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Another whiff of ‘Hairspray’

By |2018-01-16T00:15:45-05:00July 12th, 2007|Entertainment|

By Christopher Cappiello

When John Waters makes a quick cameo as a flasher during “Good Morning Baltimore,” the joyful opening number of “Hairspray” – the film version of the 2002 Broadway musical adaptation of Waters’ original 1988 film – it’s as if the outrageous auteur is letting his fans know that it’s OK to love this irresistible new incarnation of his tale of a chubby little girl with big dreams.
“John basically gave us freedom, and that’s the best cooperation you can ask for,” says Neil Meron, who produced the film with longtime business partner Craig Zadan. “He told the creators of the Broadway musical, ‘Do your version,’ and that’s what he told us. And then when he saw the film, he sent (director) Adam (Shankman) and Craig and myself an e-mail that said, ‘Thank you for making me a very happy grandfather.'”
Waters has reason to be happy. Zadan and Meron, the masterminds behind the Oscar-winning adaptation of Chicago, have gathered an all-star cast to bring the Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman musical to film on July 20. John Travolta leads the way as Edna Turnblad, the plus-size Baltimore housewife whose daughter Tracy (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) dreams of dancing on “The Corny Collins Show” and ends up integrating a Baltimore television station in 1962.
The cast also includes Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle, the deliciously evil station head, Christopher Walken as Edna’s adoring husband, Wilbur, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle and James Marsden as Corny Collins.
While the film centers on issues of race – specifically the fact that “The Corny Collins Show” relegates black participants to the occasional “Negro Day” – the project has a serious gay pedigree, beginning with Waters and including Shaiman and Wittman, longtime out producing team Zadan and Meron, and even Shankman.
“The fact that the man who created it is so openly gay infuses the whole story with a kind of gay soul,” Meron says. “It’s not underlined, because there’s nothing gay about the story itself. It’s just inherent in the piece and its themes.”

While the notion of a man playing a zaftig woman seems like an obvious gay touch, Travolta’s Edna differs from those of Divine and Fierstein in her innate femininity. Casting the star of “Grease” in a huge summer movie musical was both the producers’ greatest stroke of genius and their most difficult idea to pull off.
When New Line interviewed Zadan and Meron about producing, the pair suggested Travolta for the role. “John had not been on any of their lists,” Meron explains. “They were approaching it with the big name comedy stars. But our approach was (to make) a movie musical, and arguably John is the greatest star of movie musicals of our generation.” The only trouble was convincing the star that an overweight housebound housewife was the right role for his return to the genre.
“‘No’ was a year and a half,” Travolta says about how long it took to convince him. “I wasn’t worried about the singing and dancing. That was the easy part. It was the character.” The actor needed to be sure that he would be allowed to play Edna as a woman, not as a man playing a woman. Barely recognizable save for those Danny Zuko eyes peering out from the elaborate makeup, Travolta’s Edna is all soft voice, big curves and endearing insecurity, with little of the camp qualities that Divine and Fierstein brought to the part.
“Each actor that has played Edna is brilliant and defined the role that they wanted to do,” Meron says. “John wanted to do what you see on the screen. That was his approach from day one.” His approach, it turns out, was in sync with the vision of the producers and director, who sought to make a genuine film version of the musical, and not a documentation of the broader Broadway show.
“I wanted to play this from an emotionally really real place,” Shankman says. “A play has to project out, but a movie has to draw you in. So I was going to approach it that way, where I wanted his performance to really pull you in, as opposed to blast you. And I think he really liked that.”
As a result, instead of being campy, it is surprisingly touching to watch Travolta and Walken sing and dance together in “Timeless to Me,” the couple’s charming duet performed in their cramped, laundry-strewn back yard. Walken, it turns out, was Travolta’s idea. “He was my number one choice, absolutely, because we had the same background,” the star says of their shared history in musical. “It’s a zone, man, a zone that only a few of us understand.”

The movie musical has some new songs by Shaiman and Wittman and some changes in the story to make it more suitable to film. “We believe in reinvention, not re-creation,” Zadan says. “Every time we’ve done a movie musical, we’ve started from scratch and said, ‘How do you make this cinematic?’ That’s the primary goal. How do you make it so that if you’ve never seen the stage show, if you’ve never even heard of the stage show, that you will love the movie nevertheless?”
While “Hairspray” is clearly a stand-alone, uplifting treat, die-hard fans will have plenty to smile at, too. In addition to Waters’ cameo, the original Tracy, Ricki Lake, appears as a sunglasses-clad William Morris agent for the film’s grand finale, and Jerry Stiller, the original Wilbur Turnblad, does a hilarious turn as the owner of Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway, a clothing store for women of Edna’s size.
The “Hairspray” lineage is celebrated on the soundtrack album, as well, with a track that was cut from the film, “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now,” performed by Lake, Blonsky and Marissa Jaret Winokur, Broadway’s original Tony-winning Tracy. “At the end of it we have also worked in a bit of a cameo for Harvey Fierstein,” Meron reveals, “so that’s a little nod to Broadway. We figured we’d take care of everybody.’
“It’s all about bringing it all together and coming full circle,” Blonsky says with the infectious enthusiasm of a teenager. “We recorded it all together. I felt like I was with my big sisters.”
As for the prospect of becoming an icon for the gay community, the bubbly 18-year-old from Great Neck, Long Island, is ready. “I can’t wait! Are you kidding? That’s like the greatest honor,” she gushes. “My motto is live and let live happily. We spend so much time judging everyone else, and hating, and it’s just silly.”
Zadan furthers the thought. “What’s so inspiring about the movie is that it starts off where this chubby girl wants to get on a dance show, and by the end of the movie she integrates a television station in Baltimore. I think that inspirational thing applies to gay rights, it applies to the issue of gays getting married. All of that will not happen unless you have the Tracy Turnblads out there fighting for it.”

Is “Hairspray” a drag? Check out Between The Lines next week to find out.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.