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Hairspray It On

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Fierstein makes a grand gesture to O'Brien et al.  

The opening drumbeats sound, and the curtain rises on Tracy, in bed -- only the bed is vertical, a Rockwell design that's visually surprising but perfectly lucid, and somehow funny. Tracy opens her eyes wide on the beat. "Oh, oh, oh," she sings with a touch of Brenda Lee brightness, her eyes round in wonder and curiosity, her little hands peeking out and holding the sheets up. "Woke up today, feeling the way I always do . . . " Rockwell, Lion, Shaiman, and Wittman, scattered throughout the theater, scrutinize the audience. There are a few stony-faced men. But a lot of people are already showing that sweetly childlike, spaced-out smile that suggests they've quickly gone to musical-theater land, where beds stand at 90 degrees, people burst into song instead of dragging themselves toward the shower, and a fat girl like Tracy can win the world with the height of her hair.

When "I Know Where I've Been" rolls around, Lion puts her head in her hands for most of the song, looking up apprehensively at the last note. Thunderous applause and encores ensue. She shakes her head in resignation: "I can see I'm going to lose on this one." By the end of the show, any lingering angst has been swept away, and she's beaming. As Lion applauds wildly, waiting for the standing ovation to start -- which it does -- she's leaning all the way back in her chair, as if propelled backward by the G-force of energy onstage.

The cast still has two weeks until reviews, but if the audiences are any indication, the show is a hit. The night the Seattle Gay Men's Chorus shows up, every person in the theater stands up and applauds until Fierstein comes out a few minutes later to take another bow. "As I came onstage, everything went sort of strange," he says. "I looked at the aisles and there was no one there. Oh, I thought. Everyone's gone. But I'm hearing this roar. No one had left their seats. They were all standing and screaming." Fans start greeting Winokur -- always a sidekick, never before a star -- outside the stage door (her sister cries at the sight of it); people in Seattle restaurants approach actors they recognize for autographs. One night, Waters's old pal Roseanne turns up. As soon as Tracy appears onstage, she calls out in glee, "That's me!"

By the night the critics arrive, the show has been running smoothly for days. So it is an unexpected shock when, right after Winokur finishes "Good Morning, Baltimore" and a team of dancing, sixties-style teenyboppers has stormed the stage, a disembodied male voice interrupts the performance. " . . . technical difficulties . . . we'll begin again in five minutes." Only half the appropriate set has arrived onstage. Dejected, the cast streams off as the audience shifts in its seats, unsure what to make of this surprise. Shaiman jumps up: "It's just like rehearsal!" he cries out to the audience.

"I was actually happy when it happened," he says. "That kind of thing can win an audience over to your side -- they feel like they're part of something. And in my Jewish way, I was like, 'Everything's gone so well . . . finally!' "

Backstage, the dance captain is giving Winokur, who is baffled and upset, a serious pep talk about her responsibility as the star to keep the energy up. Ten minutes later, she shows up onstage, gives the audience an exasperated shrug, then throws her arms back and widens her eyes and smiles, resuming the stance of her character as she was in the last moment of the song before the interruption. With the audience laughing along with her, the show segues into the next scene.

They are back on track, until a few scenes later, when Harvey Fierstein watches a mechanical device that sticks out of the floor -- it's called a dog -- roll right out onstage without the set he needs on it. He freezes backstage, paralyzed as he tries to picture the scene without the ironing board and phone. Finally, a tech person rips, with great effort, the phone off the base of the board and puts it in Fierstein's hands, and the stage manager orders him onstage. He stumbles on, clearly off his game. At the sight of Fierstein performing with nothing more than a backdrop, says Shaiman, "I felt my internal organs shift." Adds Fierstein, "It was really amateur night in Dixie."

Rockwell watches in horror as his precious creations fall prey to computer glitches and tech hitches. "It was just this feeling of utter helplessness," he says, admitting: "At intermission, I helped myself to a drink." He needed it, too: In a climactic scene in Act Two, the numbers on a scoreboard are all wrong, throwing off the plot. Winokur, as planned, starts running down the aisle; but when she sees the numbers aren't right, she panics and runs right back where she'd come from. Because of the possibility of precisely these kinds of glitches, O'Brien is nowhere near the theater. Lion, sitting with her friend Laura Ziskin (producer of Spider-Man), is watching with some degree of resignation. "It was one of those shows that goes on for 24 hours," she says dryly.

The actors know they won't be held responsible for the set glitches; but it is hard to predict how the reviewers will respond to their performances, all thrown off by the need for sudden improvisations, and the anxiety about what would go wrong next.

Monday at 5 a.m., Lion and Shaiman sit down at their respective computers in their respective hotel rooms and log on. The writers have "a shiny new hit on their hands," Variety reports. The Seattle Times says the score "really makes you want to go dance in the streets." Both Lion and Shaiman practically do.

By the end of the Seattle run, the tickets are sold out in town; the audiences keep getting better-and-better-dressed as it becomes more of an event. On the strength of the reviews, the New York advance sales numbers are creeping up to $5 million -- not the $14 million advance of The Producers, but a strong showing nonetheless.

A few nights before the team leaves to start rehearsals in New York, Lion sits down to join the sold-out audience for a performance, as she has most nights of the run. She revels in the small details that have continued to improve the production: something as insignificant as Fierstein using the word wiener instead of hot dog in one lyric, to great effect; an overture before the opening scene that builds excitement and gives the audience a chance to laugh out loud at Rockwell's set rather than just smile; shiny brooches stuck in the daffy, dizzying wigs in the final number, a touch of luxury that finishes the look. Everyone's layering onto their characters, giving the audience more to notice, more bits of candy in unexpected places. The audience, primed to love it, responds eagerly, only too happy to complete the rhythm of the jokes with the finishing punctuation of their laughs.

"Are all white people like that?" asks the young black girl after she's insulted by Mrs. Von Tussle. "No," replies Tracy's father, "just most."

Everybody laughs, and no one louder than Lion.


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