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Hairspray It On

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Choreographer Jerry Mitchell shows a move.  

Jack O'Brien, the director of, among other hits, The Full Monty, sits halfway back in the theater, his eye trained on the stage, taking notes. Later, O'Brien will deliver those notes to the cast in his daily near-spontaneous, oratorically dramatic, inspiring, and hilarious monologue; but for the most part, O'Brien -- an elegant man in his fifties -- does not fraternize with the cast, most of whom are so young that when they wax nostalgic for classic Broadway, they're thinking Rent. The producers sit behind O'Brien or off to the side, and David Rockwell sits even farther back.

Shaiman, on the other hand, spends most of his time in the front row, as does his co-lyricist, Scott Wittman, who's also his partner of 23 years -- the two of them are the favorites of the cast, the big brothers who ply them with expensive alcohol and impress them with their snazzy friends and never give them tough-love speeches about the responsibility of a star. At a party Shaiman and Wittman hosted at their apartment in New York, cast members walked in to find Nathan Lane, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Matthew Broderick. "Scott has a formula for a great party," says Clarke Thorell, who plays Corny Collins, the Dick Clark figure. "Four cases of champagne and two cases of vodka. I think he has some kind of a deal with Veuve."

Shaiman, five feet seven, has a boyish way of bouncing as he walks, and his dress tends toward the disheveled (with the exception of the blue fox coat, white suit, and blue fedora he wore to the Oscars one year). He keeps his eye on the orchestra during rehearsals, occasionally bursting out with a "Bam!" or "Baaaam bam!" as he gets carried away emphasizing the beats of the songs. A longtime arranger for Bette Midler, he's also responsible for perhaps the world's funniest, and crudest, big musical spoof: the soundtrack to South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

Wittman is a tall drink of water in Paul Smith and Fred Segal, with striking green eyes that peer out from behind Oliver Peoples sunglasses. His one-liners are delivered in dulcet tones; when he directed Patti LuPone in a one-woman show, Variety called it "sublime." As a kid, Wittman worked as an apprentice in summer stock in Nyack, brushing shoulders with Betty Grable and Van Johnson, and his knowledge of Broadway is uselessly arcane. Asked about his favorite shows, Wittman pauses. "Well, the thing is, I like really bad musicals," he finally says. "Like Golden Rainbow? It starred Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. They just broke character whenever they felt like it and went into their lounge act."

It was the music Wittman and Shaiman wrote for Hairspray that got the show moving early on -- in a matter of days, they'd tossed off three highly singable songs with bounce, an early-sixties beat, and just enough Waters-style grit to make it a match. ("The rats in the street / All dance around my feet / Tracy, they tell me, it's uuup to yoooou . . . ") All three songs are still in the show. "They won't tell me how long it took them to write them," says Lion.

"Right, because she pays by the minute," Shaiman says.

This is their first major collaboration, but they've been working together on small shows since they met (Wittman was looking for a pianist at a West Village bar where he worked; Shaiman got the job). One of their first joint projects was a musical called Livin' Dolls. "We dropped acid and wrote it in one weekend," says Wittman of the show, now a Disney movie being co-produced by their former usher, American Beauty's co-producer Dan Jinks. In another early collaboration, a female friend played both halves of Siamese twins; one kills the other and spends the remainder of the show carrying her head in a hatbox.

"All our friends said, 'You guys are so slick, you're going to be doing Broadway,' " says Shaiman, who until now was writing well-paying scores for movies like Patch Adams, Beaches, and When Harry Met Sally. "Twenty-three years later, we got here."

The only cast member who regularly wanders back to schmooze with O'Brien is Harvey Fierstein, who looks surprisingly civilian in an untucked T-shirt and sneakers for most of rehearsal. A three-time Tony winner -- two for his tour de force Torch Song Trilogy and one for the book of La Cage aux Folles -- Fierstein is a grown-up like O'Brien, with as many Broadway bona fides as anyone in the theater. Although he works steadily, most recently with a small part in the Robin Williams film Death to Smoochy, he hasn't performed onstage since Safe Sex, a follow-up to Torch Song Trilogy that lasted only a week on Broadway.

Initially apprehensive about returning to theater, Fierstein seems relaxed and happy, and eager to please; anytime he's onstage, he's prepared to deliver a laugh for O'Brien, whether he's in character or not. "Are you comfortable in there?" O'Brien asks Fierstein one day as he emerges from a piece of scenery that encloses him in a tight space. "Oh, sure," Fierstein calls out in that famous voice -- the croak of a mobster on his deathbed, all smoke and gravel and crushed glass. "Just give me a little glory hole and it'll feel like home."

The Fierstein wit is fast, and frequently foul, and almost always at his own expense. During notes one day, O'Brien mentions that an oversize hair-spray can they've all been waiting for will be arriving the next day. "Oh, yeah, I love that big can!" says a cast member. "Why, thank you, Rashad," murmurs Fierstein.

Fierstein infuses that distinct combination -- bawdy but gracious -- into his portrayal of Edna (played in the film by drag legend Divine), a character for whom he says he has tremendous empathy. He understands her fears of the unknown, her insecurities about her looks, her tough slog as a wife and mother. "Edna's a very hardworking woman," says Fierstein. "Her husband's a little bit of a goof, her daughter's a dreamer, and she seems to run it all and keep it together. But at the same time, she hasn't been given a lot of happiness, and what happens is that all of the strengths that she's given to her daughter then come back and are given to her, so then she discovers the world at large." Fierstein worked carefully with his makeup designer, Randy Mercer, to create a look that was clearly female but not glamorous -- Edna's a housewife, after all, not a cabaret act.

And then there was the body suit. "I got a new body suit today," Fierstein explains one afternoon in between scenes. "Because the old fat suit, we decided the tits were too big, so we took the tits down a bit, but now the tits-to-belly ratio is off, and we're worried the belly's too big." The biggest difference, he says, is that "this one has a crack." And he's happy about that? "My bowels are," he says sincerely.

Winokur says that Fierstein, who plays her mother, has actually taken on the role offstage as well, fussing over her health, making sure that she's eaten. Winokur, a curly-haired girl from Westchester, is sort of a cross between Betty Boop and Rosie O'Donnell. In character, she's adorably wide-eyed as Tracy; but offstage, she's as quick-witted and potty-mouthed as anyone in the production, and this is not a crowd short on either talent. During one technical run, the crew, checking some tracking, rolled onto the stage a particular set, a jail cell with a toilet in it. There was Winokur, butt planted on the toilet, open magazine in front of her, pants and underwear at her feet. "You can't half-ass it," says Winokur, her black hair held back in a checked kerchief. "Either you do it, or you don't." She does her stage mother proud.

If The Producers occasionally felt dated -- how fresh can you make an endless succession of gay jokes? -- Hairspray's humor would better be described as unabashedly nostalgic. A typical rehearsal finds Fierstein practicing a scene with a whoopee cushion. The appropriate sound effect rings out impressively. "You break it, you buy it!" crows his character's husband, the owner of a joke shop called the Har De Har.


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