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Hairspray It On

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Director Jack O'Brien gives notes to cast members Corey Reynolds, Kerry Butler, and Jaret Winokur.  

"With a serious play, you're trying to open it up to more honesty, but you don't feel the responsibility of getting a group response," says O'Brien. "I mean, it's a miraculous thing to make 1,900 people laugh at exactly the same moment -- it's like trying to get everyone to have the same thought at the same time. So we work on the delivery and work on the delivery until you get the laugh. And then once it works in a hit production, something goes into the consciousness, so that even if amateurs do it, it gets a laugh. And you think, But we worked our butt off to get that laugh! It's not fair."

In one sight gag, Fierstein talks into a phone receiver with its cord pulled taut all the way offstage; when he says good-bye, he merely lets go in mid-air, and the phone springs all the way back, disappearing off stage left. It's amusing on Tuesday; by Wednesday morning, they've added the sound effect of breaking glass a beat after he lets go, and the gag gets better. On Wednesday afternoon, Jack suggests that Harvey watch the phone disappear, as if admiring his aim. "That'll nail the laugh." And somehow, it does.

Co-writer Tom Meehan has been crafting comedy for years, and has the battle-weary look of someone who's spent decades up against a foe who keeps changing the rules (either that, or he's still wrung out from his collaboration with the famously difficult Mel Brooks on the book of The Producers). "It's a mystic science," says Meehan, sitting a few rows back from O'Brien along with his co-writer, Mark O'Donnell; the two are rarely seen apart all week. "We know it's about rhythm. It's primitive that way." And there are a few precious guidelines. "Whenever Nathan Lane was delivering a funny line on The Producers, he'd tell the rest of the cast, 'Okay, when I deliver this line, nobody move.' He wasn't being difficult. He just knew that if the eye was distracted by any movement onstage, the punch wouldn't be there."

After writing the book for eighties blockbuster Annie, Meehan went on to pen a spectacular flop, Annie II, a production that clearly haunts him still. "We all thought it was better than the first Annie. It wasn't until we performed it in front of an audience for the first time that we saw it wasn't going to work." He grimaces. "Within five minutes, we knew."

The Seattle audience that showed up for the first preview would be the definitive end to all internal debates about whether a line has chops ("If they don't laugh in Seattle, they won't laugh anywhere," says Meehan). Someone asks O'Brien if he's excited about the first preview, the debut performance before the all-knowing audience. "Bloody fucking audience," he says. "I hate them. I hate them."

O'Brien, of course, has devoted his life to delighting audiences. It's just that at the moment, tension is starting to build as various producers, in town for the preview, start gathering like dark clouds in the corners of the theater. The cast members, meanwhile, are having the time of their lives. They're practically all in their early twenties, uniformly gorgeous, and so high-energy that they nearly miss their beats because they're jumping so high. Since arriving in Seattle, they've been crashing at dormlike apartments ten minutes from the theater. They play late-night poker, put on the occasional strip show, and throw parties with theme rooms (in one, only towel apparel allowed). Fast friendships have sprung up across the board, like the one between Fierstein and Dick Latessa, the Broadway veteran playing Edna's husband. The two of them play off each other as they kill time onstage waiting for the orchestra to cue up their soft-shoe song and dance, a number that starts out with Latessa, a spry man in his sixties, hugging Fierstein from behind as they dance. The two assume the position.

"Is it in yet?" asks Fierstein. "I couldn't tell . . . "

"No," says Dick, "but I think I found my wallet." O'Brien and Wittman and Fierstein crack up. A young cast member lounging in the front row lets out a groan. "Aw, man! That's gross. Cut it out, you guys."

"I found my wallet!" hoots O'Brien, and he and Wittman and Fierstein keep laughing. They know how the old joke goes; they're all in on the same old routines they've known for years.

In the production of a musical, no detail is too small to escape attention, which perhaps explains why so many disasters actually make it all the way to Broadway: Everyone from the producers to the costume designer is so busy analyzing whether the pennies in the penny loafers are shiny enough that it becomes impossible to step back and capture the full effect of the dance number -- or the plot.

At the same time, there's a spirit of last-gasp improvisation at the very end of the rehearsal process that jacks up the adrenaline. Two days after the first run-through, in a flurry of tweaking, half the ensemble learn an entirely reconfigured, cheerier dance routine for the opener, and late in the afternoon the day of the preview, they rush through an entirely new bit for a post-curtain-call, minute-long frosting-on-the-cake finale.

For months, there had been tinkering with the book, some of it driven by casual suggestions made by Waters himself, whose approval every creative craved (and eventually won). "They treat me like the pope," says Waters. " 'Is this right? Is this right?' " Mostly he gave notes about authenticity; he pointed out that when Tracy wins a scholarship at the end, it shouldn't be to Goucher -- too highfalutin for our girl -- but to Essex Community College, which gets a bigger laugh in any case.

The biggest creative controversy came down to a battle between the producers and Shaiman and Wittman over a song that comes three-quarters of the way through the show, a soulful belter called "I Know Where I've Been." A tribute, Shaiman says, "to the black perspective," the song struck Lion and some of the other producers as a drag on the plot, not to mention a cliché -- the obligatory eleventh-hour number when a big black woman comes out, stops the show, and tells it like it is. Under pressure, Shaiman and Wittman whipped up a cheerier replacement, the worrisomely titled "Step It Up." But about three weeks into rehearsal, when they tried it out on the cast, they sensed it wasn't going over well with the African-American performers -- Shaiman says it was something about the way they were smiling during what he calls the "clappin' " section of the song. "It is a little bit cotton-pickin'," someone finally told him, at which point, he says, "we put on our 800-pound-gorilla suit" and fought to make sure "I Know Where I've Been" at least got a try-out in Seattle. "We weren't going to make this into a minstrel show," says Shaiman, still indignant. "The cast found something very important about that song."

"Which, of course, we wrote in Laguna, while drinking martinis," adds Wittman.

Throughout rehearsal, the lobby outside the theater has been filled with overflow that didn't fit backstage: cables, steel boxes, rubber containers, men drilling. But early in the evening before the first preview performance, a cleanup crew empties the hall, revealing a red carpet and dramatic curling staircase -- entirely transformed, the space suddenly feels like it's yet another set, with nice casting touches like the fresh-faced girl at the candy counter selling five-flavor punch. As if on cue, at 7:30, the audience starts streaming in.


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