time may be largely due to the fact that Hollywood wanted to parade its star. It’s a shame that they felt this way, for all the attention given to him is diverted away from the main message and story.

Another choice I found interesting was the decision to make things look slightly more realistic, and yet at the same time slightly superficial. Shankman is using research, photographs and other materials to recreate the look of the ’60s, but he does not manage to accurately capture the moods and attitudes A peaceful protest march is violently broken up by police: an image that is disturbing, yet familiar to modern audiences. John Waters’ original film shows counter-protesters—average citizens—beating up on their fellow human beings: a sight common in the ’60s but still shocking to us today. 

The recent film probes deeper into the images and ideas of segregation, choosing to bring this theme to the forefront and slightly overlooking themes of friendship and teenage angst. It is hard for one movie to have such serious images mixed in with scenes of fun and frivolity, so that the film feels a little ungainly at times. Still, these images add depth to Tracy’s crusade, and they underline the idea that she is joining a much larger fight already in progress. Today the Corny Collins Show; tomorrow, the world.

Some reviewers have lingered lovingly over Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley, who play Tracy, Link and Seaweed, respectively. They are believable and truly carry this film. Zac Efron understands the fun and spirit that imbue this story. His character is full of preening tics and flirty winks that would look odd on anyone besides a teenage idol. I have to give director Adam Shankman credit as well for obviously making Link attracted to larger women. Now, not only does he have to overcome bratty Amber’s resistance to his burgeoning respect for Tracy’s ideals, but he also has to overcome society’s expectations that he fall in love with a stick insect! 

If you love musicals, and love watching people who are genuinely enjoying themselves making musicals, you are going to love this film.

Through the reinvention of HAIRSPRAY as stage musical and musical movie, its story has touched a whole new audience. Although the original film was seen as John Waters’ first foray into “mainstream” films, it continues to enjoy a certain cult popularity among his fans and B-movie lovers in general. HAIRSPRAY the musical was eventually nominated for eight Tony awards, winning three, including Best New Musical--spawning a nationwide tour, and playing in London and South America. The new film is already enjoying immense popularity, hitting number three its opening weekend, and grossing more than any previous movie musical. (The new film also features a cameo by John Waters; look for him when Tracy sings “There’s the flasher who lives next door.”)

HAIRSPRAY as a story and a cultural observation has never been about hitting its audiences over the head with a message. It is about the inevitability of change, the fairness and inevitability of integration, friendship, self-respect and sticking to your ideals. It is also about having fun, dancing, and maybe just a little bit of silliness. The original movie stands up well, and the musical and subsequent movie just about catch the fun, lighthearted spirit of the original. In all three, the changes in attitude and social problems come about through small acts that gradually become big movements: a message we can all take to heart in today’s world. 


Hairspray, 1988 DVD recording (re-release). New Line Home Cinema

Hairspray, 2002 Original Broadway Cast Recording. Sony.

Hairspray, 2007 Feature Film. New Line Cinema

“Stanley Kubrick Wouldn’t Do This”--an interview with John Waters, originally published in Movieline magazine, 1988. http://www.dareland.com/emulsionalproblems/waters.htm 

“When Hairspray Was New”--an interview with John Waters on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” which originally aired in 1988. Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/storyphp?storyId=12096585

On the Internet:

IMDB.com – Hairspray

Wikipedia.com – Hairspray

Nicki Lemery

Nicole M. Lemery (Nicki) recently moved to Chicago after earning her master's degree in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. Nicole is a freelance playwright and stage manager, when she's not working at an engineering firm as a marketing coordinator. Recent projects have included stage managing a production of "The Castle" based on the Franz Kafka novel; "Love Child," "The Representative" and directing a production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", the last three while in London. Nicole enjoys traveling, reading, being involved in theatre, writing, and considers WEST SIDE STORY the best movie adaptation of a musical ever.

Nicki writes an almost-daily blog for her friends and family:
Nicki Loves Drama”.

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