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Hairspray It On

This whimsical, candy-colored, sixties-tinged musical -- based on a film by the notoriously weird John Waters and starring Harvey Fierstein in drag -- won over the critics and the crowds in Seattle. Now it's set to open on Broadway. Could this be the next Producers?


Oh, beehive: The cast, with the original film's director, John Waters, at center.  

It's two days before the Broadway musical Hairspray is scheduled to begin previews in Seattle, and the lead producer, Margo Lion, has just decided she hates her own show.

It took Lion, an aristocratic, dark-haired beauty in her fifties, three years of pitching, persuading, and hondling to create a musical-theater version of John Waters's sweetly kitschy film about the integration of a Dick Clark–style TV dance show in early-sixties Baltimore. She signed on Marc Shaiman (the perverse genius behind the South Park movie soundtrack) and his partner, Scott Wittman, to write a cheerfully subversive score, the celebrity architect David Rockwell to create off-kilter sets in Necco Wafer hues, and costume designer William Ivey Long to finesse all those metallic satins, Pucci prints, and towers of teased hair. Lion recruited a cast of young, eager talents and one Broadway icon, luring Harvey Fierstein back into drag to play a housewife whose heart is matched in size only by her waistline.

So for most of the drizzly May week, Lion has been happily anticipating the initial run-through, when the cast will perform in full costume with sets and orchestra for the first time. She's spent days wandering in and out of the theater, hugging the creatives hello, beaming at the dancers as they jumped and shimmied their way through choreographer Jerry Mitchell's period-perfect numbers. By the end of the week, the show will open to the Seattle public, and seven weeks after that, on July 18, start previews at the Neil Simon Theater in New York.

But around halfway through the first act, Lion begins to get a sinking feeling. Her laughs, initially enthusiastic, start to sound a bit half-hearted, and then cease altogether. Marissa Jaret Winokur, the actress playing the part of Tracy Turnblad, the show's stout and stouthearted heroine, is sick with some bronchial bug, and her replacement is missing the bright-aqua paisley polyester dress she should be wearing when she emerges triumphant from a cotton-candy-pink boutique in the third scene. The segues seem muddy, the lighting is off on the eighteen-and-a-half-foot-tall multilevel dance platform, and the one-liners fall flat, or at least seem to in the mostly empty theater -- though there is that one guy, some young actress's husband, who keeps laughing maniacally at every joke in the show's book.

Insulted by Velma Von Tussle, a rich white racist, a young black character asks, "Are all white people like that?" "No," responds Tracy's father, "just most."

At that, Lion slinks down in her chair. "Ew," she says. "I hate that."

Lion knows that the first run-through is often a show's darkest moment. And she can almost laugh, during the break just before the second act, when she runs to the bathroom and disaster seems to follow her even there. As she leans over to flush the toilet, the strap on her purse breaks and the entire contents of the bag fall right in. The next day, she says dryly: "And all my friends think producing theater is really glamorous."

In the summer of 1998, Lion caught Hairspray on TV for no other reason than she was home saddled with a bad flu, possibly precipitated by a bad funk: Her beloved Triumph of Love, a musical fairy tale based on a Marivaux play that she'd developed and single-handedly produced, had folded six months earlier. "I was really in mourning," she admits. Watching $3 million of investors' money and those $100,000 she'd borrowed trickle away into nothingness, a person, as they say, could develop a cold.

She could also develop a high level of anxiety about the next project she painstakingly develops and brings to the stage. And back in the theater, as the jubilant chord sounds in the final all-out dance number, Lion jumps up in misery and beelines backstage, where she's required to assure everyone that the show's going to be great.

Given the hard, cold fact that more musicals fail on Broadway than succeed, any producer could be forgiven the occasional immoderate mood swing in the weeks leading up to a show's debut. As a production, Hairspray had long been enjoying the kind of aerosol high that can make a show's team giddy but nervous, with rave reports at its readings and investors clamoring to sign on. Bloomingdale's committed to filling its windows with Hairspray-themed merchandise, with Shoshanna Lonstein among the designers creating a whole new line of narrow-waisted, full-skirted dresses for the store's forthcoming Hairspray shop. Even the potentially vicious gossips on theater-obsessive Websites like have had nothing but nice things to say about the cast and score. "I haven't seen buzz this good since The Producers," says Jonathan Frank, a writer for the site. As the noise about the show grew louder, even those outside the theater community started to take note. "People in the architect world don't show a lot of visible enthusiasm for theater," says Rockwell. "They just quietly call and start asking for tickets."

A story about a fat girl who wins a spot on a dance show, then goes on to integrate it (winning the affections of the local heartthrob along the way), Hairspray may not sound like a conventional Broadway hit. Then again, until The Producers, neither did a show about a gonif and his sidekick profiting off a comedy about the Third Reich. Waters-inspired weirdness notwithstanding, Hairspray's humor is more upbeat than The Producers' -- if The Producers both satirizes and celebrates cynicism, Hairspray does the same thing for early-sixties sincerity. (There is some creative overlap: Tom Meehan co-wrote the books of both shows.) You could call what the show does shtick, or you could call it good clean fun, with a wink. Just don't call it camp.

"Hairspray's not camp -- camp is two older gentleman talking about Rita Hayworth as they hang their Tiffany lamps," pronounces Waters at his West Village apartment (and not a Tiffany lamp in sight). "Camp -- that's just a socially acceptable way of saying it's old-school faggy." A man who made his name with puke jokes and dog-shit stunts, Waters once said the only theater he liked was a good trial, preferably for murder. Now, as a paid consultant for a family-friendly musical, he's like a proud grandparent who can enjoy the family resemblance but skip the sleepless nights and parental headaches: "Camp is something that's so bad it's good. But I think Hairspray's so good, it's great."

Even in these mellowed days, Waters says he hates anything that's too feel-good, though he volunteers that the musical, like the movie, has a strong fat-liberation theme. "Fat people always say hi to me on the street," he says. Don't regular-size people, and skinny ones, also say hello? Waters practically bats his eyes. "Yeah, but fat people do it with a certain tenderness."

The afternoon of the first run-through, Marc Shaiman peers into the orchestra he's seeing assembled for the first time. "What's the matter?" he asks the musical director cheerily. "You couldn't find any brothers in Seattle?"

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